He designs all of the details you don’t notice
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.