Exhibition Design: A Conversation with Suzette McAvoy

Associate Registrar Angie Lowther working in the Farnsworth galleries

by Farnsworth Grants Manager Hannah Jansen

Have you ever wondered what goes into designing an exhibition? We were delighted to speak with Suzette McAvoy, Guest Curator of Farnsworth Forward, a reinstallation of our permanent collection open to the public beginning March 12, to learn more about the subject. We spoke about sightlines, why gold frames are often mounted on dark colors, and why exhibition design is “one of the most fun parts of the job!” 

Hannah Jansen: I think exhibition design is something that’s really important, but it may not be something that we as viewers are necessarily consciously thinking about all the time.

Suzette McAvoy: Exhibition design is something that looks effortless, but there is an awful lot of detail that goes into it.

HJ: As a curator, what does exhibition design mean to you? What are some of the things you think about when you go to organize and hang a show? I remember seeing a show of watercolors by John Singer Sargent at the MFA, and the walls were painted the richest, most striking colors. It made such a strong impression paired with the work. I remember thinking, “That was a decision they really thought through.”

SM: As curators, we’re always trying to provide a context for the viewer to understand the work, whether this means providing historical context, or a way of looking at the work that helps the viewer have a richer experience and a deeper engagement with the art. Some of the ideas that go into an exhibition have to do with creating a narrative that carries through from one work to the next. We think a lot about how a visitor enters the space, how they move through the galleries. We’re concerned with sightlines. What does the viewer see as they’re entering the space, as they move through one space to the next? 

Placement of one work next to the other has to do with how the pieces look next to each other. We don’t want pieces to necessarily “match,” but to see whether they create a sense of narrative when placed next to one another. So balancing aesthetic concerns with narrative concerns: What concepts and ideas do we want the visitor to come away with?

Sometimes the paint color of the galleries can help convey a sense of the time period. Historical work is often presented on deeper colors. Historical works often have gold frames, which can look better on toned, darker walls, whereas contemporary works are coming from a different time period and as a general rule of thumb tend to look better on white or lighter colored walls. We also think about lighting, which can really make a difference to how work is seen—for example, spot-lighting highlights a particular work, as opposed to wall-washing, which gives equal weight to pieces in the gallery.

There’s always a good reason behind the selection and placement of each work. If we do our job right, we communicate that sense. Ultimately, what we’re doing is helping people learn to look. If you think of art as a visual language, we’re helping people learn to read the walls. 

HJ: I love that.

SM: In general I would say the best design is not necessarily noticeable, it just seems “right.” It’s there but understated. Bad design is more noticeable.

HJ: For Farnsworth Forward, what are some of the things you and the curatorial team have been thinking about when putting together this exhibit and its design? I understand you’ve been thinking a lot about the juxtaposition of works from different historical periods. Do you have a plan all mapped out at the beginning, or do you inevitably make some discoveries or decisions along the way? 

SM: The first thing we think about is what space it’s going to be held in, and then we usually, or at least I do, a rough layout using the gallery floor plan. But there are always some adjustments that need to be made once the works get in the galleries. It’s never exactly how it was on paper. 

In the Morehouse wing there are four contiguous galleries, so we organized the narrative around four themes: “Origins to a New Century,” “Emerging Modernism,” “Embracing Abstraction,” and “Diverse Viewpoints.” It’s laid out in roughly chronological order from the early 19th century to the present. We wanted to convey historical concepts of how Maine came to be developed as a state, the relationship with and impact on Indigenous people, the advent and expansion of tourism and subsequent development of art colonies, the blossoming of abstract art after World War II, and then today’s very eclectic art world. Within that overall narrative, we inserted some contemporary works that provide interesting conversations with historical works.

For instance, there’s an early 20th century painting by George Bellows that shows a wooden ship under construction, and next to that we’ve displayed a contemporary painting by Sam Cady that’s a close-up of the last wooden ship to be built in Friendship, Maine, showing the continuum of that industry which was such an important part of Maine’s history.

HJ: Is there anything that’s proved especially challenging or fun when putting up works in the galleries these past few weeks? Challenging spaces, good or bad lighting, etc.? 

SM: Given the timeframe we were working with, we decided to leave the wall colors as they were and chose to hang the more historical works in the two galleries that were already painted in the darker tones. The Farnsworth has an incredible collection to pull work from, and with a really great museum collection, you are able to create these different stories, depending on what work is being shown at any given time. 

Interviewer: Is there anything else that comes to mind you’d like to share related to the subject?

SM: It’s one of the most fun parts of the job! From a curatorial standpoint, you hope the visitor will come away with as rewarding of an experience viewing as it was to create it. It’s very rewarding to be able to share an exhibition with the public. 

Suzette McAvoy is an independent curator, arts writer, and museum consultant with more than thirty-five years’ experience in the field of fine art and museums. She is the former director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, and previously served as Chief Curator at the Farnsworth Art Museum. She has curated more than sixty exhibitions on the art and artists of Maine.

« »