The Art Behind Creating An Art Exhibition

Feb 11, 2014

Curator of Collections Nicole Crawford and Chief Preparator Sterling Smith contemplate a sculpture's placement.
Credit Micah Schweizer

The University of Wyoming Art Museum’s spring exhibitions are now open to the public. Current displays feature everything from visiting artist Bently Spang’s burnt tree rubbings to student and faculty work to American Gothic landscapes. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a look at what goes into putting all that art on the wall.

At the recent opening reception, the crowd mingles and enjoys the art under bright lights. Awards are given to rapturous applause. The barbarian horde sweeps clean tables of catered food. Museum director Susan Moldenhauer says the opening is a celebration. “It’s the grand finale of all the behind the scenes work. And I love this time of year with this exhibition opening because it really is the start of our year for us.”

The lead-up to all this excitement is much more subdued. A few weeks before the opening, a museum team is preparing a gallery. Lights are kept low to protect the art. Framed paintings, photographs, and sculptures are lined up on the floor. Curator Nicole Crawford picked the final selections from the museum’s 85-hundred-piece collection in storage. Now it’s time to arrange it. This particular room is a teaching gallery, where the art on display is part of the curriculum in four university classes. And this presents some challenges for Crawford.

“We have the Japanese prints right next to black-and-white photographs, and then Meso-American art on the other end, so it’s hard to make all of those fit together in some sort of juxtaposition. So that’s why it takes a lot of moving stuff around as we’re laying it out.”

Crawford and Smith consider the gallery's layout.
Credit Micah Schweizer

No detail is left to chance. How high the work is off the floor. The distance between the pieces. How the pieces relate to each other and how the galleries look in relationship to one other. How humid the room is. The lighting. How much text accompanies the work. (The official museum font, by the way? Lucinda Sans.) “It really is about context,” says Crawford. “That’s what we do: put art into context for the public.”

Crawford and her team of curators and preparators even orchestrate how visitors move around the space. “People come in and you go to the left; there’s a study that that’s what happens. So we set up that way. And we’ll do little visual cues that will move you across the room. I was talking to some students once and they said ‘Wow, curators really have a lot of power, don’t they!’”

But all this, and studies show most people spend only a few seconds in front of a painting. Crawford isn’t as concerned with how much time visitors spend in front of the art. She’s more interested in how they respond.

“I think we’re losing a lot of visual literacy these days, just learning how to look at things and how to see. So as long as I know that one person came in and looked at this and took something away from it, that’s good enough for me.”

Crawford, Assistant Preparator Connor Mullin, and Smith hanging pieces in the teaching gallery.
Credit Micah Schweizer

Back at the gallery opening, it seems like Crawford’s behind-the-scenes work has succeeded at putting the art first. “I probably pay more attention to the art itself,” says visitor Tony Hoch. It’s a sentiment echoed by other people attending the reception.

Perhaps that makes the team putting together the exhibitions unsung heroes. But to make all that work seem transparent is an art of its own.