Art Behind the Scenes Curatorial Exhibitions

Making an Exhibition, Part 4: Storyboards, Design, and Installation

Pin board of a Milwauke Art Museum Curator. Photo by Mel Buchanan.
A “visual checklist” pinboard at my desk. Photo by the author.

Picking paint colors. Stepping under ladders in closed off galleries. Artfully arranging teacups. All are things I’ve done in the past few weeks, and all are entirely fun perks to a curator’s job. Beyond the fun, what I aim to do in this post is go a little deeper into the process of installing, painting, and arranging an exhibition.

In the first three posts of this series, I’ve addressed steps to developing the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Grete Marks: When Modern Was Degenerate exhibition (on view September 6, 2012 – January 1, 2013), from idea to loan paperwork to marketing.

The next step of bringing this incredible story and artwork physically to the public were the conversations we had about the design of the gallery, because there are as many ways to display artwork as there are paint colors in the Sherwin-Williams sample book.

I know different galleries and museums and curators go through this process differently, but I was fortunate to be working very collaboratively with fantastic colleagues at the Museum and at the Chipstone Foundation. Working with exhibition designer Mike Mikulay, the Museum’s William Rudolph and I met together with Chipstone’s Jon Prown and Claudia Mooney. In several afternoon “think tank” sessions over the summer, we sat around a table literally strewn with images of the Grete Marks artworks that would soon be shipping to Milwaukee.

Visual checklist for ideas and arrangement. Photo by the author.
Our work table for discussing label themes and arrangement. There are photos of the objects on the checklist, but also other comparative material. Photo by the author.

In preparing for both writing the labels of the exhibition and the layout and design of the show, we talked and reviewed photos (shown above). The checklist of artworks we were borrowing was already set based on object availability and budgetary constrictions with an eye toward covering most parts of the artist’s output at the Haël Factory. But once we had all these pieces in our hands, how would they come together at the Museum? That’s what these meetings were all about.

We looked for visual connections.

We discussed the “big ideas” of the show, and which to emphasize.

We mixed in other Bauhaus artworks, and photographs, to contemplate secondary material we might use.

We asked:

Did we think it made more sense for a visitor to move through the exhibition chronologically? Or should the artworks be grouped thematically?

How much would we present about the artist’s education at the Bauhaus? How much would we say about Grete’s later career in oil painting in England? How much of a role would the Nazi campaign against “degenerate art” play in the space?

During installation photo. Two photo reproductions used as supportive materials are leaned against the wall. With two framed artworks and an additional vase, the entire wall will make a composition. Photo by the author.
Mid-installation photo. Two photo reproductions used as supportive materials are leaned against the wall. With two framed artworks and an additional vase, the entire wall will make a composition showing the “expressive” nature of Bauhaus training. Photo by the author.

During this process, we decided together to green-light the inclusion of a small section at the beginning of the show introducing the Bauhaus educational experience. Looking at Grete’s designs strewn on the table, it became clear that even though Grete only studied at the school for one year, she applied the teachings in very direct way. We saw Bauhaus color theory, form studies, and expressiveness emerge from our groupings, and those became three sub-sections of the exhibition.

These discussions led us to the flow of the space. We have an introduction about the Bauhaus, a section examining the Bauhaus influence on her work, a section showing Grete as a successful designer and entrepreneur with the Haël Workshop, a section on the Nazi persecution of “degenerate art”, and then the continuation of Grete’s career in England.

Printed mock-ups of the wall labels for the Grete Marks exhibition. Photo by th
Printed mock-ups of the wall labels for the Grete Marks exhibition. Photo by the author.

Knowing how the story would unfold physically meant I could start writing label copy to provide the details, context, and thesis appropriately. I spent one weekend with lattes and The Black Keys writing the wall panels, and then shared my draft with colleagues at the Museum and Chipstone. Edits and suggestions were incorporated, we cut out about 30% of the text, and then a final draft went to the Museum’s editor. With her final edits in place, the text was handed over to the exhibition designer Mike Mikulay. He formatted them with the sizes, fonts, and colors matching the look of the show. I had one more chance to review the text in to-scale mock-ups (shown at right), before the files went to the printer.

A key point in our think tank discussions became the design of the transition between the Wiemar Republic world of artistic promise for Grete, and the Nazi environment where she was persecuted and her art was called “degenerate.” I wanted the exhibition to feel different, to perhaps be visually darker, as this part of the story unfolded. However, I also didn’t want the exhibition to end on that negative note. As we wrote in the labels, “While the Haël Workshop was a victim of Nazi Germany, Grete was not.”

Mike Mikulay came up with a beautiful exhibition design solution where you move from factory section to a black walled section (“degenerate art”) with a sharp diagonal line piercing the space, and an ominous quote about the artistic judgement of the Führer. But you then turn to a lighter blue section, where you see Grete’s continued career in England.

