Since 1929, MoMA has formed the very centre of New York City’s modern art scene, and counts among its treasures works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Rothko, Warhol and more. Now, 90 years after the museum first opened its doors, visitors can experience the newly revealed Expanded Collection Galleries, where world-famous works including Van Gogh’s Starry Night sit alongside lesser-known artists, all of them set against a background of richly pigmented Farrow & Ball paint.
Covering all 47,000 square feet of the new six-storey galleries, our palette was carefully chosen by a team of MoMA curators and our own colour experts to subtly reference and enhance the pieces in situ, whether it be blue-black Railings to balance the stark intensity of the Bauhaus school, Charlotte’s Locks to match the deep warmth of Matisse’s L’Atelier Rouge, or Wevet to embody the delicacy of Monet’s Water Lilies.
But as it turns out, choosing the backgrounds that’ll bring out the best in monumental works of modern art is no simple task. We sat down with Lana Hum, Director of Exhibition Design and Production at MoMA, to find out more about the process.
CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT AOUT WHAT YOUR ROLE IS AT MoMA? WHAT DOES IT INVOLVE ON A DAY-TO-DAY BASIS?
My role at MoMA is leading a team of designers and builders to craft the display of the museum’s collection and exhibition programme. We work with curators and artists, who provide the vision for an exhibition, to create the environments for the display of artwork. We’re a full-service design team that takes an exhibition from concept to realisation, designing and building everything from the gallery architecture to the exhibition furniture and lighting.
On a day-to-day basis, I could be planning the layout of an exhibition with the curators, collaborating with the Building Operations team on maintaining the health of our building systems, or working with one of our talented shops’ staff to solve a construction issue. As a full-service design and production team, we project-manage several exhibitions a year, so we can be in various stages of multiple exhibitions at any one time.
In addition, as MoMA is a highly collaborative environment, we all participate in our collective mission to be a welcoming and engaging place to visit. A single day can hold discussions with colleagues on a multitude of issues that our design team, and the shops we manage, can assist with.
HOW IMPORTANT IS THE COLOUR BACKDROP FOR DISPLAYING WORKS OF ART AT THE MUSEUM? WHAT FACTORS DO YOU NEED TO CONSIDER WHEN CHOOSING THE PAINT?
Colour can be a transformative tool in crafting an environment for the display of art. Far from being a mere backdrop, it can be the most critical element in setting the mood and conveying feeling.
Colour can bring a completely different sense of light to a room. For example, in the Monet Water Lilies gallery, the luminosity of Wevet seems to capture the sun-dappled Giverny countryside that Monet was evoking in his paintings. Colour can also enhance the general expression of a room holding a diverse array of art objects. For a room of post-First World War paintings and sculptures, Mole’s Breath brings a magnificent gravity to works by artists as varied as Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon and Gabriel Orozco while underscoring the shared anxiety of the time.
"The way we perceive colour is greatly impacted by light."
Colour constantly changes depending on its surroundings. This is colour theory (as espoused by noted Bauhaus artist and teacher Josef Albers) at its most fundamental. Therefore, we always test colour against the other elements in the room – the flooring is especially impactful. The way a wood floor’s own colour and texture reflects light will have a very different effect on wall colour than that of a terrazzo floor, for example. It is critical to test a colour in its gallery environment to really understand its impact.
Another factor to consider is the presence of natural light and the effects of artificial lighting systems. The way we perceive colour is greatly impacted by light. The temperature of artificial lighting systems and the changing nature of natural light are all elements that will influence your perception of the wall colour and general mood of the room.
Most importantly, the art has to look good, so we consider the colours and materials of the works themselves and how they sit alongside the colour of the walls.
YOU’VE CHOSEN A MIX OF BOLD AND BRIGHT COLOURS AS WELL AS NEUTRALS – WHAT LED YOU TO CHOOSE THOSE COLOURS?
In reimagining the display of the collection for the new MoMA, we thought deeply about the visitor experience and how to craft a path through decades of art that would be surprising, generous, and exciting. We also thought about how multiple voices and different perspectives are represented.
Since each gallery had a story of its own to tell, while also acting as a link in a fuller chronology of modern and contemporary art making, we felt compelled to create a syncopated rhythm, punctuated by distinctively pitched moments, to help transport the visitor harmoniously through the galleries. We found that colour was an excellent way to orchestrate this rhythm and that the Farrow & Ball palette gave us a rich and gorgeous range of colours to explore.
After several brainstorming meetings where the curators described colours they imagined for the art they’d chosen, we developed a strategy to create a palette of subtly shifting neutrals punctuated with moments of colour to create cadence, flow, and distinction, shifting the mood as you move through the decades.
We also wanted to use colour in a contemporary way that challenged traditional modes of display, in particular the black box and white box. At the new MoMA, you’ll find thoroughly integrated displays of media: painting, drawing, sculpture, film, architecture, design, and photography all mixed together. However, these each have their own practical requirements that ensure both optimal display and longevity.
For example, film is typically displayed in a theatrical black box environment, but when we mixed film with photography in the “Early Photography and Film” gallery, we found that Pelt provided a richly coloured room that allowed a film of 19th-century New York City urban life to feel vibrant and fresh while also drawing out the exquisite reddish-brown hues of early silver albumen photographic prints. Colour was a great way to pull the disparate media into dialogue with each other, while respecting their own inherent natures and display needs.
The white box gallery has long been an accepted mode for displaying modern and contemporary works, being plain enough as to disappear. In choosing colour, however, we didn’t intend for colour to be its own expression, nor to evoke a historical time period, but rather the opposite – to give iconic works that you may already know a fresh context, so that hopefully they can be seen anew.