RMA Teens interview Gateway curator Karl Debreczeny

RMA Teens: Gateway to Himalayan Art explains the iconography, materials, and contexts used in Himalayan artwork. It’s like an introduction to the rest of the museum. Why did you feel such an exhibit was necessary?

Karl: Most people aren’t familiar with Himalayan art or where the Himalayan area is. We tried to present Himalayan art in a broader context. We needed to explain that Himalayan art comes from Bhutan, Tibet, Nepal, etc., as well as related cultures such as China, India, and Mongolia.  We needed to give people an entry point, give them a few concepts, and underlying ideas that they’ll see being used in the art on the next few floors because, of course, we can’t start each show at zero. With a floor like this our other exhibits can be more specific or focus for instance on a particular art historical period or a particular art historical style.

Teens: What was on this floor before?  Were there any problems with it? Why did the museum decide to update it and what improvements did you make?

Karl: We had another introductory exhibit here before. It had opened in 2004 and it was really nice but there were a couple of problems. One problem was that there was no long term schedule built into that exhibition. So one thing you’ll notice is that the structure of this gallery is kind of modular. We give you a line drawing of each figure next to text highlighting the specific features of that figure and then examples of that figure in two and three dimensions. Since the objects have to be rotated for conservation reasons, we wanted this exhibition to be sustainable. We implemented this concept where when one object comes down we have another object that can immediately take its place. It used to be that we might have a concept for which we only had one example or when we needed to replace objects, we didn’t have another one that fit the concept as well as the one we had taken down. And the question came up, “What do you do in the 2nd and 3rd and 4th year?” So, that was a very important improvement.

Another thing is that the earlier exhibition tried to handle many different concepts, and over time they sometimes became muddled and confusing. So another thing we tried to do is to simplify and streamline this exhibition. In the past we had rather long texts, so we thought in this exhibit we’d introduce the basic ideas without overwhelming the first-time visitor with too much text and too many concepts. We tried to arrange it so that the ideas build upon each other. We start with the figures, then see how the objects were made, and then address the basic issues of why were they made and what is their use. Ending with the Shrine Room, which is opening soon, we look at their context. So you’re being introduced to some of the pieces and parts and then you see those pieces together in their original context. Hopefully that will tie everything together, that and the map.

Teens: Tell us about the map. Why is it here? And what is so special about it?

Karl: The exhibition is organized geographically and so our map shows us cultural areas without necessarily paying much attention to modern political borders. It highlights the cultures that are producing the Himalayan art we have in our collection. And then we have landscape pictures, pictures of architecture, people, and then an example of an artwork from that cultural area in our collection. So, in a general way, the map is introducing the geographic and cultural contexts of the art that one will encounter in our galleries. The map acts as a geographic layer. All these different things are being layered. So to do this effectively, we placed the map at the top of the stairs so that when climb up that’s the first thing you see. Also, this map is placed on the top of the landing to link the second floor introduction with another long-term exhibition on the third floor which will explore the geographic, cultural, and historic relationships within the art of the Himalayas.

Miho: (laughing) You’ve said a lot.

Karl: Yeah, there’s a lot of thinking that goes behind it but in the end we tried to make it simple. We really didn’t want people to be overwhelmed. What we like to do is have someone go through this whole floor in about 30 to 40 minutes and then move on. The idea is that you don’t spend your whole time on this floor. This is an introduction to the basic ideas and then you can move on. We really wanted to make the material accessible. We want to provide a basic entry point so that people feel comfortable.  Even if you don’t understand all of it you should be able to reach a new comfort level with the art.

Teens: The map is very engaging. The entire exhibit is engaging. When we first got to this floor, Miho remarked that it reminded her of her childhood visits to science museums because the information here is very accessible, very engaging, in a way that a lot of art museums aren’t.

Karl: Well that’s the struggle for us too, because this is a fine art museum and not a science museum. We struggled with how to balance the basic didactics – keeping it simple and engaging enough and yet at the same time keeping the focus on the art. You’ll notice that in the formatting, we have these large panels and we have text accompanying the art.  Especially as you move up the floors you’ll see that the text fades back and the art stands for itself. But here we wanted the basic concepts to be clear, so we made a bit of a compromise. We did want to incorporate the text with the art because a lot of school groups visit this exhibition and we really wanted something that would be easy to teach with. And so this alcove with the map serves as a basic introduction. The reason this gallery is so open here is that we wanted to allow school groups to move easily from the Buddha to the bodhisattvas and the humans associated with them, to have everything in their field of vision.

Teens: Sometimes big museums are a bit overwhelming. Does it help being a smaller, newer institution? Do you have more freedom to experiment with your audience and see what type of exhibit works best?

Karl: The Rubin is small but it’s also very young. It opened in 2004 to the public. I think at well-established institutions, there’s a way of doing things. They’re not restricted by geography or tradition. And they’re at an advantage because they’re internationally known. We’re not as well known, so it’s a bit harder. And we’re in New York where thousands of other cultural events are taking place amongst which we’re trying to gain attention. New York is a real cultural hotbed. But the advantage of being a smaller institution is that can spend a bit more time on specialized topics. We want to create a specialized atmosphere. We want to take scholarship on art and historical research and present it to the public in an accessible way. That is one of our main goals.

