Behind the Scenes Exhibitions

MAM Behind the Scenes: David Russick, Exhibition Designer

Emma Fallon talks with David Russick, Exhibition Designer, about his role at the Museum.

David Russick sitting with papers on the walls behind
David Russick, Exhibition Designer. Photo by the author

This is the second in a series of blog posts highlighting a variety of different positions within the Milwaukee Art Museum. Each day, hundreds of visitors enter the Milwaukee Art Museum to stare in awe at the incredible wealth of artworks within the museum’s collection. But what can too often go unrecognized is the equally awe-inspiring work of the many museum staff members, without whom the museum in its current state could not exist. “MAM Behind the Scenes” is a blog series written by Digital Learning intern Emma Fallone to showcase the wide range of positions that make up a museum, and to reveal just a few of the many people whose work makes the Milwaukee Art Museum a source of inspiration and education.

Can you give a brief description of your job, in thirty seconds or less?

To use an analogy: the exhibition designer is the person who shows up on moving day when you’re moving into a new apartment, and helps you to arrange everything so that the space is used efficiently and everything looks really good! At the Milwaukee Art Museum, the “apartment” is usually the special exhibition space, which is cleared out and rearranged for each new show. So, every time we have a new special exhibit, it’s like one tenant is moving out and another is moving in – and their belongings are the artworks which are going to be displayed. The exhibition designer works with the curator to figure out what goes where, so that you don’t have your kitchen appliances in the bathroom, so to speak!

What would be a “typical day” in the life of an exhibition designer?

You always come ready to problem-solve. I always have to keep one eye on function and one on form. You’re always trying to find good, practical solutions which also feel very exciting and engaging.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Well, I’ll have to slightly contradict what I just said – because no two days really are the same. The specifics of the set of circumstances that you happen to be working under always requires a new type of solution. So, that’s a very rewarding aspect: you can hone your skill in terms of what you do well – thinking about space, color, traffic flow – but, if you’re like I try to be, you also try not to fall back on the same solutions every time. It definitely keeps you engaged and challenged.

Is there anything that you have done in the past, any particular problem that you have had to solve, which has especially interested or surprised you?

The last two exhibits that we’ve put on, Uncommon Folk and Thomas Sully, both had opportunities for us to create unique areas within the larger space of the exhibition gallery. After seeing the list of paintings for the Sully show, I realized that we had a group of works in which the importance was not on the order in which they were painted, but rather on revealing and highlighting the connections that they had to each other. So, we created an open room where you could take in and appreciate all of those works almost simultaneously. And then we once again had an opportunity to revisit this technique with the Uncommon Folk layout. This is what really makes my work fun for me, encountering the challenge and figuring out how to solve it. Each problem becomes an opportunity to problem-solve, in an even more clever fashion.

This is really what we do in exhibition design – we’re like the invisible man in the room. To draw a comparison, if you go to a big party, and the food is fantastic, and the service is incredible, and the music is all well-chosen, and the temperature in the room is never too warm or too cold, it all adds up to a wonderful experience. But, during the evening, you’ll never consciously think about the temperature in the room – unless it is too hot or too cold, in which case it’s the only thing that you’ll be able to think about. A lot of what we do is like that. After the fact, a guest might think, that was really a great party – or a great exhibit, in my case – but more often than not, our work isn’t really thought about, unless something didn’t work correctly.

But this is the way of many things in life – it’s much the same for the work of a doctor, or a newspaper editor. Exhibition design is lucky in the sense that you really do have the ability to “raise your own bar,” so to speak. It comes from constantly working to innovate, to be ever more creative. In approaching a problem, when creating a new exhibit, you could always use the same solutions, which would be perfectly fine. You can do good exhibit design by rote, if you’re a really good exhibition designer. But you can do great exhibition design by being a good exhibition designer, and then pretending that each project that you do is the first time you’ve ever designed something. Exhibition design really benefits from that kind of creative approach.

View of the exhibition model. Photo by the author
View of the exhibition model. Photo by the author
Is there something unusual or unique about your position that most people may not know?

One of the things that people probably don’t think too much about is actually one of the most elementary parts of the design of an exhibit: traffic flow. I personally find it one of the most challenging aspects. What is the best way to guide people through a space? The really simple solution is always the back-and-forth “S curve” shape, with one clear path for people to follow. To me, this can feel a bit like a ride on a water slide: you go in there and are pushed through a series of twists and turns, you have a great time for the entire path, and then you get dropped out on the other end and you’re done. And to me, that’s absolutely fine, but at the same time, it’s very basic. I think of that type of design as something to fall back upon if necessary – not something to have as your main, “go-to” layout. That said, the upcoming Kandinsky exhibition is a retrospective, so it will have this sort of chronological, snaking layout, with one clear path to take – because there’s a clear narrative, this kind of design makes the most logical sense.

