Crystal Bridges is open to the public, with timed tickets and walk-ups welcome as capacity allows. Learn more.
Crystal Bridges is open to the public, with timed tickets and walk-ups welcome as capacity allows. Learn more.

Museum Way Podcast: Presenting: Museum Way + Reinventing Galleries

In this new podcast series, we’re sharing all the ins-and-outs of the museum, from the galleries to the trails, the architecture and more—you’ll learn the museum way of Crystal Bridges.In this episode, we’ll talk with Curator Mindy Besaw on why we chose to redo our Early American Art Galleries, and we’ll meet Exhibition Designer Jessi Mueller to learn what it means it design a gallery and much more.

 

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Episode Transcript

Stace Treat:
Picture it, you turn onto Museum Way and drive along the winding road that leads you to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. You’ll pass a circle of benches surrounding Leo Villareal’s glowing Buckyball, filled with neighbors enjoying the Ozark air. As you drive along the tree-lined path, you spy some sculptures lining the forest, and around a final curve, there’s a towering silver tree. It’s Yield by Roxy Paine. The museum is set in a deep ravine with copper rooftops rising from the natural Crystal Springs below.

Stace Treat:
As you walk inside, wooden ceiling beams stretch high above you. And as you enter the art galleries, artwork calls for you to look this way, look that way, and look closer. Standing before a work of art, you may wonder, “What’s the real story here? Who is this artist, and why did they make this work?” Entering a new gallery space, you’re filled with a sense of mystery from the way the artwork lines the space, to the emerald green paint on the walls.

Stace Treat:
“How is this gallery designed? Who chose this artwork, who hung the paintings and moved the sculptures?” If these questions sound familiar, you’ve tuned into the right place. I’m Stace Treat, host of Crystal Bridges’ new podcast, Museum Way. A lot of our guests often wonder how we do things here, so we’re sharing all the ins and outs of the museum, from the galleries to the trails, the architecture to the culinary team. You’ll learn the Museum Way of Crystal Bridges. I’m an interpretation manager at Crystal Bridges, which means I work with many teams at the museum to make your experience fun, interesting and meaningful. On today’s podcast, we explore the concept of re-invention. In fact, we’re re-installing our early American art galleries for the first time. We’ll talk with curator Mindy Besaw on why we chose to redo the galleries, and we’ll meet exhibition designer Jessi Mueller to learn what it takes to design a gallery and much, much more. So, let’s jump into the very first episode of Museum Way.

Stace Treat:
With me now is Dr. Mindy Besaw curator at Crystal Bridges and the leader of this re installation project. Welcome, Mindy.

Mindy Besaw:
Thanks for having me, Stace.

Stace Treat:
Or should I call you Dr. Mindy?

Mindy Besaw:
Oh, you can just call me Mindy, thanks.

Stace Treat:
All right. Well, let’s start with one of the big questions. There are over 150 works of art in these galleries that you’re reinstalling, right? Some would say, why do we need to reinstall it all? What’s wrong with the galleries the way they are?

Mindy Besaw:
Well, I think that’s an excellent question, and really, honestly, there wasn’t anything terribly wrong with the galleries as they were. I just know that we can do a better job. What we do currently is tell the history of American art from a kind of standard art historical storyline, and it’s not very complicated. We wanted to make it a bit more textured and complex and be a bit more inclusive in the way we’re telling our stories.

Stace Treat:
Well, that sounds like a lot to tackle. It makes me just kind of wonder, where do you start with something like this?

Mindy Besaw:
Well, as a curator, one of the things I do is tell stories through juxtapositions of artworks. So the art is always one great place to start with a story. Crystal Bridges has an amazing collection of early American art, so we had that as a great backbone. But to really get a flavor of what we should be doing, we went to the community. So we did several community focus groups and asked people, what excites you about Crystal Bridges? Maybe, why don’t you come to Crystal Bridges? What resonates with you? What kind of themes are part of your American experience and how can we better reflect that? If anything, what it did reiterate was maybe the story that we had to start with was a little narrow. It wasn’t exactly resonating with all of our guests.

Stace Treat:
So you’re looking for, or, you’re trying to tell a variety of new kinds of stories. Can you give me an example or two of the kinds of objects that you’re comparing or putting together?

Mindy Besaw:
Sure. One great specific example is one of the things we really realized is we do start our story with colonial times. So thinking about the late eighteenth century, starting with George Washington. But even especially in Arkansas, there were cultures here for centuries before George Washington even stepped foot on the North American continent. So again, if we tell this story with art, we went down to the University of Arkansas and looked through some of their archeological collections, which are just amazing and astounding, and we are borrowing one small Mississippian figure that dates to about 1350. This small figure paired with something like George Washington, we hope to really start thinking differently. What if you start your history of North America in 1350 and not 1800? So completely reframing even the start of the story and then we can go from there.

