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Color for Museum Walls

Ever walk into an art museum and find yourself just as mesmerized and transported by the color of the exhibition walls as you were by the art? Well, that wouldn't have been the ultimate goal of the exhibit designers but it does speak to the power of wall paint color, even in a museum setting.  My guest in this episode is Kathleen Morris, the Director of Collections and Exhibitions at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA and the Curator of Decorative Arts there, as well. Kathy shares her decades of experience helming a team of staff and freelance professionals whose jobs it is to create the ultimate museum experience. One of her most powerful tools is wall color. Learn what factors they consider when choosing wall colors for an exihibit, what colors often work well with which kind of art and hear how the public reacts to their choices.  It's a fascinating conversation and one which should send you high tailing it to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.


Amy: Color is the foundation of great design. It can settle a building into its landscape. It can make an unattractive structural detail just disappear, and it can change your mood in a room instantly. Welcome to Let's Talk Color.

I'm Amy Krane, Architectural Color Consultant at Amy Krane Color. I'm a color expert and use color to transform spaces and products from the ordinary to the sublime. As a paint color specialist, realtor, and design writer, I've got my finger on the pulse of what's happening in the world of color. In each episode, I'll reveal best practices for choosing color by introducing you to Masters of Color for the Built World. So throw out those paint chips, taped to your walls, and let's get started.

Today, it's my extreme pleasure to have as my guest, Kathleen Morris. Kathy is the Sylvia and Leonard Marks Director of Collections and Exhibitions and Curator of Decorative Arts at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass, affectionately known as the Clark to all of us.

Kathy has held this position at the Clark since 2005. Before joining the Clark, she worked at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond for 21 years in similar roles. Kathy holds a PhD in art history from the University of Virginia. At the Clark, Kathy oversees the exhibition program and a team of staff who work in exhibitions management, registration, art handling, and publications, in addition to her work as a curator.

Sounds like two full-time jobs to me. As such, Kathy oversees a collection of several thousand objects, including European silver, porcelain, and furniture, and American silver glass, furniture, and ceramics. If you haven't been, you must go. It's a genuine destination, a truly beautiful place. And the Silver Collection alone is mind-blowing.

I want to mention that this year, 2024, the Clark is going to celebrate its 10-year anniversary of the grand opening of its redesign and expansion by the esteemed team, including the Pritzker Prize-winning architect to Tadao Ando, Seldorf Architects, and the dramatic revamping of its landscape by Reed Hilderbrand. I was put in touch with Kathy after I reached out to the museum this past summer after visiting the Edvard Munch painting exhibit a few times.

I was familiar with his work, but I had never seen so many of his paintings in one place. And I was blown away not only by Munch’s use of color, but by how the museum used color on the exhibit walls. So I thought I'd go to the source and find out how they do it. So we're welcoming Kathy here. Welcome, Kathy.


Kathy: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.


Amy: Great.

Kathy told me that while we're all used to viewing modern art against white wall, something I asked about, color's always been a factor in exhibitions of historic art. So let's dive in. Kathy, what's the overarching goal when choosing colors for exhibit walls?


Kathy: It depends on the exhibition. And at The Clark, we do exhibitions on a range of topics, including contemporary art, but also a lot of historic art.

And when we're thinking about exhibition design, color is a really critical aspect of that. Obviously, the layout of the galleries is also really critical to how visitors encounter art and how you create the narrative that you want people to experience as they go through the exhibition. But color, I think, is one of the most powerful tools that we have to create an atmosphere and to create a backdrop for the things that people will be seeing.

Sometimes you want the colors to basically recede and not be noticeable in some ways. And sometimes you want the colors themselves to have a personality that somehow strengthens the experience of viewing the art. So it really depends from exhibition to exhibition.


Amy: Got it. Would you say then that if the paintings were quite colorful themselves, that would lead you towards using more colorful walls?

Kathy: Not necessarily, because if you think about it a lot of contemporary art can be very boldly colored and look very striking on white walls, or off-white walls, perhaps. But to my mind, we think a lot about how these works of art would have been seen when they were originally made, perhaps. And this is one reason why color is used so much for exhibitions of historic art.

Because the sort of idea that art should be shown on white or neutral background is really a 20th century idea. This is not something that you find either in the ways that art was displayed in exhibitions prior to the 20th century or in homes or in churches or wherever they might have originally been encountered.

Although we're not trying to recreate necessarily any kind of historical accuracy in the colors that we choose. So we're not like going to a Williamsburg blue to show early American art, that sort of period room look. That's not what we want to do. We want to actually mine the works of art themselves to find colors that we think are going to be complementary to them.

