Art of Display

Oct. 22, 2010, 1:30 a.m.

There is more to visiting the Cantor Arts Center than simply observing an isolated painting or sculpture. An imperative part of the museum experience is something less tangible: the manner in which exhibits are arranged.

Art of Display

Though largely overlooked, designing exhibits to engage and interact with viewers is an essential concern for any museum curator. And for Patience Young and Kristen Olson of the Cantor Arts Center, the art of placing art might just be as important as the art itself.

Young, curator for education at Cantor, explained how Cantor seeks to create a unique harmony in its exhibit design.

“Our goal is to set the art off in the best environment for it,” she said. “We want the setting to work for each work of art.”

Designing exhibits is a laborious process, and it involves a careful contemplation of many factors. Wall colors, lighting, surrounding architecture and even surrounding pieces are all considered by Cantor’s curators in placing art.

“A work of art will speak very differently depending on its context,” Young said. “Curators think long and hard about what they’re going to juxtapose.”

Young cited the placement of “Seaweed,” a Georgia O’Keefe painting, next to Edward Weston’s photograph of a cabbage leaf as an example of the relationship between works of art in an exhibit.

“The sinuous lines and curves speak to each other directly,” she said. “When that photograph changes out, the new relationship will be completely different.”

Although Cantor has always experimented with various components of design, technology has become an increasingly important factor in designing exhibits at Cantor.

Like many museums around the world, Cantor is now turning to technology to enhance the viewing experience. The center is currently testing QR tags, which allow visitors to access information about a particular work of art by scanning an image with a cell phone.

Users of most smart phones can download free software that will allow them to scan QR images. After scanning an image with a phone’s camera, they are then directed to Web pages where they can learn more about particular works for art.

For Kristen Olson, Cantor’s academic and educational technology liaison, technologies like QR tags are an integral component in designing informative and engaging exhibits.

“The idea is to have the cell phone be another tool to interact with the viewer,” she said. “Technology allows us to explore something that isn’t necessarily explained by a label.”

Olson explained how Cantor uses technology like video clips to educate and inform its visitors. To accompany the work of Martin Blank, a contemporary glass artist, the museum created a short video of the glass making process. Designed to afford viewers a better understanding of Blank’s work, the clip provides an engaging experience that can’t be offered by the typical label.

Cantor’s use of technology has even expanded to reach visitors when they aren’t at the exhibits. One can learn more about Cantor and its exhibits by watching guided art tours on Cantor’s website. These multimedia podcasts consist of commentary on selected works of art by Mark Feldman, a Program in Writing and Rhetoric lecturer.

Although Cantor has already substantially changed the way it approaches the design of its exhibits, Young said that design at Cantor will continue to evolve.

“Over time, curators have come around to a better understanding of what visitors are interested in and how they approach works of art,” Young said. “Even the way curators approach art is changing immensely.”

A willingness to experiment with new methods of design is something that Young said is essential to appealing to Stanford’s wide range of interests.

“In designing exhibits, we endeavor to reach all Stanford students,” Young said. “We hope to offer something for everyone, whatever their disciplines and interests are.”

An imperative part of the museum experience is something less tangible: the manner in which exhibits are arranged.

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