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Carnegie Museums

One of the Scaife galleries, after renovation (right) and before (above).











Left to Right: Chief Curator and Curator of Decorative Arts Sarah Nichols with Curator of Fine Arts Louise Lippincott in the gallery devoted to European and American Art c. 1850-1880.





Right: Christopher Rauhoff, director of Exhibitions, managed the 17-month renovation of the Scaife Galleries. He is seen here in the gallery devoted to European and American Art c. 1880-1900.















“Juxtaposition teaches us all kinds of new things.”
-Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art Richard Armstrong










“One of the primary reasons for the renovations was to make the visitor more comfortable.”
-Sarah Nichols,
Chief Curator











Right: The Gallery devoted to European and American Art c. 1600-1770 has soft Wedgewood blue walls that enhance the
color palette of the art.

Photo Stan Franzos





Ric Evans






Beyond Convention: The Scaife Galleries’ New Look Transcends Old Expectations

Visitors to the newly reinstalled Scaife Galleries of Carnegie Museum of Art may not immediately see what has changed. Their eyes may be drawn instead to the snowy streets depicted in Childe Hassam’s Fifth Avenue in Winter (ca. 1892). The painting has been in the museum’s collection since the 1899 Carnegie International, and visitors have had the opportunity to see it many times. But now the white snow has a dimension to it that has not been seen for a while. The painting’s situation on a medium-toned Wedgwood blue wall reveals a range of depths and moods that Hassam intended when he painted it. “The snow really pops out, which is what it should do,” says curator of Fine Arts Louise Lippincott. “On a white wall, it looks flat.”

While previous installations of Carnegie Museum of Art’s collection sought a shared way of presenting the art, the new installation acknowledges that works from earlier periods look best in historically accurate settings. One of the many lessons derived from the popular Panopticon exhibition was just how much more appealing some of the older works are when they appear on a suitable background color, and are exhibited in close proximity to their contemporaries rather than isolated on a long stretch of pristine white wall. Incorporating some of these lessons has been the goal of Lippincott, who presided over the reinstallation of the 12 galleries that feature art before 1945.

“Panopticon taught us a lot of things we could do differently,” says Lippincott. “People liked the colors on the walls, the group arrangements, the regional art. We also found that people liked to see competing works of art together.”
While previous installations conformed to the modernist expectations of the 1970s and 1980s, “more recently, the curators have successfully installed paintings and sculpture in a more sympathetic and nuanced presentation,” says Richard Armstrong, Henry J. Heinz II director of Carnegie Museum of Art. “This is the most important thing to happen at the museum since the enlargement in 1974,” he adds, referring to the initial building of the Scaife wing of the museum almost 30 years ago.

Gradual Enlightenment
“Almost any conventionally organized painting has a range of dark, light, and medium tones,” explains Lippincott. Manipulating those tones creates spatial effects and highlights. “While Impressionists moved away from classic dark and light, any painter puts on a ground or a base layer as a neutral starting point.” Hanging a painting on a wall that matches that base displays the painting to best effect, hence the brilliant snow of the Hassam painting. As a general trend, grounds became lighter with more modern painting, and eventually the spatial effects were discarded.

Like the paintings, the early furniture appears to best effect with darker, warmer colors on the walls. End rooms in the Scaife Galleries are a deep plum, “a good 19th century picture gallery color,” as Lippincott says, a fitting showcase for pictures in heavy gold frames. In the gallery devoted to works dating back to 1600, the walls are soft Wedgewood blue.

The collection is displayed chronologically and starts with a gallery devoted to Art before 1300, which includes works from Asia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. As each room’s contents become more modern, the color on the walls lightens, passing through pale grey-blue until visitors cross the threshold into Abstraction after 1945. Here the spare white walls best display mural-sized abstract expressionist paintings by Franz Kline and Pierre Soulages, or brightly colored, more minimal works by Ellsworth Kelly or Robert Mangold.

“In some ways, the progression parallels exhibition sensibilities historically,” says Lippincott. Metaphorically inclined visitors may muse on the significance of this gradual enlightenment as they walk through the centuries to the present day.
The last five galleries are given over to Abstraction, Pop Art, Conceptualism, Minimalism, The Return of Painting, and Art Now. These works will be taken down to make way for the 2004 Carnegie International, but as Curator of Contemporary Art Laura Hoptman says, “there are a few notable additions that haven’t been seen in the permanent collection galleries for a long time.” Hoptman cites in particular Mathias Goeritz’s cement painting Message IX, Job 9:29-"If I Be Wicked, Why Then Labour I in Vain?" (1958-59), as well as a small abstract expressionist painting by Brazilian artist Maria Helena Viera da Silva.
The Works on Paper gallery is now a long, airy space that befits the museum’s extensive collection of drawings, prints, and lithographs. Works on paper have more stringent lighting and environmental requirements and are never put on view for very long.

What We Learn from Juxtaposition
In planning the reinstallation of the Scaife Galleries, some of what was well received in Panopticon was incorporated into the new gallery plan, primarily in the galleries devoted to works from 1820 to 1900. “Visual harmony is not a major goal in this installation,” adds Lippincott, and this is unusual. “We found that people got so much out of contrasts and differences that we decided we would continue to look for them.”

