By Zoltan Varadi
Last week, Glenbow said farewell to exhibition designer Stephen Dundas-Smith, who retired after more than three decades of service to the museum. Stephen originally came to Glenbow as an intern in 1986 to work on the development of The Spirit Sings exhibition, which opened in 1988. Since that time, his indelible touch has affected every corner of the museum — from lobby renovations in the early 2010s to project managing the huge installation of Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta and overseeing design on our other permanent exhibitions. He also collaborated with scores of teams from other institutions, finding ways to bring travelling exhibitions to life within the walls of Glenbow’s galleries. In 2004, he even worked with Alberta Ballet to develop a performance inspired by Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession.
Fittingly, Stephen’s swan song for Glenbow was designing our current feature exhibition, Sybil Andrews: Art & Life, which was drawn from the museum’s unparalleled collection of the artist’s work and personal archives.
Before taking his well-deserved break, Stephen walked Glenbow News through the exhibition, explaining the various stages of design and detailing both the practical and aesthetic considerations that went into mounting this beautiful survey of Andrews’ long and bountiful career.
An exhibition like this is obviously different from a travelling show in that we built it from the ground up. At what stage do you get brought in?
In the case of the Sybil show, Hana Leaper, who is the curator, came in and did a survey of our collection and developed a pretty large artifact list. There were well over 250 pieces – prints and artifacts. A list was then developed in an Excel document. I was lucky: not all shows are presented that way, where I get a list with thumbnails, descriptions and, in some cases, measurements [of all the pieces]. All of that information is awesome. It means I can actually start laying out how the work will fit in the exhibition.
In this case, we looked at some of the groupings that Hana had suggested as themes for the show, and looked at how that would fit in our space. We made some suggestions about re-ordering different sections of the show. Because Hana was back in England by the time I started working on the project, we had a couple of very good phone conversations just about what her hopes and desires for the show were and anything that I should be considering with respect to the configuration of the exhibition.
One of the things that she brought up was that she would really like there to be a chapel-like space within the gallery for the religious works. I could tell she thought she was asking for the moon, and I have to admit that I thought, ‘hmm, we’ll have to see what I can do about that.’ But then it turned out to be a fairly easy solution. Because we already had angled walls in the permanent configuration, I just sort of mirrored those angles on the other side and it became an apse.
For me that was fun. I found it gratifying because it fulfilled a wish that the curator had but also because in all the years of doing these different wall configurations in the space, we’ve never done anything quite like that.
Something we’re all familiar with at Glenbow are your layout documents. So that would be the next step — doing a preliminary layout on the computer?
Yes. This first step, which is really kind of the grunt work, is taking all the thumbnails from the Excel list and dropping them into a scaled plan and elevation document, and then taking the sizes on the list and making everything to scale. You then really know what you’re dealing with for space requirements. That’s the first, rudimentary step.
Then we look at how the art looks together on the wall. Depending on whether there are any tight space considerations or relationships between pieces, you account for those by doing groupings or stacking particular artworks that relate to one another. Then there’s something that’s just more of an aesthetic thing – you want to sometimes create a bit of rhythm and not just have things equally spaced like machine gun fire along the wall. I’m really pleased with the “Modern Life” section of the show. It’s a great section as far as the artwork goes – very compelling and attractive work – but there was a lot of it and I wanted all of it to go on one particular wall in order to fit into the sequence properly. We wound up doing a number of groupings, and I just love the overall way the wall looks.
At some point do you become kind of project manager? Consulting the production team to get walls and casings built, the designers for graphics, etc?
That’s all part of it. You have to have a vision for the whole thing and find a way to execute on that. It’s about knowing who to communicate with and who to collaborate with on the end result. There’s a standing wall that I wanted to put a graphic on and we selected the Peevies piece because, number one, it’s very different from the other work, so it stands alone naturally, and we thought it would reproduce well and be a great, dynamic enlargement. In this case, I talked to Nancy MacEachern [Glenbow graphic design coordinator] about it – we discussed whether the image would reproduce well, and we also collaborated on the colour palette because she was already in the process of developing a palette for the book [Note: Glenbow is producing a catalogue for Sybil Andrews: Art & Life; publication date TBA]. It doesn’t always happen that the book and the exhibition reflect each other with respect to look and colour, but in this instance we decided that we wanted it to.
By colour palette, we’re talking about the colour of the walls, the text panels and exterior graphics…
Exactly. All of that.
The number of graphic enlargements varies from exhibition to exhibition, but there are quite a few in this one. Is that just because we could, having ownership of the copyright on this material?
There was some consideration there. Number one, as you mentioned, we could. Copyright was not a problem and we didn’t need to seek external permission. But, the other thing was that we wanted to get a little bit of variety and dynamism in this space, and that’s what these enlargements do. Most of Sybil’s work is of a similar scale, and so we really wanted to enliven the space by throwing a bit of variety in as far as the size of the imagery. We did something similar in the Frida Kahlo: Her Photos exhibition – the work was all very small. Sybil’s work is a bit larger but there’s not a lot of variety in scale.
What was the biggest challenge of mounting this exhibition? The volume of work?
Yes, the volume of work, and there was a lot more discussion this time from a conservation standpoint about appropriate matting and framing of certain works, just because of the kind of paper they were produced on. There are also a lot of archival pieces in the show – so that means a lot of paper that was never meant to be shown as art: test prints, pages from notebooks… just evidence of how Sybil came to document her own life. She kept everything and really had a sense in some way that later on we would be interested in knowing what her thought process was like and what she was into personally. Her tools, the archival documents, and all of that lends another layer to the show, but also another layer of complexity in terms of, ‘well, where does this belong in the story line?’ If it’s in the show, then we need to explain what those ties are to the visitor. It may not be evident right away.
I’ve always known that Glenbow has this treasure of a collection: Sybil’s work. For me, it was really gratifying to do this as my last exhibition. It’s a real Glenbow home-grown show, and it’s something that people need to see, to know that we have it.
Sybil Andrews: Art & Life is on now at Glenbow. It runs until January 12, 2020.