More than meets the eye at DePaul Museum

In an art museum’s exhibit, the artwork takes center stage. As museum-goers stroll thoughtfully from room to room, observing everything from water colors to wrought-iron sculptures, they appreciate just how much time went into crafting these pieces.

What they may not consider, however, is how these exhibits were laid out to make sure an artist’s work takes rightful prominence.

At the DePaul Art Museum, exhibit planning is a lengthy and meticulous process that begins many months or years from the actual opening of the show. Exhibits, like in any other museum, must be carefully laid out so that upon completion, visual and design elements all work in absolute harmony.

“Generally, the curator will come up with some kind of concept [for an exhibit], put together a proposal that would include an overview of the exhibition and the argument that it’s trying to make, and come up with a preliminary checklist,” said Gregory Harris, the museum’s assistant curator. “Then that gets fleshed out over the course of several months or years, depending on the size of the show.”

Once all of the artist or artists’ work has been gathered and text for the show has been written, the layout of the show is discussed. Laura Fatemi, the museum’s associate director, compared the procedure to a design project, in which those involved in the setup must be constantly aware of visual and structural factors.

“It’s a collaborative effort when you’re working with the curator that is putting it together – getting information as to how works need to communicate with one another,” said Fatemi. “And so they’re placing this where they’re determined by an intellectual context first. As far as the design of the show, it’s almost in the sense of a design project, but what also works together visually.”

In DePaul Art Museum’s main exhibition, War Baby / Love Child – guest-curated by DePaul faculty member Laura Kinaand – the graphic look was influenced by a pre-existing correlative book. Harris described the exhibit as minimalist, as the curator simply wanted the artwork and some of the object labels to do most of the legwork. Each artist in the exhibition has didactic text that goes along with the artwork, complemented with quotations about their mixed Asian-American heritage and how it relates to their work.

“There’s lot of disparate work visually,” said Harris. “There are photographs, paintings, sculptures, videos – we have to think how we are going to make it cohere visually without making it too disjointed as an experience to walk around.”

The sizes of individual pieces of artwork are integral in the placement. Fatemi likened the process to laying out items in a “big dollhouse,” a process that often starts a year and a half away from opening to finalize the exhibit’s design checklist.

“You have all these components that have to work together, fit together and speak to one another,” said Fatemi. “And sometimes you get things, you think you have them all laid out into the space, and they need to be moved around or rethought. And it also depends on the material you have. If you have works there are very heavy and large sculptural pieces, you don’t have the flexibility to move them around.”

Much of an exhibit’s design comes down to the sequence of works and how they flow throughout the exhibition space. Within that, artwork’s placement in relation to the text is important, keeping text from lumping together but also finding where it makes the most sense in relation to the work it’s next to.

“If you have a big, important object, you need a priority of space and give it the most prominent wall or the biggest gallery,” said Louise Lincoln, director of the DePaul Art Museum. “Smaller objects need a more intimate, enclosed space so that the viewer can concentrate. If you’re looking at something small and you’re standing in an enormous space, you’re not concentrating. It changes the way you interact with an object.”

While much of the design of an exhibit is influenced by what looks good, it is also important for the museum staff to be aware of the content of the work and what the artist is trying to accomplish. Two pieces may have corresponding colors or textures that are appealing next to each other, but may not be furthering the overall show’s message in the most cohesive manner.

“There are aesthetic choices that you’re making, but you also want to be thinking about extending the argument of the exhibition with the placement of the artwork,” said Harris. “So you’re putting pieces next to each other that are going to resonate for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s purely a visual, aesthetic choice. Other times, you’re trying to make a comparison or suggest some kind of contrast between two works.”

According to Harris, who alternates with Fatemi for curation of exhibits, keeping all visual and tangible elements in mind makes for a strong final entity.

“When I’m doing a show myself, I’m kind of thinking about what’s going to be in the show and how it’s going to be structured and how everything will fit together as a finished product,” said Harris.