|THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE FOR ALUMNI AND FRIENDS||VOLUME XX NUMBER 3 Spring 2005|
Another Opening, Another Show
On a frigid, windy night last January, an art exhibit opened at the Thorne-Sagendorph Gallery. The weather did nothing to keep people away, and soon the coat racks were overflowing and the brightly lit galleries rumbled with conversation. The Biennial Regional Jurors' Choice Show, always a community favorite, featured the work of 76 artists from the Monadnock region. The 125 pieces of art chosen for the show – paintings, ceramics, photographs, sculpture, and more – filled both galleries.
The atmosphere was exuberant as visitors toured the galleries. One small boy stationed himself next to a clay sculpture and explained why he liked it: "Because my father made this, and I am the son of my father!" A visitor might spot an intriguing portrait and head for it, only to be sidetracked by a trio of ceramic bowls, a pristine still life, or a gauzy landscape.
The show appeared effortless, relaxed, inviting. But, as in all things, there is an art to making the difficult appear simple. The opening reception felt like a happening, but it didn't just happen.
One year earlier, January 2004: Gallery director Maureen Ahern and her staff begin planning their calendar of exhibits for the year ahead. Summer '04 will bring "Passionate Pursuits," a faculty-staff show, followed in September by a traveling exhibition of Native American art. The juried regional show will open in January of 2005. Maureen knows that she wants to hire two jurors who are not from the immediate area (to avoid pre-existing friendships and familiarity) and who have the expertise and endurance to evaluate hundreds of pieces of art in one day. She engages Sean Dye, artist and instructor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Vermont, and Andrew Spahr, chief curator at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester.
August 2004: Gallery technician Paul Knowlton begins preparing the gallery for the Native American art show, which will arrive any day in large crates. Paul has worked at the Thorne for 10 years, starting soon after the new gallery opened. He can fix, build, or think through anything, it seems. He is already considering the challenges of the regional show – how to store, handle, organize, hang, and light more than 100 works of art in a short time. How to keep them safe, display them to best advantage, and return them intact to their makers.
Over the years, Paul has dealt with thousands of pieces of art, working with Maureen, student interns, and volunteers from the Friends of the Thorne to mount dozens of memorable exhibits. Paul has coped with antique bicycles (he suspended them from the ceiling), fragile scrolls, a 300-pound, 10-foot-wide Gulf Oil sign (he had to drill into the gallery's steel I-beams to bear the weight), and dark paintings that "suck up light." Working together, Maureen, Paul, and the rest of the staff design a context and a setting for each show that enhances the beauty and significance of the art. And they do it in the few short weeks of downtime between shows.
November 2004: The Thorne sends out a call for entries for the juried show. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of juried competition in this space, each artist will be permitted to submit up to three works instead of the usual two, and Maureen expects a bumper crop. To be eligible, artists must live within 30 miles of Keene or be a member of Friends of the Thorne. Entries must be hand-delivered on December 10 and 11. The Native American exhibit comes down on December 6, to be packed up and shipped to its next destination.
December 10 and 11: One hundred seventy vehicles pull up to the Thorne, bearing 427 pieces of art. Maureen, Paul, student intern Beth LaRoche, gallery staffer Colleen Johnson, and several volunteers from the Friends scramble to keep order, registering and labeling each work. By late afternoon on the 11th, paintings are leaning six-deep against the walls of Paul's workshop and into the gallery. Sculptures and ceramics crowd the floor. A huge sculpture of a bear in a nest of sticks rests beside a trio of wood engravings and a larger-than-life oil portrait of a young girl. In one corner, Paul and Beth unpack a fragile wooden object that arrived with no directions for assembly. Paul eventually figures out what it is (a flower) and how to hang it.
December 13: The two jurors arrive early, say little, and get right to work. They devise a color code – yes, no, maybe – using green, red, and yellow sticky dots and start the winnowing process. Thorne staff and volunteers stand by, awaiting orders. Everyone wears white cotton gloves for handling the art. Rejects will be carefully stacked in the conference room and lobby. The jurors work quickly at first, and the support troops are kept busy lugging paintings and objects out of the galleries. More layers of paintings and photographs are uncovered. The jurors crouch in front of each work, conferring quietly and intently. They are respectful of the art, dispassionate, focused. Fewer than a third of the entries will survive to create the show.
By mid afternoon, the "yeses" are lining the gallery walls and the jurors are beginning to get a sense of what the juried show will look like, whether it will have balance and diversity and sparkle. They circle back to those troublesome "maybes," patiently reconsidering. Everyone else is dead tired, but the jurors appear to be going strong. They do not finish until 7 p.m., when they pick the Jurors' Choice Award winners.
Over the new few days, the staff calls each of the entrants with the verdict. They organize the 300-some pieces that did not make the cut and arrange for pick-up on the weekend. They begin to imagine the show that will open on January 21.
Three weeks before the show: Maureen, Paul, Colleen, Beth, and others return from winter break. The 125 pieces of art waiting in the galleries need to be arranged, hung, and lighted. "It's very hard to hang a show by yourself," notes Maureen. "You don't see the whole. We like to have consensus, if possible." Barclay Close, a work-study student with an interest in art and a good eye, joins the group.
Hanging an art show takes all kinds of artistic sensibilities and a huge amount of physical stamina and patience. First, the heavy, movable walls that help to balance and subdivide the soaring gallery space must be positioned and fixed. "These walls have a certain height and monumentality that enhances whatever is hung on them," Maureen notes, "and they keep the building itself from overwhelming the gallery space. We position the walls to avoid the bowling-alley effect. We want the visitors to consider what is in front of them, then what is the next longest view, and not see completely across the gallery."
Deciding which works of art will be neighbors in the show is the next job, and it takes the group close to five days while they strive for the magically perfect configuration. "You have to look at relationships that have nothing to do with the content of the art," Maureen explains. The group discusses scale, balance, intensity of color, even the kinds of marks used by the artists (solids, shapes, diagonals). They try to create another level of artistic experience that goes beyond the individual pieces.
Meanwhile, the Thorne staff and College Relations designers and editors prepare gallery labels for each work of art, newspaper ads, awards for the winners, and other printed materials. The Friends of the Thorne reception committee plans food, beverages, and set-up for the opening.
One week before the show: Paul and Beth are well into in their second week of lighting the show, and their conversation revolves around footcandles, beam angles, and watts. Each work of art is lighted individually, using filters on the powerful halogen and tungsten lamps to get a precise effect. They work as a team, pushing a cartful of lights and a large movable stepladder around the gallery. Beth, a senior who will graduate this spring with KSC's new bachelor of fine arts degree, is learning enough from her gallery internship to teach her senior seminar colleagues the fine points of hanging and lighting their upcoming student show. Paul installs a light, aims it at a painting, and calls down to Beth, "I think it's close – how does it look to you?" Beth holds her meter up to a painting, calling out the foot-candles along the surface. Paul adjusts the light until there is less than two foot-candles' difference from top to bottom. "We also have to consider the light that comes in from adjacent areas," he explains, "and make sure the overall level is harmonious." Beth stands in front of the painting and checks the reflectivity. "If you can see your reflection," she says, "the light is still too bright."
They have sometimes spent hours on just one piece of art, striving to brighten a dark painting that seems to suck up light or to illuminate an ornate sculpture. The Thorne's masterful way of lighting a show has been commended in reviews in The New Yorker (in particular, for the Dublin Art Colony and Jules Olitsky shows) and other publications.
Susan Peery is associate editor of Keene State Today.