Sometimes that means even a very colorful work of art can look striking against a similarly colored background. Sometimes you'll find that that will compete with the art. So it really depends from one artist to another, from one work of art to another. It's a process that takes time and it takes thought and it takes experimentation.

Amy: I'm sure this differs greatly from exhibit to exhibit, but generalizing, talking ballpark, from the point that you have collected or know what the pieces are, maybe they're not in-house yet, to the point that you are ready to hang it. How long does it take to come up with that exhibition design, including the choice of colors?


Kathy: Great question. And that also depends a little bit from project to project.

It depends on how complicated the exhibition is, how complicated the space needs to be. But let's use the Munch exhibition as an example, since you mentioned that one. So that exhibition was in our largest space. That's a space that we always program in the summer with a big show. And we start on the design of that exhibition about a year before it opens.

So right now, we're coming up on the summer of 2024. Pretty much as soon as our 2024 exhibition opens, we'll start on the design of the 2025 exhibition. So for Munch, that means by the time we have a pretty good idea of what's going to be in the checklist, we may not have every single loan verified a year in advance, but we have definitely asked for all the loans we know what we think we're going to get.

So we start working first on the layout, the walls, you know the sections, how the art is going to be organized through the exhibition, what is the story that we're telling. And we work with designers to then take our space and create a new layout, new floor plan specifically for that exhibition. It's a long process.

Once the walls and the layout and the sections are pretty much set and we're all in agreement on how that looks and how it's going to work, then we start talking about color. So we start talking about color probably six months before the show opens. The designer that we work with will suggest colors. The curator or curators of the exhibition are always asked early on questions like, “what should the mood of the exhibition be?”

“You know, what is the feeling? What is the atmosphere that you're trying to evoke? And then are there any colors that come to the curator's mind right off the bat?” So the designer will then take all of that information, think about it and propose a palette of colors. And then from there, we have several months of conversation and trial and error with colors.

We do a lot of color sampling in order to get to the final palette, which could be sometimes very different from what the designer originally proposed.


Amy: Do you create a sort of a small mock-up or model of the whole exhibit? Or is it more like testing the paint right on the walls or both?


Kathy: So we do both. It starts with an electronic floor plan.

So we have electronic floor plans where you can turn them around and see the walls from above or straight on. You know, they're axiomatic in that way. And the designers will lay colors in and suggest either pantone colors or Benjamin Moore colors usually.


Amy: Why did you choose and then stick with Benjamin Moore almost always?


Kathy: So we have used paints other than Benjamin Moore.

We use Benjamin Moore most frequently because it is really easy for us to get. It's one of the most available paints.


Amy: Is it important to you to repeat colors within the exhibit? I believe I remember colors were repeated within the Munch. I think there was a teal somewhere and then I saw the teal again. I think I remember that. Is repetition important or not necessarily?


Kathy: That's a really good question too.

It really depends on the exhibition. Typically, we think of the color as a way to help mark the sections. So the sections of the exhibitions, which will have different themes within the sort of overall theme of the exhibition, are easy to demarcate by changing the color. So we have a group of works. They may be in one room or two rooms that create one section.

And then you go into the next section, and not only do you have an introductory text that tells you what that section is about, but it's signaled because there's a new color. So oftentimes, we will have a different color for each section of the show. But if the show has too many, has a lot of sections, like our summer show this coming summer will have eight different thematic sections in it, having eight different colors can just be, you know, too much.

It's just too distracting. And so in that case, we might repeat colors, as you're saying. Sometimes I think we have used the same color for two contiguous sections. What we decided to do for the Munch show, if you remember, was that each of the galleries had a diagonal wall, freestanding wall in it. And that wall was painted a contrasting color. That wall color for the contrasting wall in the center of each section was the same in each section.

It was a kind of an aubergine. And so for that reason, because we were also introducing this accent color in each of the sections, we wanted to make sure that there were not too many color changes. It can feel very distracting. So we used the accent color and then three other colors, which is why you saw that one color come back in.


Amy: So the exhibit has different sections. Often, they are marking different stages in the career of the artist, different phases, which represent different chronological years of his life, and I would imagine a corresponding change in the style or evolution of the style, perhaps. How do you decide on the colors, despite the fact that that section might have some kind of cohesive theme to it, still, they're individual paintings making up one show.


How difficult is it to find a single color to do its job behind disparate paintings in one section, even though, again, the section might have a cohesive theme? How do you marry the needs of all the different paintings and come up with one paint color that works with it all? Is it sort of a majority rules thing? Like, it's great for five out of ten.

