There are a lot of people who think curators are just the guys who hang things on the wall. First of all, they don’t. They do decide what goes on the wall and where it’s placed, but there’s so much more to the job than that. You may not realize it, but overall exhibition design can have a profound effect on how visitors interpret the show.
There are a few ways that curators can be bold in setting up a show. One of the first examples that comes to my mind is 2009’s “Gauguin: Paris 1889” at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Gauguin did not make it into the Exhibition Universelle, but the exhibition’s first room of paintings was painted a bold dark green and full of works that did make it. This decision made it all the more jarring when I stepped into the second room, with lively striped walls and decor to make the visitor feel like they were in the cafe where Gauguin set up his rogue exhibition. The viewer was thrust into Gauguin’s world, and it’s to this day the most loud and experimental curatorial set up I’ve ever seen.
Curator’s can also work their magic thematically without the use of wall design. In the Met’s “American Stories,” the anteroom of the exhibition was full of paintings that involved the sea or water. The common subject was meant to symbolize the ocean of difference between American painters and their European ancestors. The walls may not have popped with color, but it certainly made a statement.
As far as only using color goes, there are wonderful examples of both boldness and subtlety. The Columbia Museum of Art’s “Chemistry of Color” used bright, surprising hues to highlight the emotion and diversity of the works of a wide variety of contemporary artists. One of my favorite shows, the National Gallery’s “Little Ice Age” employed a gorgeous peach wall color that complemented Hendrick Avercamp’s winter vignettes perfectly. I could sense the care of the curator in the show.
The next time you go to a museum, don’t just look at the paintings. Look at the way they interact with the works around them and they way they play off the wall color and design. I promise your experience will be much richer!