Find out more about the Rubin’s RMA Teens program here: www.rmanyc.org/teens

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RMA Guide Harry Einhorn considers Gateway

Shakyamuni Buddha

We see images of the Buddha everywhere: in living rooms, gardens, spas, restaurants, and storefronts. The image seems to promise something—a way out, answers to our questions, a sense of peace in the middle of a busy city.

The new Gateway to Himalayan Art exhibition begins with an image of the historical Buddha and continues to present a comprehensive introduction to the diverse and beautiful world of art from the Himalayas, a region and culture that many of us know little about.

As a guide, I find myself wondering what draws people into a museum dedicated to Himalayan art. The Buddha image is imbued with mystery—his half-closed eyes, his relaxed posture, and his serene face imply he has caught onto something we may be missing. When we see an image of the Buddha, even if it’s in a shop window, there’s something direct, simple, and non-ironic about what is communicated.

I hope visitors to Gateway will be able to have this type of experience—clear, sharp, unjaded, unmitigated. Even if one is completely unfamiliar with this type of art, the new design will help us dive into these works without feeling overwhelmed. We might be caught by the sharpness of line, the brightness of color, the intensity of expression, the sincerity of devotion from which these pieces were created. Just like any great art, being around these pieces can create a sense of uplift, perhaps even a taste of the sublime, even if it’s for only a moment. For most the pure visual experience will be enough. Maybe some will be inspired to learn more.

Hopefully this new exhibition will offer something for everyone, whether one wants to linger for twenty minutes on one image or breeze through on the way to the floors above. Perhaps this experience will provide the gateway to fall in love with the art, its mystery, beauty, and skill, just as we have.

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Art Handlers, Go! By Senior Art Handler Shane Murray

Simean Rainbow rides again….performing feats of Manjik! on Gateway to Himalayan Art.

The vinyl crew are feverishly working away to prep the walls for Tom Black’s arrival tomorrow.

Reuben installs the label ledges.  Jenny Hung prints labels…Monica cuts and installs them.

Reuben does cobras to stretch out his ailing back.  Pedro and I correct his form.  Robert is present and accounted for.

Oh and we all installed a lot of art today.  What fun!

Gateway to Himalayan Art, in process

Monica on the level

Pedro makes it happen

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Lighting Matters: An interview with Lighting and A/V Manager Brian Schneider

Question: How did you get involved in museum lighting?

Brian: I started in theater lighting, and then I stumbled into museum lighting. I began freelancing, and then I worked for another company that services museums and auction houses.

Q: How does museum lighting differ from theater lighting?

B: Well, the pace is much slower and calmer in a museum, but the lighting is a lot more precise. When I light a painting I make sure the piece is completely balanced because I don’t think it’s my place to decide what the most important part of a painting is. The viewer should decide. I light sculptures in a way that gives them a sense of depth—the way you would light a person on a stage.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in museum lighting?

B: Museum lighting is a very specific kind of lighting. The paradox is that light inherently damages art, so the biggest challenge is to make the art look beautiful while keeping it safe.

Q: How do you do that?

B: The light that hits each piece of art has to be measured by a light meter. The light meter measures in footcandles, which is a term that describes the effect of light from one candle from one foot away. So, for instance, all of our thangkas have to be kept at 5-7 footcandles or less to keep them safe.

Q: So you measure the light on each object individually?

B: Yes. Each individual light fixture is controlled and each light is screened with its own diffuser. It’s more time-consuming, but screening keeps the proper color while cutting out excess light.

Q: Who do you work with most closely?

B: John Monaco [Exhibition Designer] and Shane Murray [Senior Art Handler]. John Monaco and I collaborate very early on in an exhibition, and we share an office so we constantly communicate. For Gateway we worked together a lot to create the object cases. John designs the cases and I design the lighting.

Q: What did you like about designing Gateway?

B: Because this is a long-term exhibition, we built permanent cases for the art, which allows for more elegant lighting. It’s nice to know that this exhibition will stay up for several years.

Q: Why is light interesting to you?

B: Lighting for me is something that has taken on a spiritual nature. The concept of enlightenment—light equaling knowledge. Working with light influences how something is viewed. It can turn something that might not be beautiful and make it beautiful. It creates feeling and emotion. It makes things expressive. Lighting matters.

Q: Why should visitors care about lighting?

B: Lighting is a large part of the calm feeling you get in this place. But it shouldn’t be a conscious thought; I’m doing my job if you don’t notice the lights. It should feel naturally calm.

[Enter Exhibition Designer John Monaco]

Q: [To John] What would this museum be without this lighting scheme?

John: It would be everywhere else.

