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Museum Lighting: How We Do It
July 24, 2006

Color Field Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Scott Rosenfeld: "I think the entrance view works  well. All three artworks, Anne Truitt's 17th Summer (left), Paul Reed's #1D (center) and Gene Davis's Wall Stripes No.3 (right) read as dynamic fields of color and form."

SAAM lighting designer, Scott Rosenfeld, gives us an inside look at the challenge of lighting artwork. Lighting the Color Field Gallery (3rd floor, West Wing), according to Scott, was an exciting endeavor:

Our objective when lighting our modern galleries, especially the one dedicated to Color Field painting, is to help artworks appear as a natural extension of the white wall. The lighting should subtly "pop"works off the wall without making them look "spot lit." If the relationship between the wall and the work is perfect, it will appear almost to float on the wall; Gene Davis's piece almost vibrates.This is opposite from the way we light installations in our nineteenth-century galleries where paintings are hung on deeply colored walls.

To light Ann Truitt's 17th Summer, my objective was to light the three sides available to the viewer as evenly as possible, so that all three dimensions appear as a single field of color.  I love this piece because it allows the unique experience of seeing it floating in space without a distinct source of light. The only time I remember seeing this effect in nature is when a bright snow sky seems to pour in light from all angles. A good example of this phenomenon was Calder's sculpture Nenuphar when viewed in our courtyard on a snowy day —it is now displayed in our Lincoln Gallery.  Although the space doesn't allow 17th Summer to float in a solid-colored background, the sculpture still seems to float in space rather nicely.  My favorite viewing angle is from the front entrance of the gallery when 17th Summer is backed by the Paul Reed on the left and the Gene Davis on the right. 

To light Truitt's 17th Summer, we focused approximately fifteen spot and flood lights, so that the sculpture is illuminated evenly, yet casts almost no shadows.  Diagram A shows four narrow spots lighting the sides of the sculpture perpendicular to the wall.   It's important that these beams of light are only slightly wider then the sculpture or a harsh shadow will fall on the floor, destroying the effect of a color field floating in space.  Two more spots (this time with asymmetrical spread lenses) light the side of the sculpture parallel to the wall.  The small plinth on the bottom of the shaft collects the extra light and is naturally rendered a much brighter shade of green.  Unfortunately, 17th Summer can't be rendered as brightly as other works in the room, because the plinth becomes so bright there is a risk of overexposing it.

Banks of floodlights reveal the wall and floor as separate yet evenly rendered fields. This floodlighting system also has the benefit of softening any aberrant shadows. 

Related Post: Shedding Some Light on Art

Posted by Jeff on July 24, 2006 in American Art Here, Museums & Technology


What is the lighting fixture used at the Reynolds Center at the grand staircase? Who was the lighting designer?

Nir, I'm not sure exactly what fixture you're talking about but the chandeliers were designed by Hartman Cox architects in collaboration with Smithsonian exhibition designers. Mary Kay Lanzillotta is the principal architect for building's renovation. The chandliers were manufactuerd by Rambusch Lighting in New Jersey.

The track lighting fixtures were designed by a team that included Claude Engles, Scott Rosenfeld, Smithsonian exhibition designers, Mary Kay Lanzillotta and engineers from the manufacture Zumbtobel.

I hope that helps.

I am a second-year interior design student and am leaning toward lighting design as a career path. I would love to do lighting design for museums or galleries. I wondered if you had any advice on breaking into the field? Are there any specific certifications, apprenticeships, or areas of study I should be focusing on? Thanks!

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