Chattanooga museum and gallery curators explain how they make artwork stand out

Most people drift through an art gallery or museum looking only at the pieces on display. That’s the normal and expected practice, of course — unless you’re a curator. A curator notices not just the artwork but how its colors contrast with the wall, how the scale of the piece fits the space, how its placement draws the eye toward other pieces around the room.

But the scrutiny may be even more granular than that.

“I’m always getting up close to see how they attach the labels to the wall,” says Lauren Nye, associate curator at Chattanooga’s Hunter Museum of American Art about her visits to other museums. “Once you start to notice [how everything comes together], you can’t not notice it.”

Just as there are guidelines for designing the interior spaces of a home, there are tricks of the trade that curators use to showcase the various artworks they accumulate. Paint, placement and lighting play prominent roles in how a piece of art is experienced, whether individually or as part of a grouping. Ideally, those decisions are incorporated so seamlessly that they go unnoticed by the viewer.

A contrasting wall color is probably the most obvious design choice. At Reflections Gallery, which occupies a century-old, 4,000-square-foot building on the Southside, the drywall and hardwood interior walls are painted white, “the ultimate neutral,” or gray, “a very dark grease color,” says Summer Harrison, granddaughter of the owner and a stained-glass artist who grew up in the family business.

“The grease color we chose years and years ago after much debate,” she says. “It’s the most neutral dark tone — not too blue, not too brown, not too green. It’s just a nice, very neutral, deep backdrop for lighter artwork.”

The gallery’s stately brick wall, however, is where rules are made to be broken.

“On the brick wall right now, if you went by some of the guidelines we generally use, you would think you wouldn’t pay attention to the art that’s hanging,” Harrison says. “But it works. Sometimes things defy convention. Each painting has its own personality.”

In-Town Gallery on the North Shore also has a two-toned effect for its walls, though the Kendall Charcoal paint is a fairly new addition in the 1,500-square-foot space.

“It’s been ‘builder beige’ for a lot of years,” says Gail Rich, a member artist since 2008 who initiated a few updates after she was hired as gallery manager last year.

“I have gallery experience and installation experience and design experience,” Rich says. “I’ve brought an additional touch to getting us looking a little more fun, a little more modern.”

The front and back walls are now grounded in the rich slate color, while other walls retain the lighter tone.

“Some art looks better on beige, some on the gray,” Rich says.

In-Town keeps its look fresh with a complete makeover twice a year, closing for two days for the member artists to “paint, patch and clean,” she says.

The refresh not only updates the space but replaces the existing art with new pieces.

“They bring in all the work they’ve been working on for the last six months,” Rich says of the 32 artists currently in the cooperative.

At the Hunter, Nye and her co-workers have 50,000 square feet of space to fill, between the museum’s permanent and temporary exhibition spaces. The temporary exhibitions change out every few months, but even the permanent collection gets refreshed periodically.

“All works need rest,” Nye says. “We have to think about their exposure to light and conditions and make sure we’re preserving artworks for future generations. Something’s always changing.”

She estimates that less than 15% of the museum’s entire collection is on view at any one time, so there’s always something new to see as pieces rotate in and out.

“People don’t really think about how many choices go into an exhibit. There’s a lot of thought behind how [visitors] move through the space and what they see and when,” Nye says. “You don’t want those decisions to compete with the artwork. All of the choices of colors, layout and lighting are there to support that.”

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