It's pretty good for another three. It's okay for one, and it's meh for one. How do you do it?


Kathy: You know almost always, actually, pretty much always, we're making these decisions without having the actual art available to test against the colors. Because again, we're making those decisions months and months and months before the exhibition opens. And the art doesn't arrive until you know a month or three weeks before it opens.

However, by that time, you know we've all really been living with the digital images of the art that's going to be in the exhibition. We know how the works in each section work with each other because that in itself is a really important part of laying out a show. Making sure that the juxtapositions of one painting, let's just say they're all paintings, painting next to the other, that they work well together.

It's really an important part of planning exhibitions. We have a floor plan going into an installation that shows exactly where every painting is going to go, how far apart it is from where it is on the wall, and so forth. And then the paintings come out of the crates, and sometimes they look completely different.

And one of the things that makes them look completely different is that when we almost never have pictures of paintings in their frames.


Amy: I was going to ask you about the frames.


Kathy: So we don't know what the frames look like, usually. The curators often will know how they're framed because they're going around when they're planning the exhibition, they're visiting museums, they're looking at things.

You know and a lot of the works of art by most artists are framed in similar ways. Nevertheless, we can have a real surprise. We open a crate and a painting by Munch comes out with a bright white frame or something you're just not expecting. And that actually, usually, that doesn't mean that it changes sections because then that's really complicated in terms of the theme of the show.

But it may mean that the entire room has to be rearranged to find a place where this painting with a crazy frame is not going to look out of place. So then to go back to your question about how do we choose colors where every painting is going to look good against it. I mean, we really think about the palette of the artist, you know the colors that are in the art. And this is true regardless of the media of what the art is.

And we try to find colors that we think everything is going to look good against. And you know I think it's not always perfect, but you know I'm very critical of the colors once they're on the wall and everything is hung. Because I think part of the trick to doing this well is to learn from your mistakes.

So we can look at things and think, we thought this was going to look great. And as you say, it's like meh. You know, it's okay, but it's not like really great.


Amy: So I was going to ask you, do you feel overall the colors chosen for Munch were successful? Were you happy with it?


Kathy: Yes. I was very happy with how that show looked. We got a lot of comments on the color.

And a lot of times, and this is interesting, people who like colors that they see on the walls of galleries will ask what the color is, and they'll say something like, I want to paint my bedroom that color, or I want to paint my dining room that color, which I think is really wonderful because it's not just about having this encounter with the art and just thinking about it in that terms, but thinking that this is a color you want to live with.

And I think that that makes it really successful.


Amy: I agree with you. And you know I also think doing what I do, because most of my clients are residential, even though I do commercial work as well, people will look at inspiration be it online, Pinterest, Instagram, or even remember magazines, and they'll see something and say, "Oh, I want that." And I have to tell them that you're looking at a two-dimensional page, and when we scale it up to four walls in a room all around them, some colors are too much.

And we all have different proclivities towards living with color and a desire to be surrounded by color on a whole continuum between desaturated and saturated color. But what's great about what you just said is they may not have been in a house, but they were in a physical, architectural space, and they were surrounded by the color. So they do get a pretty good idea if they would like to live with it or not. So that's really interesting to me.

And I also was going to ask you, was I the only person who reached out and said, "Great colors?" And I guess not.


Kathy: Well, you know, this is true for most of our exhibitions and our permanent collection galleries. People frequently ask about wall colors. And so we actually, for every exhibition that we do, we have a cheat sheet that's available to everyone on the staff that tells you all kinds of things about the exhibition.

But one of the things it tells you is the actual brand and numbers and names of the wall colors. So let's say somebody's sitting at the information desk and someone comes and says, "Oh, I really want to know what that color is." They don't have to make a phone call. They can just open up the document on their computer and find it right away. We also have information on that document about the type fonts that are used on the labels, because people will say, you know what is that font?

I mean, and people are very curious. Some people, of course, go through the exhibitions and they're not thinking about those things. But we do get frequently questions about design elements. And the biggest one that people are interested in is color.


Amy: I'm not surprised. Go back to the designers. Are these on staff people? Are you guys hiring freelance museum exhibition designers to work with you?

Kathy: We have an exhibition design manager on staff, and he designs some of our exhibitions. But most of our exhibitions are designed by freelance independent exhibition designers. We work with a number. There are a number that we've worked with many times. Sometimes we will find a designer or learn about a designer that we're interested in, who feels like they're going to be a good fit for a project and start a new relationship.