For example, in European and American Art from 1850-1880, one wall contains 15 of the collection’s best landscapes from that period, lined up in chronological order. “We have pictures hanging next to each other that normally wouldn’t be in the same room, if that is the way the dates work out,” says Lippincott. “For example, we have a beautiful Alfred Sisley landscape from 1881, the ultimate in Impressionism, hanging next to a William C. Wall view of Pittsburgh in 1881, painted in a manner that went out of style 40 years earlier. With this arrangement, you can compare Pittsburgh to France, or radical to conservative, and it makes you look at both pictures again in different ways.” Or, as Armstrong says, “Juxtaposition teaches us all kinds of new things.”

Another gallery has a chronological sequence of figure paintings from 1880 to 1900, nationalities completely mixed. And the opposite wall of both of these galleries is hung salon style, incorporating different styles and painters within a narrow historic range—20 or 30 years for each room.

Objects from the Decorative Arts collection are newly prominent, with larger pieces of furniture more prevalent than small objects. “We’re introducing pieces on a scale that is appropriate to the galleries and the other works there,” says Sarah Nichols, chief curator and curator of Decorative Arts. They are placed chronologically as well, alongside fine art from the same period, conveying a more profound understanding of life and art from that moment. “We’re not splitting things by cultures. There are chairs from 1900 all on a big pedestal that will illustrate the various movements that existed at that time.”

Encouraging Leisurely Reflection
“One of the primary reasons for the renovations,” explains Nichols, “was to make the visitor more comfortable.” To this end, as the installation began taking shape, the staff began strategizing ways to help visitors interpret the art in its new space. Visitors to the renovated Scaife Galleries will find new explanatory labels that provide background information on the artist, the subject, or the creative process, and books located alongside new seating areas to encourage visitors to engage in leisurely study.

“In addition to providing more labels and adding an improved way-finding system with new signage and gallery maps, we will be introducing new participatory strategies over time designed to engage visitors in conversation,” says Marilyn Russell, curator of Education. Several interactive stations will be placed throughout the galleries to offer visitors opportunities to respond to works of art in words or drawings just as they did in Panopticon. “Our hope is that by providing opportunities for visitors to react to the works of art at the interactive stations or while resting in one of the new seating areas, people will feel more comfortable in the galleries. They will stay longer and enjoy discussions about the art with the people they came with, and even with people who have come before them,”
she adds.

In addition, a new audio guide will be available at the museum admission desk by early November. The audio guide provides information on more than 100 works of art, including 20 new works of art that have not been on view in over a year. The guide allows visitors to choose a route through the galleries and listen to recorded comments on the works of art that interest them most. There are even some entries designed specifically for kids and families narrated by Art Cat, the museum’s mascot for children’s programs. A selection of about 24 works have been indentified as a recommended “short” tour of the collection for those visitors who have less than 45 minutes to spend in the galleries.

“Our new strategies for engaging visitors take into consideration a wide variety of learning styles,” says Russell. “But they are all designed to provide visitors with an experience that will stimulate reflection about the art, help them become more familiar with the museum’s permanent collection and encourage them to come back often,” adds Russell.

Light and Air
The renovated galleries should also feel more comfortable than they did in the past, in that they will always feel exactly the same—a relative humidity of between 45 and 55 percent on the driest February day as well as the most humid day in August. This consistency is due to new equipment in the basement mechanical room, a vast, humming cavern filled with enormous ductwork and new white pipes dedicated to treating the air. The noise is in sharp contrast to the steady, controlled quiet of the galleries.

Of all the work that has been done to renovate the galleries, the most important and least noticeable may be lighting. Edward Larrabee Barnes originally designed Carnegie Museum of Art with numerous skylights and dropped ceilings that would evenly diffuse the natural light. The new lighting is still a mix of the natural, clerestory light and artificial track lighting, but the levels are a little lower.

“We took great pains to get the color balance in the galleries right,” says Chris Rauhoff, director of Exhibitions. Natural light tends to be about 5,500 kelvin, which is in the blue range, and artificial light, in the red range, is from 3,000 to 3,600 kelvin. “Those two temperatures are joining at the picture plane. Sunlight is perfect, because it renders all color in a uniform and true manner.”

Shouting Down the Centuries
Today, the Scaife Galleries are arranged in such a way that, as Lippincott points out, Willem de Kooning’s abstract figurative painting Woman IV (1953) is directly opposite the 18th century neoclassical portrait The Honorable Mrs. Trevor (Viscountess Hampden) (1779-1780) by George Romney. The six galleries that separate them in time represent approximately 200 years of art, but leave their view of each other unobstructed. One could imagine the artwork yelling witticisms (or criticisms) when the lights go down and the doors are locked.

Art is always about conversation, across the decades, among stylistic traditions, between artist and viewer, or visitor and curator. This next installment—a chapter in the history not only of the collections, or art in general, but also of Carnegie Museum of Art’s dialogue with the people of this region—should provoke a lively give-and-take for years to come. n

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