When you look at a painting in a museum, do you ever wonder why it is hanging there? And why there, and not in the gallery next door? How was it installed? What would happen if it needed to be removed for conservation treatment? Would an empty space be left behind, or would the whole gallery be rearranged?
I often wondered about these things, which is part of the reason why I sought an internship in the Paintings Department of the J. Paul Getty Museum.
During my internship, I’ve delved into a fascinating but often overlooked aspect of a curator’s job: the relocation of art in the galleries. Moving objects around is a necessary part of museum work, prompted by the arrival or departure of objects here on loan, by conservation treatments, or by the arrival of new acquisitions. This summer I shadowed several of the Getty’s paintings curators and learned how they approach replacing paintings and rearranging galleries under different circumstances.
The Goal of Creating a Beautiful and Meaningful Arrangement
Curator Anne Woollett, an expert in Flemish, Dutch, and German paintings before 1800, told me that when choosing the location of paintings, her goal is to create an enlightening display within the gallery.
I recently accompanied Anne during a reinstallation of two works of art in the East Pavilion at the Getty Center (Gallery E204): Bathsheba After the Bath and The Satyr and the Peasant Family, both by the famous Dutch artist Jan Steen.
The paintings had just returned to the Getty Museum after an exhibition abroad. A whole team from the Preparations Department installed them, which surprised me because most museums I have worked in do not have a dedicated, full-time team for that task—they were either smaller and/or short staffed.
Anne chose the placement of the artworks based on their style, date, and composition. She also evaluated the space between them and their hanging height. As she explained to me, it’s important to create a coherent, sound space that not only looks elegant but also showcases the history of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings within the Getty collection.
The Challenge of Selecting Replacements
Unlike many institutions that keep large portions of their collections in storage, the Getty Museum keeps most of its paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts on public display. Photographs, manuscripts, and drawings, by contrast, have rotating thematic displays. The Getty has a relatively small paintings collection compared to other large museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which presents a challenge when a loan request is received, or conservation treatment is necessary.
Curators must ask themselves what to hang on the wall to replace the painting being removed. Which painting comes closest to approximating the original in terms of content, style, and history? Will the replacement painting maintain the consistency of the gallery’s narrative? How will the museum prepare for visitors who come especially to view the painting that is no longer there? These decisions affect multiple departments at the Museum, and the curator’s experience in his or her field helps determine the best approach.
Finding Solutions for Unexpected Situations
One common reason for a painting to be removed from the gallery is that it needs conservation treatment or is undergoing scientific study. In such situations the painting can be off-display for a short or long period of time, depending on the circumstances.
Sometimes paintings must come off view for unforeseen periods of time. Mariotto di Nardo’s Saints Lawrence and Stephen in the Getty Center’s North Pavilion (Gallery N201) was supposed to go to the paintings conservation studio for just one day, so that conservators could change its hanging hardware to prevent damage to the frame. Due to the complexity of the mount-making process, however, one day turned into six weeks. What happened in the gallery? Assistant curator Laura Llewellyn decided to bring The Annunciation by Tommaso del Mazza out of storage to fill the space since it is similar in scale, date, and style to Mariotto di Nardo’s painting. Laura noted that the replacement had to be historically appropriate to maintain the rationale of the gallery display. The replacement options were also limited to the few paintings in storage that could fit the specific space.
Rearranging vs. Bringing in Loans
Associate curator Scott Allan specializes in nineteenth-century European paintings and also thinks deeply about the cogency of our gallery spaces as a whole. When he knew that Renoir’s La Promenade in the West Pavilion (Gallery W204) would soon be going on loan to an exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, he decided to leave the arrangement of the paintings in the gallery as is, slightly adjusting the distance between them to fill in the void.
Another viable option would have been to bring in a loan of a painting that could work in harmony with the rest. This solution was used in the gallery next door (W205), where three loans were added to provide a counterpoint to James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889. This painting’s massive size, riotous subject, and aggressive style make it challenging to create a coherent gallery space using other works from the Getty’s permanent collection, which currently has only a small selection of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century paintings.
Next time you visit a museum, I invite you to pause to think about how each painting arrived in that place on the wall. Why is it here? How does it relate to the paintings around it? Does it contribute to a story within the gallery space? As I’ve learned during my internship, there is always more to a painting’s location than meets the eye.