Stace Treat:
Wow. And it seems like there are a lot of ways you can do that as well. There’s also the Spanish influence, the colonial influence in Florida for example, and going back even to other countries before even Britain is a traditional, you know-

Mindy Besaw:
North American colonizer. Absolutely. So, that’s another great point. Again, if we’re telling stories with objects, one of the limitations is our collection. It’s both a benefit, and a bit of a limitation. And so another place we went to talk to museums about borrowing objects. So the Denver Museum is lending us three Spanish colonial paintings. We’re going to have a very rare Cuban painting, so from when Spain was occupying Cuba. And again, kind of broadening, pushing on that boundary of what are American stories, what are some of the perspectives and conversations that we can have, and tell those stories through art. You know, it’s tricky when you’re in the early American time period, already the artwork is historic. It’s old, it’s not of this time. So it’s even a more, pointed, complicated, way, and how do you make this relevant? How do we make it relevant for today and for multiple audiences?

Stace Treat:
It sounds like a really fascinating project with, I would assume a lot of people involved. How many people are on your team here?

Mindy Besaw:
It depends on which time period over the last two years you’re talking. As you know, it started with a pretty small team. Me, you as the interpretation manager and an educator. But one of the great helps in all of this, someone who can help us see our vision and make it come to life quite literally, is Jessi Mueller, our exhibition designer. So I’m excited that you’re talking to
her later.

Stace Treat:
So am I, we’re going to be with her in just a second, but remind me first Mindy, when does this open?

Mindy Besaw:
The galleries will reopen in mid-March.

Stace Treat:
All right, well we look forward to it and you know, don’t forget those of you who are listening that while these two galleries are closed, the rest of our museum is still open. We have our modern art collection and our contemporary galleries will be open, as well as our Frank Lloyd Wright house and all of the grounds. We also have our current exhibition, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, and I really encourage everyone to come to that. Thanks Mindy, appreciate you.

Mindy Besaw:
You’re welcome, thanks for having me.

Stace Treat:
Debuting in the United States at Crystal Bridges, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power shines a bright light on the vital contribution of black artists to an important period in American history and art. Featuring the work of 60 artists and including vibrant paintings, powerful sculptures, street photography, murals and much more, this landmark exhibition is a rare opportunity to see era defining artworks that changed the face of art in America. Visit crystalbridges.org for tickets and to learn more.

Stace Treat:
And we’re back. We have exhibition designer, Jessi Mueller here now to talk about designing a gallery space. Welcome Jessi.

Jessi Mueller:
Thanks, excited to be here.

Stace Treat:
Now that we know from Mindy why the change is happening, where do we even start with re-doing this gallery? I know that you come in from the very beginning, so can you tell me a little bit about your process? Where do you start with this?

Jessi Mueller:
Yeah, so as Mindy kind of mentioned, you know, it usually starts with a small content team kind of putting together the stories and selecting the objects that they want included in the installation, and I usually kind of listen in on all those conversations. So I get a good feel for what the content team’s goals are, and then what I do, is I take the checklist of the objects, and-

Stace Treat:
A checklist? What is a checklist?

Jessi Mueller:
It is sort of what it sounds like, it’s a list of objects. There’ll be a little image of each object’s dimensions, title, artists, that sort of thing. Because I work with everything to scale typically in AutoCAD, and then I start seeing how the objects are actually fitting in this space, and-

Stace Treat:
AutoCAD, that sounds like an important thing.

Jessi Mueller:
Yes, it’s a computer aided drafting program that is one of the several tools that I use in this process. I usually start there, working in floor plan, seeing, you know, moving walls around, seeing how I can fit the groups and the content team wants, and then it kind of becomes a conversation back and forth between the design and the content. Do we need another object here? Do we have too many objects in this section? How can we make all this work so that visitors will understand what our goals are.

Stace Treat:
So I’m wondering right now what kind of challenges that you face in this kind of work.

Jessi Mueller:
In general, one of the challenges with exhibition design is the actual physical space that you’re given. Coming from training as an architect you’re creating the space, the walls, everything that in exhibition design, the walls are there, and the ceilings there, all of that. Working within those parameters can be tricky, trying to fit your different content sections in and that sort of thing. Also, our building in itself is beautiful, but can be challenging in that most of the walls are curved. There are very few flat walls in Crystal Bridges, which can be a challenge, especially with large artworks. And then the lighting also in that the galleries are kind of broken up into little pods and between the pods, it’s tied together with spaces that kind of let you look outdoors and reflect, which is great and was one of Safdie’s intentions when designing the building.

Stace Treat:
The world-famous architect Moshe Safdie, we should say.