Brian's 'Let There Be Light' tattoo

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Eleanor Whitney on Creating Educational Resources for Gateway

When I have to describe my job to people in and outside of the Rubin Museum I always say that I am a museum educator who oversees most everything that helps visitors learn about works of art without a live educator standing there discussing the art or a label written by a curator. This means I conceptualize and look after audio tours, videos, books and activities in the galleries, computer interactives, and web interactives and initiatives, such as blogs.

Working on Gateway to Himalayan Art, I’ve had to think about all of these different elements. As the exhibition’s goal is to introduce viewers to the basic figures, symbols, materials, techniques, and uses of Himalayan art, I’ve been working on many different elements to make some of those ideas come alive in the gallery and online.

I’m going to be fully honest: while I have enjoyed looking at Buddhist and Hindu art in museums since my early-teenage years (when I begged my mother to take me to see the Asian wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), I do not have an academic background in Himalayan art. As a result, creating resources for Gateway has been a learning process for me. I think my position as an outsider gives me something of an advantage as I am able to readily put myself in the shoes of a visitor who is unfamiliar with Himalayan art. I ask myself: What are the questions that need to be clarified? What do I wish I had available to help me learn about Himalayan art?

Sometimes I wish I had a handheld device that I could point at a work of art, like a thangka painting, and it would highlight and explain the significant elements that are contained within that work. Maybe it would be like a special Himalayan art smart phone app. While I’m not quite that advanced, in this spirit I’ve created a series of touch-screen interactives and a looking guide for Gateway.

Touch Screen

The three touch screen interactives will let visitors “decode” works of art. The interactives present an example of a mandala, narrative painting and lineage painting. Touching highlighted areas on the painting will zoom in on a detail and explain its significance. I’m creating them in Keynote and am now in the process of collaborating with our graphic designers to make sure they look extra nice. To see a web-based example, check out the Rubin’s Explore Art website. I’ve been working for several months in close contact with curators Karl Debreczeny and Elena Pakhoutova to select the works of art, highlight important details, and proofread the text.

Looking Guide: Gestures

The looking guide is less high tech but is something visitors can use in the galleries throughout the museum and even take home with them. It will be a slender brochure that illustrates and defines the major figures and symbols in Himalayan art. Using the guide, I hope visitors—even those completely unfamiliar with Himalayan art—will feel empowered to look closely at works of art and feel confident that they can begin to interpret them. I haven’t even mentioned the 18-stop audio tour we are producing or a video featuring our special lost wax figures, but suffice it to say that Gateway will be a resource-rich experience for all.

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The Sensible Artists: An Interview with Exhibition Designer John Monaco and Assistant Exhibition Designer Amy Bzdak

Q: How do you begin the design process?

Amy: We take the curator’s list of objects and put them in our 3-D floor plan with their correct dimensions.

3-D Floor Plan

John: The curator tells us what the object adjacencies are—

A: And we tell them what will and won’t fit in the gallery.

J: When designing, you always start with the “what if’s.” “What if we hung it like this?” “What if we built this?” Then you get into the gallery and everything becomes “it is.” “It is…a little bigger than we thought.”

Q. How do you choose the colors?

J: Usually I pick one “poster child” object that I use to determine a color scheme.

Rubin Museum of Art, C2006.66.489

A: I don’t do that. I think about the meaning of the show and the works of art. My primary concerns are that the colors fit conceptually and will make the art look nice.

J: Gateway is based on didactics rather than art in many ways. We wanted to maintain our aesthetic but push it back to bring the words forward. The art objects are illustrative of many basic concepts. We looked at photos of 1950s science labs to get ideas for colors. It gives it more of a teaching feel.

Q: Start to finish, how long will you have worked on this show?

J: One and a half years.

Q: Did Gateway pose any particular challenges?

J: Yes. There are a lot of illustrations to elucidate ideas, which means a lot of graphic design and support material. And the map. The map took an immense amount of effort, and the technology behind it was new to us. The map is the first thing visitors will see, so it’s like the introduction to the introduction. About twenty-five staff members and contractors worked on the map as a singular project.

Q: Do you have a favorite piece or aspect of the exhibition?

A: I’m excited to see how the lost wax installation turns out.

J: Too early to tell. It changes when it becomes “it is.” In the beginning it’s art. On the plans they’re rectangles. Then when you finally get into the gallery it becomes art again.

Q. How does Gateway, as a long-term exhibition, differ from shorter-term exhibitions?

J: Planning for object replacements over time; making sure everything will fit when replacements happen. That took a lot of planning on the curatorial side.

A: It’s different, too, because everything was designed specifically for this exhibition. The cases were redesigned—

J: Everything’s custom-made and designed specifically for a long-term exhibition. In many ways, it’s not our normal exhibition.

A: And it’s designed for more educational purposes.

J: Right. The art will stand on its own. If you dig it, you’ll dig it.

A: It’s a permanent teaching tool.

J: It’s a foundation floor. This is sort of the sushi floor.

A: Sushi floor?

J: You get a little taste of this, a little taste of that.

Q: It seems like designers need an eye for aesthetics and a mind for mathematics, too.

J: Yes. If something looks like it was easy to do, it’s usually good design.

A:  The exhibition designer needs to be the sensible artist.

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