Show and tell
What it takes to make 100-plus paintings, prints, sculptures, drawings, photographs, and household objects hold together in a Smart Museum exhibit.
Tape measures, photocopies, sketches, and time. In an ideal world, says Richard A. Born, senior curator at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, there would be a month-long gap between the closing of one exhibition in a gallery and the opening of its successor. This spring Cosmophilia, a selection of Islamic art from Copenhagen’s David Collection, ended its 15-week stay in the Smart’s Richard and Mary L. Gray Gallery for Special Exhibitions on Sunday, May 20. “Two weeks and three days later,” says Born, counting off to Thursday, June 7—including one week to take down the art, prepare condition reports on each item, and pack them up for shipping—the Gray Gallery reopened its doors for Living Modern: German and Austrian Art and Design, 1890–1933.
In planning the Smart’s summer show, which traditionally features holdings from the museum’s own collection, Born (kneeling to scribble a note at left) decided to build on two concurrent exhibits—one on 16th-century Germanic print making, the other on German Romantic art—and explore several key trends in German and Austrian Modernism, moving from the Symbolism of the 1890s through pre–World War I Expressionism to the Constructivist and Bauhaus designs of the 1920s.
He began by culling the Smart’s 10,000-item collection for works that fit the theme, creating a list of roughly 150 pieces that balanced works on paper (one of the museum’s strengths) with sculpture, furniture, and household objects—including one recent Smart acquisition, a rare Bauhaus silver tea service. List in hand, he figured out what would go where, a process he compares to “building a house of cards.” Pencil-sketching items into place on a gallery floor plan and shuffling photocopied images to create miniature displays, he parsed the show’s narrative sequence. In Living Modern viewers trace a counterclockwise path along an artistic time line, always getting glimpses of what awaits in the next space—perhaps a wall devoted to some of the 50 mixed-intaglio prints that make up Otto Dix’s The War portfolio, perhaps an iridescent vase or an electric reading lamp. Such glimpses play into another Born consideration, the wow! effect: “I want it to be a visual as well as an intellectual experience.”
With the move from floor plan to gallery floor, says Born, the “tough part” began, especially as the clock kept ticking while display walls got placed and painted. A day later, with the paint dry and the art hung, the question became, “Can we physically accommodate everything and still keep the visual rhythm?” Pieces were cut, a wall was moved, and workdays lengthened. In the end Modern Living—presented in collaboration with the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Austrian Consulate General in Chicago—opened on schedule for a run that ends September 16. Two weeks and three days later, on October 4, Master Drawings from the Yale University Art Gallery opens in the Gray Gallery.