Jessi Mueller:
Yes, thank you. But can be challenging for visitors going from a bright space to a dark gallery space to a bright space, and back and forth. So making sure that we’re providing cues to have people continue moving through the gallery and not get hung up anyway.

Stace Treat:
So it should be stated that you’re an actual trained architect.

Jessi Mueller:
Yes, I am.

Stace Treat:
Which comes in really handy. So when you’re looking at these plans that you’re kind of talking about, is it sort of like a house plan? Like you look at the basic blueprint first?

Jessi Mueller:
Exactly. So basically I start with a blueprint and then I start looking at the objects and the space and plan, and from there I kind of, I move up the wall, essentially. I start looking at elevation so you can see the artworks and scale with each other to kind of get a rhythm for how things are flowing on the walls. And then from there I move into three dimensions, which can vary. It kind of depends how different curators work, how different content team works, you know, sometimes they want a physical model. So we have some actual physical half inch scale models of most of our gallery spaces. Or I also like to work in Google SketchUp, which is kind of a rendering program that works in three dimensions.

Stace Treat:
Wow. So this sounds like you have almost like a dollhouse model of Crystal Bridges.

Jessi Mueller:
Yes, I do.

Stace Treat:
It’s really cool. I’ve seen it. And then you work in three dimensional computer programming. So it’s sort of like you can zoom through the galleries if you will.

Jessi Mueller:
Exactly. A lot of my job is helping everyone else visualize what I’m seeing in my head because as a designer, I’m a visual thinker so I can see all of this. So what I need to do is get everyone else to understand what we’re talking about and what the galleries are going to look like when we’re done.

Stace Treat:
Sounds like a typical thing for designers in general, huh?

Jessi Mueller:
Yeah. You’ve got to sell your vision.

Stace Treat:
So how do you work with the other design? The rest of the design team at Crystal Bridges?

Jessi Mueller:
We have graphic design team, and we work together to kind of come up with the overall vision and goal of course with the content team to get a feel for the galleries and the exhibitions. Each of our special exhibitions kind of gets its own identity, so we work together on that.

Stace Treat:
So around the museum, a lot of people oftentimes congratulate you on the wall colors that you choose, so you kind of have this reputation for being the wall color guru. How does that come about?

Jessi Mueller:
You know, I think it’s what, something that’s tangible that people can kind of see in what I do. You know, they don’t always think about the wall placement and the circulation and all of those things that go into laying out the floor plan. But you know, they come in and they see George Washington popping on this beautiful red wall and they think, “Wow, that’s great.” So you know, if I’m doing my job well, you know it’s kind of an intuitive experience for the visitor and they’re not necessarily thinking about the, circulation and the flow and how things are fitting, but the wall colors do tend to stand out.

Stace Treat:
So you’re like a real behind the scenes kind of puzzle master.

Jessi Mueller:
Yeah. I mean, I don’t know if that’s the best way to put it.

Stace Treat:
But it does sound like you like puzzles.

Jessi Mueller:
I sure do. I like to think of my job as creative problem solving. I have to take all these parts and pieces and make them fit together to make the best experience we can for the visitor.

Stace Treat:
Great. So I also understand that wall color is going to be something that will be coming up in the installation as well on the project you’ve been working on.

Jessi Mueller:
Yeah, there’s going to be a new space in the galleries when they reopen, called the Niche, where you’ll be able to see short experimental projects that change anywhere from weekly to monthly. We’re going to explore how the museum works behind the scenes, have interactive experiences for guests and other fun projects. And the first project is all about how we choose our wall color to tie it into the re-installation, so come back and visit and actually see how the wall color changes the way you see art.

Stace Treat:
Well, that’s great. Jessi, thanks so much for spending a little time telling us about your fascinating job here at the museum. All right, we’ll come back in March to see the re-installation.

Stace Treat:
Is your new year’s resolution to explore your creativity, try something new, or take a new class? We have a variety of art classes for all ages, from CB Babies to adult workshops, you’ll learn about artwork in the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions as well as new materials and techniques with hands on art projects in the studios. All supplies are provided. Visit crystalbridges.org to sign up today.

Stace Treat:
Thanks for tuning into the podcast so far. Now we’re at the segment where we want to hear from you. Each month we’ll be taking questions and comments from our social media channels, and giving you answers from the people who know best; our museum staff. Follow Crystal Bridges on Facebook, we’ll be sharing this episode there, and leave a comment on the post. You can also tweet us with the hashtag #MuseumWay. Check back next month to see if we answer your question.

Stace Treat:
Thanks for tuning in to Museum Way. We hope you enjoyed our first episode, and that you’ll tune in each month to hear more. Don’t forget to head over to our social media channels, Facebook and Twitter, and leave a question or comment about what you’d like to hear on future podcasts. I’m Stace Treat, and I’ll catch you next month right here on Museum Way.