In contrast, this very straightforward layout was completely absent in the [thematically organized] Uncommon Folk exhibition. Thus, I didn’t feel the need for that kind of “S”-path, with its clear implication that one must view the artworks in a certain order. The design for the Folk show was intentionally much more of a meander, giving visitors the opportunity to choose their own path, and in doing so, take a more individual journey of discovery. And one of the real benefits of this type of design is that when you give people multiple ways of navigating a space, you also give them the opportunity to go backwards, to look at something from a different angle, and perhaps accidentally discover another new work along the way.

One of the things that I try to keep in mind when I’m designing is that we live in an era where we’re surrounded by screens, and mainly encounter two-dimensional representations of our world. And when you go to an exhibit, even if you’re looking at paintings, you’re still having an encounter with a three-dimensional, physical object. Even if you’ve seen a photograph of a painting, you still haven’t experienced the work itself, in person: there’s scale, there’s surface texture, there’s the way that the light reflects, and your movement around the work is such a key part of this experience. So, this is always something that I try to consider, to design exhibits in a way that will allow people as many opportunities to have this unique, personal interaction with the artwork as possible.

Designs in process. Photo by Chelsea Kelly
Designs in process. Photo by Chelsea Kelly
Tell a bit about yourself–how did you come to have this position?

I have always loved art. I studied it in school, and I knew that I wanted to make my living doing something which involved art. I did make art myself, and I still do, but I recognized that it was very difficult to make a living that way, especially because I wanted to have a family and a stable life as well. So, I knew that I was going to have to figure out some sort of a “9-to-5 job,” and this led me to exhibition design. My background is in working with commercial galleries in Chicago, and then a university gallery in Indianapolis, for Indiana University. I eventually wound up as the chief designer at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and that led me here to the Milwaukee Art Museum. It’s a path that I participated in creating, but as is true of most people’s lives, it’s not one that I could have anticipated when I began.

Why do you believe that art and art museums are important in today’s society?

Two hundred years ago, people were surrounded by handmade things, and today it is exactly the opposite. If you lived in 1800 and you encountered a machine-made object, say a cast-iron pulley, it would seem like something remarkable which you would want to examine and admire. We live in exactly the opposite time today – now it’s handmade objects that are so highly appreciated and displayed.

When people make art, it is one of the few times when human beings – who are innately “makers” – are still making. Museums are such incredible resources in that they allow you to experience something in person – it’s really there in the room with you – and it’s the original, it’s not a recreation or representation. And more likely than not, the artwork itself was made by hand, by a person. Each work is a part of history, a unique object with so many stories associated with it. It’s so important to still have a way to connect, on the most elemental level, with this basic creative force that resides within us. I think that art museums allow us to do that.

Four shots side by side of a topless woman posing for the camera
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (American, 1910–1983), Untitled [portrait of the artist’s wife, Marie (standing)], ca. 1940s. Four gelatin silver prints. Milwaukee Art Museum, gift of Christopher Goldsmith, M1991.614-.617. Photo credit: Larry Sanders © Lewis B. Greenblatt
And, finally: what is your favorite work in the Museum’s collection?

Oh, wow. I could never pick just one – but if I had to, I think I’d choose any of the photographs by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein [example above], which we just displayed in the Uncommon Folk exhibition. The wall where we hung a large collection of his photographs all at once was just spectacular. His work is very sexualized and very strange – but when you see the photographs in person, you realize how endearing they are, as well. If you see the works reproduced in a book, all that stands out is their oddity. But actually standing in front of them gives a whole new experience. You see them all, and they’re photographs just like the ones that you take at home. They’re not very large, and you can see all of the little imperfections – the spots where the focus was off, and then the places where it was just spot-on. You really start thinking about how this man made these photos of his wife, and you begin to understand his passion for her, and her clear devotion to him as well: the ways in which they really were collaborators, and partners. The humanity of the works really comes through.

Read more “MAM Behind the Scenes” features here.

Emma Fallone was a summer digital learning intern, focusing on blogging. At the time, Emma was a junior at Yale University, majoring in history and art history. In June 2014, she moved to Washington, DC, to work at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

One reply on “MAM Behind the Scenes: David Russick, Exhibition Designer”

Good job, David Russick, both in articulating what you do (for us) and in being such a great behind-the-scenes designer!

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