Single rooms with stark white walls are often people's perception of art galleries. This is not surprising as modern galleries were mostly designed like this until the end of the last century, as a plain white background was seen as the most minimal of backgrounds to allow the art work to have centre stage. However, increasingly this accepted gallery aesthetic has been questioned. In 2003 Charles Saatchi launched an attack on the concept of white cube art galleries, calling them "antiseptic" and a "time warp ... dictated by museum fashion”.
We understand the importance of getting every detail of the gallery setting correct and always follow our brief with extreme accuracy. We work closely with galleries and artists to ensure that finished space is as envisaged and that it enhances the visitor's experience of the art.
So how can galleries be designed differently?
The colour of the background on which art is displayed is highly influential on how the art is experienced. Over the years of working closely with galleries and artists, we have come to appreciate the skill in choosing the right coloured background. When we built the major Auerbach exhibition at Tate Britain last year our brief included painting the walls in a very particular warm neutral colour. The colour highlighted the richly tactile three-dimensional nature of many of Auerbach's pieces and thus helped the artwork to come alive in the space.
Interestingly Turner originally displayed his paintings in his own galleries on red walls. Excitingly, when recently rehanging the Clore galleries which house the Turner collection, the Tate have attempted to match this colour in some of the larger rooms, described by a friend of Turner's only as an 'Indian red'. We were proud to help in this renovation by painting and restoring the ceilings.
Art can benefit from textures and finishes so that the space becomes as much an experience for the senses as the artworks contained within it. For example Sacripante Art Gallery in Rome, Italy has rough cement and textured walls that emphasise the beauty of the paintings. However, there is always a fine balance to be maintained between the artistic statement of the display area and the art that is on show, so that the architecture does not dominate the collection.
And of course lighting plays a fundamental role in establishing an interaction between visitors and exhibits. It not only needs to effectively display the art, but protect it at the same time. It can be used to build ambience or to add drama, and can add to the visitor's enjoyment of the artwork. Whilst undertaking a full internal build and re-decoration for the Hayward Gallery's prestigious Light Show we saw first hand the important role light can play in art.
Why installation art may need more than white walls
As installation art has become more prominent, we have enjoyed the challenge of building installation spaces. Tate defines installation art as "mixed-media constructions or assemblages usually designed for a specific place and for a temporary period of time". Here the artist and gallery defines precisely how the room/s and sometimes the artworks themselves are to be structured, finished, and lit to ensure that the spectator can fully engage with the installation. Recently with the Pablo Bronstein exhibition in the Duveen galleries at Tate Britain, the whole space became part of the artwork and it was particularly challenging and interesting to build the architectural pieces and false walls within the space :
When we built the Hepworth exhibition, there were a number of different treatments given to the works throughout the course of the visitor's journey through the exhibition space. The most ambitious part of the project was bringing the natural world into the gallery. To better reflect the original setting of the sculptures, a representation of the Rietvald Pavilion in its natural environment was created by students from the RCA. To give the idea of the outdoors a wall was covered with a forest of trees, which provided the perfect background for sculpture where the way the pieces interact with their environment is crucial to experiencing the artwork.
Building video installations have slightly different requirements. Not only must the dark walls allow the video to dominate the space, but often we are briefed to build seating within the space which can feel close and intimate compared to the seating usually with the traditional large open space of a gallery where there is traditionally a single plinth type bench in the middle of the room.