When we first are talking about an exhibition project and thinking about you what its needs are in terms of design, and this is true of the catalog as well, we think about the character of the project and what kind of design sensibility we need to bring to it.

And so not every exhibition is the same and has the same needs. And also, we don't want all of our exhibitions to feel like they're all from the same family, in a sense. So every exhibition designer has their own approach, as I'm sure you're well aware, and they can be very different. They all bring a perspective and a set of ideas to the table that are unique. And I think that's really exciting.

For us, we find that to be a really compelling part of the creative process of putting together an exhibition. And making the match between the content of the exhibition, what the curator and what the institution wants to accomplish with it, and then finding a designer who we think is going to bring out the best.


Amy: Oh, that sounds fascinating.

You know I'm thinking about other parts of the museum, and I think I remember that when you did reopen after the expansion, I remember walking into the original part of the museum. God, when you first walk in, I think is it Winslow Homer that's in that room? Amazing paintings. I gasp every time I walk into that room. It's just a perfect selection of paintings and wall colors.

But then you walk back one or a few rooms and you walk into that room that's sort of like an atrium. The light is different. And it's like a gray-lavender- mauve. That color, the first time I saw it, it just blew me away. And I think I asked the museum at the time, did they say that Seldorf picked that color?

Kathy: Well, this was actually a real collaboration between Annabelle Seldorf and the curatorial team at The Clark. And I was a part of that process. And it was so much fun. But yes, we had lots of conversations with Annabelle. You know once the gallery footprint was in place and we were thinking about the installation, and Annabelle would come to the clerk pretty frequently, we would do the same thing.

We would paint sample colors and go through the galleries together and think about  the colors. Some of the colors were kind of easy to land on. The color that you're talking about, which is called Beguiling Mauve, was one of the most difficult. It's unique. Its choice was unique.

Amy: I mean, it just felt like, "Whoa, this is a really different kind of color to have in a museum." Personally, and my own personal likes and dislikes are unimportant in the scheme of thing for any of my clients and my work, I do not like mauve at all. I walked into that room and said, "This is fantastic." I mean, maybe because it had a slightly more lavender bluish feel than your typical mauve, which tends a little bit more towards the red.

I thought it was fabulous, and I was really surprised that I liked it so much.


Kathy: That was, of all of the choices we made for colors in that building, and I think are 10 wall colors in that building, the most controversial, actually. And people either love it or they hate it.

But we thought that it was really important in that particular gallery to find a color that reacts to the changing of the light because there's a natural skylight in that gallery. It's the only gallery at The Clark with a natural skylight where it actually changes based on how sunny it is outside and the sun passing behind clouds and all that. So the light is always changing. And we wanted a wall color that was alive, if you know what I mean?

Amy: Beautiful, yeah.

Kathy: That really reacted to the changing in the color. And that also was a great backdrop for Impressionist paintings because that's what we're showing there.


Amy: Right. Right.


Kathy: So we were very happy with the color that we selected. And it was interesting to see how strong the reactions were. And I think the reactions were strongest with that color in part because The Clark is really known for its Impressionist collection.

And for some portion of our longtime visitors, that's the core of the collection. That's what they think of as the heart of The Clark, these Impressionist paintings. And this is actually a wonderful thing. People have a real sense of ownership. And if you change something, and that color is very different than the color that the gallery had been before we renovated. So it was a big change and people were just like, like you moved my cheese, kind of attitude.

I love that because I love the fact that people feel such investment in the objects themselves and in the experience of looking at them.


Amy: Yeah, that is wonderful. It seems to me from what you've said so far that your goal and your process to pick exhibition wall color as a whole will be the same whether it's a decorative object or a sculpture or a painting.

I mean, you're looking to enhance, to reinforce the mood that you want to set and tell the story of the art and all of that, that it's the same process, but the results may change based on what the art is. But in general, it's the same, right? Decorative art, sculpture, painting. What about styles of painting?

I mean, are there any generalizations that hold, you know if it's an Impressionist story, will tend to go more like this? If it's modern, we'll do this, or is it just completely particular to the artist and this work?


Kathy: Yeah. I would say, this is not an ironclad rule by any stretch of the imagination.

But I would say the older the art, thinking of sort of post-Renaissance, the stronger the color. So that, for example, if you're showing Baroque art, so big paintings by the Italian you know Guaccino or Guido Reni or Spanish artists like Velazquez, those paintings, which are really powerful and tend to have a lot of dark, we go dark.

