What Goes Where: How Curators Hang Art

Have you ever participated in a group show, gone to the opening reception and wondered why your artwork was in a corner instead of the center of the room? Did the gallery not like it? Was it not good enough? Have you been snubbed? As an artist, it is easy to imagine the worst case scenario, but rest assured – it’s probably none of these negative reasons.  In this article, I’m going to walk you through how I hang a show. Other curators may have other methods, because rules for hanging art shows are few and far between.

New Year New Art 2014 receptionThere are many factors that play into a curator’s decisions in hanging a show. When presented with a group exhibition, a curator must find a way to display a wide variety of work from a wide variety of artists in a way that harmonizes the entire exhibition and creates a sensible whole. This can be a challenge as the curator must deal with different styles, media, and sizes of art.

First, a curator must consider the gallery space they have to work with. The Community Arts Center (where I work) is a 1909 Federal Post Office that has been turned into an arts facility that hosts exhibitions, classes, and special events. It is a beautiful space, but often presents architectural challenges as a gallery for fine art. The walls and hanging spaces are often interrupted by windows, doors, and other charming turn-of-the-century features. Within the gallery, there are only a few wall spaces that can accommodate large works of art. If presented with a particularly large painting, it must go in one of (maybe) four spaces. Smaller works can be grouped in pairs or

other suitable arrangements in smaller areas of the gallery. Simple laws of physics apply in hanging art exhibitions in that one cannot hang something on nothing. The work for the show must all fit within the available space. Occasionally, the exhibit may spill over into another gallery on the second level.

The size of the work plays an important (perhaps the largest) role in a curator’s choice of placement. If a painting is huge, it will usually get its own wall. If works are smaller, they can be grouped with works of similar size. Orientation of the work (landscape or portrait) is also considered as works of the same orientation often find themselves grouped together. If you make work of non-traditional dimensions – i.e. long and skinny or unusually tall and thin – you present the curator with a special challenge in terms of space. This is not always a bad thing, but having unusual dimensions is a bit of a gamble as to whether it will get a better or worse placement within the gallery space. A curator’s dream exhibit to hang is one that features all works of the same size and orientation. Group shows, on the other hand, can be tricky because one artist’s work may be only an inch or two larger than another, making a grouping of those works look slightly unbalanced.

The color and style of your work plays a role in exhibit placement. When hanging in the two prime spots – the first spots you see when you walk in the gallery – I try to find two large works of similar size that complement each other both in terms of style and color. I’ll usually search for “siblings” in a group show, works of art that have the same feel or colors that just work well together in pairings. If an exhibit seems to have an underlying common color I try to spread those colors evenly throughout the show. For example, this year’s New Year New Art show featured a lot of orange and purple, so I tried to spread the works that featured the two colors around to create a bit of rhythm and harmony throughout the exhibition. 

On occasion, there will be a work of art that just doesn’t play well with others – maybe it’s too bold, too powerful, too dark, or too red, or too lemony yellow compared to the other works. These works usually end up by themselves on a wall (again, not a bad thing) spaced a bit apart from the rest of the show. This allows the viewer to take in the work, absorb the energy being put forth, without it carrying over into the rest of the exhibit.

Believe it or not, one of the biggest factors of “what goes where” comes down to the type of frame you use. I know it seems a bit petty, but I often will group art based on frame colors. If you have a group of wood-stained frames and you hang a work with a white frame in the middle, it might come across as a bit out of place. A trend among landscape painters in our region is to use gold frames. Putting a black-framed work among gold-trimmed paintings seems to weight the attention and gravity toward the black frame. If you choose wild vibrant colors for your framing, it will usually present a problem when it comes to placement in a group show. Your work is creative; your frame doesn’t need to be.

Hanging an art show is a creative process in itself, with many of the same elements of design as creating art. In hanging a show there is a lot of floor-pacing, head-scratching, beard-stroking thought and consideration put into the placement of every piece that goes into the gallery. If it were as easy as ranking the works from favorite to least-favorite and throwing them on the wall, the curator would be able to hang an art show every fifteen minutes. So, next time you wonder why your art is where it is in the gallery, consider the challenge of trying to display all of the work in the gallery as a harmonious whole. If you look closely at how the show is put together, you can gain a lot of insight into the art of curating.

Brandon Long

Brandon Long
Programming Director

 This article originally appeared in the January 2014 Artists ONLY! enewsletter.Subscribe now to Artists ONLY! or other enewsletters from the Community Arts Center.