He de­signs all of the de­tails you don’t no­tice

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY PEGGY MCGLONE peggy.mcglone@wash­post.com

If an ex­hi­bi­tion is de­signed well, vis­i­tors should no­tice only the art. That might be dis­heart­en­ing for some of the peo­ple who choose the wall color and the ar­range­ment of the ob­jects on dis­play, but it’s a badge of honor for David Glee­son, se­nior ex­hi­bi­tion de­signer at the Smith­so­nian Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum (SAAM).

“We don’t want to im­pose our­selves,” Glee­son says. “A lot of what we do is sort of be­hind the scenes, un­like the­atri­cal de­signs.”

Glee­son leads the de­sign team re­spon­si­ble for ex­hi­bi­tions in SAAM’s Pa­tent Of­fice space on F Street NW and its arts and crafts ex­ten­sion, the Ren­wick Gallery, reopening next month af­ter a two-year, $30 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion. At the Ren­wick, a his­toric build­ing near the White House, Glee­son also was in charge of cre­at­ing a new aes­thetic, which in­volved every­thing from choos­ing paint col­ors to de­sign­ing a re­cep­tion desk and benches for vis­i­tors.

It’s a de­cid­edly mod­ern ap­proach to his­toric preser­va­tion.

“Every­thing is pared back, cleaner, and brighter and lighter,” Glee­son says. “All of the ar­chi­tec­tural el­e­ments are still there, and high­lighted. But it’s go­ing to be a lot eas­ier to en­joy the art­work with this pared-back, min­i­mal­ist ap­proach.”

From the an­thracite pal­ette of greens and grays to mod­ern light­ing and post­mod­ern gold leaf­ing, Glee­son and his staff have trans­formed the space. But even as they have re­placed dark-red walls with bright whites and grays, they’ve also un­cov­ered — and em­pha­sized — dec­o­ra­tive mold­ings, vaulted ceil­ings and stately win­dows that were hid­den from view.

“We’re mind­ful to the his­toric sig­nif­i­cance, of pre­serv­ing every­thing we had,” he says. “It’s all there, and the sub­tle color pal­ette is high­light­ing it.”

Glee­son, 52, a de­signer at SAAM since 2006, stum­bled into his ca­reer. The Mary­land res­i­dent grew up in Bruff, a small town in County Lim­er­ick, Ire­land, where his fam­ily owned a dairy farm and a pub­lic house. He at­tended the Lim­er­ick School of Art and De­sign, then came to the United States in 1984 to at­tend Penn State, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts in sculp­ture.

He went back to Ire­land but re­turned to the States in 1989 to work at the Mary­land Sci­ence Cen­ter. Af­ter ris­ing through the de­sign ranks there, Glee­son moved to the Smith­so­nian. Out­side of his job, his artis­tic sen­si­bil­i­ties ex­tend to sculpt­ing and fur­ni­ture-mak­ing.

One of the joys of work­ing at the mu­seum is his en­coun­ters with artists. “It’s a fab­u­lous op­por­tu­nity to en­gage with all of th­ese na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally known artists and to un­der­stand their pro­cesses,” he says. “I find that fas­ci­nat­ing.”

One of the big­gest myths of his pro­fes­sion, Glee­son says, is the amount of time spent on artis­tic en­deav­ors. Yes, he and his team are charged with con­vey­ing ideas vis­ually and mak­ing ex­hi­bi­tions aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing, but that’s just the be­gin­ning.

“For ev­ery hour we spend pon­der­ing de­sign chal­lenges and vis­ual lay­outs, we spend four to five hours project-man­ag­ing and co­or­di­nat­ing,” he says. “It’s not about sit­ting at your desk and com­ing up with fab­u­lous vi­su­al­iza­tions. It’s about en­gag­ing with con­trac­tors, con­ser­va­tors, cu­ra­tors. It’s all about the plan­ning.”

The scope of Glee­son’s re­spon­si­bil­i­ties was ev­i­dent on a re­cent morn­ing at the Ren­wick, where dozens of con­struc­tion work­ers were busy on scaf­folds through­out the build­ing. Wear­ing a hard hat and safety gog­gles, Glee­son moved from one gallery to the next, check­ing on progress. He and his team are jug­gling eight or nine projects si­mul­ta­ne­ously, mov­ing each along to stay on time and on bud­get.

“We’re like the theater — there’s no miss­ing dead­lines,” he says. “You can­not open a show af­ter the open­ing day. But that’s the fun of the job, too.”

When the hec­tic pace starts to take its toll, Glee­son turns to his art. Un­like the com­plex col­lab­o­ra­tions at the mu­seum, it’s a solo en­deavor.

“There’s a ther­a­peu­tic side to that. You im­merse your­self in your own ideas, and you have full con­trol over what you’re do­ing,” he says. “And it’s still vis­ual prob­lem-solv­ing.”


If David Glee­son, the se­nior ex­hi­bi­tion de­signer at the Smith­so­nian Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum, does his job right, you will no­tice Jen­nifer An­gus’s “In the Mid­night Gar­den,” be­low, with­out dis­trac­tion.

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