Yeah. Yeah. They actually, they pop against like a really rich dark color, a rich red, a rich blue. And you need to be careful, or we always try to be careful. Again, even with those colors it can get really tricky because they can be cheesy. I don't know exactly how to say this, but I mean, it can feel kind of overblown. It can feel too dramatic or too theatrical.

So you have to strike the balance between, again, the wall color can't be the most important thing that you're seeing when you walk into a room, but those paintings tend to really glow against rich dark colors. And then as you go on in history, by the time you get to the Impressionists, the Impressionist paintings don't look good against those dark colors. They just don't feel right.

And they weren't shown with darks at the time. You know in the 19th century, those paintings would not have been shown against really dark-colored walls. They would have been shown against lighter walls. I mean, the style of that taste also or just traditions changed over time. There are times maybe when you want to create a contrast, kind of an unexpected contrast for the purposes of, I don't know, being a little provocative, in which case you might choose a color that's very counterintuitive for the kind of art that you're showing.

Amy: What would make you want to be provocative? I mean, what kind of kind of art? Because the artist himself or herself was a provocative character within the milieu that he lived or she lived? Or what would be wanting you to go that way?


Kathy: Let's say maybe you're showing an artist who everyone is very familiar with and has a particular idea of what that art is about or what that artist thought about or what that artist meant.

And you want to disrupt that traditional narrative. Let's say you want people to think about this artist in a completely different way than they're used to thinking about him or her. Then I think color can be a really powerful thing because it can sort of destabilize your point of view in a subtle way. I mean, you can be really bold about this, but I think you can also do it in a subtle way that just signals, you know we're looking at this artist in a different way, and we want you to look at this artist in a different way.

Amy: Ok.


Kathy: When we're choosing wall colors, the people who are in the room in the discussion include the designer, the curator, me, the exhibition manager, other curators, curatorial colleagues, the registrar is there, the art handlers are there, the publication staff is there, and everyone is looking at it and bringing a different kind of point of view into the discussion so that you know the preparators might say, you know if you choose that color and you want eggshell, you know it's not going to look right because they actually know what paint does on the wall.

Whereas the publications person would say, well, if you choose that color, we're not going to be able to get to 70% contrast. People are not going to be able to read the labels. So there's all of these different things you have to think about.


Amy: Wow. I didn't even think about finish. I didn't even think about paint finish. So it's not always the same eggshell, or for instance? The finish, it's not always the same.

Kathy: It also depends….you know we often use large graphics, like graphic images and different things that are sometimes they're painted on the wall, sometimes they're vinyl applied to the wall. And if you're doing something on top of a paint color, you have to make sure that you're using a finish that will work with whatever you're applying. Because if you put vinyl on certain kinds of finishes, it will peel right off.

So, I mean, there's all kinds of things that you wouldn't necessarily even think about. And as you know, using an eggshell finish has a very different look than using any other kind of finish. We typically use eggshell, but there are times when something else… you just want a different look or a different feel.


Amy: We probably covered this already in a way, but do you have a point of view about using light colors versus dark or clear saturated colors versus muted?

Kathy: It's very specific to the exhibit, the art, and what enhances the art and all of that. I think that each kind of color has their place, right? It depends on the art. It depends on the space. It depends on the mood that you're seeking. I think that different people might gravitate towards certain kinds of colors.

I mean, I personally love saturated colors. But I also think that you have to kind of step back from your personal taste when you're thinking about the kind of work that we're doing with exhibitions.


Amy: Sure.


Kathy: It's a real privilege to be able to do this kind of work. I feel really fortunate. I’ve had the opportunity to learn so much about every exhibition. I learn about art I didn't know anything about or an artist I'd never really known anything about.

Every project is different. Every project has its own challenges too. And that can be frustrating, of course, but it also means that we are never bored.


Amy: Ok, I'm going to finish with this. How often do you have to polish that silver? Oh my God.


Kathy: Well, you know we polished it before it went on view in the renovated building.

So the last time that silver was polished was, what it's now 2024? Probably 11 years ago. Because every aspect of the interior of those cases is archival, and the cases are airtight. The cases are also equipped with carbon cloth, which absorbs the sulfur in the air, and silica gel, which maintains a dry humidity.

So what we try to do is inside the cases to create an environment where the tarnish, first of all, gets attracted to something that's there to attract it and not attack the silver.


Amy: Kathy, thank you so much! This was so much fun. I learned so much.


Kathy: Well, Amy, I want to thank you for the opportunity to come here and talk with you. It's really been a lot of fun. I think we both have a love of color and what color can do to brighten our world. It's really wonderful to be able to talk about how color is part of my job as well.



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