Picking paint colors also happened sometime during all this discussion. Mike, the designer, turned to a stack of Bauhaus books for inspiration, looking at period display technique and color palettes. We encountered several examples of paint schemes that created overlapping and intersecting planes of various neutrals (cream, gray, light blue, white), accented with pops of red and black. This is mostly clearly shown in the photo below, which was designer Peter Keler’s paint scheme for photographer László Moholy‑Nagy’s studio at the Bauhaus.

I carried around this image telling friends and colleagues, “It’ll look like this!”:

Peter Keler, Design for the Moholy-Nagy Atelier, Sheet 1, 1924.
Peter Keler, Design for the Moholy-Nagy Atelier, Sheet 1, 1924.

Here is a photo of the space during the painting stage, and you can see a bit of how the colors compare to the Keler design above:

Mid-installation of "Grete Marks: When Modern was Degenerate". Photo by Kristin Settle.
Mid-installation of “Grete Marks: When Modern was Degenerate”. Photo by Kristin Settle.

The Bauhaus itself had several exhibitions of its work. The chaise lounge we display on a diagonal platform was from a Bauhaus exhibition, and we had fun matching a few tea service arrangements to be like Grete’s own promotional material at the Bauhaus.

Here is an example of Grete’s arrangement of her own work in a Haël Workshop advertisement from around 1930:

Hael Workshop promotional materials, ca. 1930
Hael Workshop promotional materials, ca. 1930.

And below is a mid-installation image of our arrangement of a tea service in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection (aqua) and the same pattern that we have on loan from the collection at the Dallas Museum of Art (yellow and aqua).

Mid-installation photo of tea service arrangement in Grete Marks. Photo by Kristin Settle.
Mid-installation photo showing me discuss with Mike Mikulay the tea service arrangement in Grete Marks. We made modifications after this photo was taken. Photo by Kristin Settle.

The photos below record some of the steps along the way toward installation design, in no particular order.

Below is an image that I snapped when I visited the works on paper in the Museum’s Herzfeld Foundation Print, Drawing, and Photography Study Center. I had preselected these Bauhaus-related Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Vassily Kandinsky and László Moholy‑Nagy artworks from our database and conversations with my curatorial colleagues. Because the fragility of works on paper means they can only be “on view” for about 1 month to every 1 year they are in storage, I also consulted with conservation colleagues and the museum registrar to make certain that the works I’m using hadn’t been shown recently, or were scheduled to be used in any exhibitions in the next few years. Mike and I met with the conservation department about framing the works, selecting appropriate materials that matched our exhibition design and complemented the artwork. Here is the Museum’s Collections Manager of Works on Paper, Tina Schinabeck, sharing the artworks in person with us:

Tina Shinabeck sharing works on paper with the exhibition designer and me. Photo by the author.
Tina Schinabeck sharing works on paper with the exhibition designer and me. Photo by the author.

Below is an image of the Museum’s Decorative Arts Gallery in its “raw” state. The art installation team first removes the artwork from the previous exhibition, which meant de-installing Face Jugs: Art and Ritual in 19th-Century South Carolina and preparing it for travel to the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina. They then arrange and build the walls to the new show’s orientation, as well as spackle and prepare the walls for painting.

The Museum's Decorative Arts gallery emptied of artwork. Photo by the author.
The Museum’s Decorative Arts gallery emptied of artwork. Photo by the author.

Below the Museum’s A/V Technician installs a video projector in the exhibition. Once the video is aligned, the shape of the box is traced perfectly and then the area is painted with a white “video paint” in lieu of a screen:

The Museum's A/V techTed Brusubardis installs video equipment. Photo by the author.
The Museum’s A/V tech Ted Brusubardis installs video equipment. Photo by the author.

Next time, we’ll look at everything that happens surrounding the opening of the exhibition.

To read all six parts of this “Making an Exhibition” series, click on the links below. (The links will be updated as they are posted, so stay tuned.)

Part 1: The Artwork’s Story (August 7, 2012)
Part 2: Research (with Travel!) (August 14, 2012)
Part 3: Approvals and Loans and Email and Paperwork (August 21, 2012)
Part 4: Storyboards, Design, and Installation (August 28, 2012)
Part 5: Finally, Enjoying the Gallery (September 29, 2012)

The exhibition was organized with the cooperation of the artist’s daughter, Dr. Frances Marks, and is supported by the Chipstone Foundation, the Mae E. Demmer Charitable Trust, and The Collectors’ Corner.

Mel Buchanan is the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility includes interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.

By Mel Buchanan

Mae E. Demmer Assistant Curator of 20th c Design, Milwaukee Art Museum. Lover of museums, objects, and cilantro

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