Masters of Museum Exhibitions: Designers Mount Landmark Shows with Their Behind-the-Scenes Artistry

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 15, 1996 | Go to article overview

Masters of Museum Exhibitions: Designers Mount Landmark Shows with Their Behind-the-Scenes Artistry


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Mystery men walk the corridors of Washington's museums. They're not the curators, who select the art. They're not the directors, who manage the museums and their finances. They're not the fund-raisers, who dig up the money.

They're the exhibition designers, the anonymous men who build the shows. Like genies, they work behind the scenes. They pick the colors. They size the rooms. They select the textures. Most people don't know their names, though they may know the titles of the exhibitions they've staged - "Vermeer," "Olmec," "Titian," "Michelangelo," "King Tut."

Exhibit designers such as Mark Leithauser, 46, of the National Gallery of Art and Richard W. Franklin, 57, of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art determine the look and feel of exhibitions. They create beauty in ways so subtle the public doesn't know it's there - until the times it isn't, and it's missed.

Mr. Leithauser and Mr. Franklin are new to their posts. The National Gallery named Mr. Leithauser, an artist, to be chief of design and head of the department of design and installation in September. He's worked at the National Gallery since arriving from Michigan in 1974 and mounted landmark exhibitions that are now household names: "The Treasure Houses of Britain," "Johannes Vermeer" and "Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico." As an artist, he has exhibited widely to critical acclaim, most recently at the Hollis Taggart Gallery in New York.

Mr. Franklin - a designer, artist and teacher - joined the Sackler and Freer galleries as head of the design department in February. It was like coming home: In 1987 he designed the five opening exhibits at the Sackler's sister museum, the National Museum of African Art. He has worked as an independent consultant to the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. He was also the first American artist to be honored with a solo exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art in Seoul.

What do these two very talented men have in common, in addition to working for two major Washington museums? What do they face in their new positions, and, most important, how do they change the way museum visitors see art and the world outside museums?

Both love their work. As Mr. Franklin says: "It's a wonderful life. I get up every day and go to work in a museum. One of the most wonderful parts of my job is working with an extraordinary group of scholars and curators." Mr. Leithauser was at the National Gallery when its exhibit design department was being created. It was 1974, and there were three designers.

"We had only three people," he remembers. "There were so few of us to do the work that we were getting candy bars from the snack machines at 2 and 3 a.m. to stay awake."

Despite the difference in the sizes of their museums, Mr. Leithauser and Mr. Franklin have much in common. Both direct large design departments. Mr. Franklin heads a staff of 16 for the Freer and Sackler, which together make up the Smithsonian national museums of Asian art. Mr. Leithauser directs 33 assistants, while designing seven exhibits to be held next year. They manage budgets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they both care passionately about how their designs enhance the exhibits.

* * *

Mr. Leithauser, who has participated in the design of 300 National Gallery exhibits during the past 20 years, is immersed in the very large, complex exhibit "Splendors of Imperial China: Treasures From the National Palace Museum, Taipei" (opening Jan. 19). He believes he's come full circle at the gallery: His first exhibit there was "The Archaeological Finds From the People's Republic of China" in 1974. Together, they constitute the most stunning and significant art to come out of China in recent years.

He also remembers how it was before exhibition design became a respected art.

"Previously, there were art handlers and a curator mounting mainly painting and drawing shows," he says. …

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