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February 6, 2007

The color of curiosity: The Speed Museum creates a landscape to lure audiences through the art of David Macaulay

Photos by Ross GordonFollow the pictures of the wooly mammoth, and don’t smudge the glass.Not exactly the sort of directions one would expect when entering Louisville’s highfalutin’ art space, the Speed Art Museum. But starting this week, that’s just what visitors will hear as they and their welcomed progeny wend through “Building Books: The Art of David Macaulay.”before the exhibit opened: The Speed Museum just opened an interactive exhibit of artist, architect and MacArthur genius David Macaulay’s work. Above, less than a week before the exhibit opened, Bill Staley, the museum’s manager of preparation, mounts lights with help from preparatThe Speed’s effort to set up its 6,000-square foot Special Exhibitions space for this traveling collection pales in comparison to the century-long medieval building struggles the acclaimed illustrator and expert on architectural documents so elegantly details in how’d-they-do-it children’s books such as 1977’s “Castle.” Nonetheless, this exhibit is a major departure for Louisville’s 80-year-old museum, perhaps best known for its prized Rembrandt painting “Portrait of a Woman,” circa 1634.With this modern Macaulay exhibit, the Speed bangs together a bouncy, kid-friendly space for the first time in its history. (The museum houses Art Sparks, an area with activities for children to learn about art, but it does not include major works.) Getting the space set up has been arduous, with a rather tighter deadline than the hundred or so years the French masons spent constructing their cathedrals, which Macaulay also has documented.Indeed, the roughly 90 part-time and full-time staff members involved in putting together this show (including auxiliary projects, such as marketing and educational efforts) had to arrange most of it more or less blind. No staff had seen the nearly 100 items in the show — original drawings, sketchbooks, personal artifacts, models, ephemera — during early preparations for the exhibit.What staff did know was Macaulay’s skill as an illustrator; his popularity as the author of books like “Cathedral,” “The Way Things Work” and “Building Big,”; and his renown. He’s received numerous Caldecott Awards and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship, also known as a “genius award,” in 2006. They were also familiar with an important ambition behind his work — demystifying objects of all sizes, from simple tools to elaborate architectural constructions.Designing in the darkIt required “a leap of faith” to design the gallery space without seeing the pieces, said Bryan Warren, the Speed’s associate curator of education. The education, curatorial and preparatory staff designed and planned the exhibition based on a checklist of works provided by the Norman Rockwell Museum, which originated the show in Stockbridge, Mass.At right: the Speed’s Joel Javier and Bryan Warren string rope through a frame that’s part of an interactive workstation. Javier is the museum’s education and outreach coordinator, and Warren is associate curator of education.With the exhibition nine days from opening — Friday, Jan. 26 to be exact — nary a crate had been delivered. That day, Warren and a student intern, Jessica Smith with measuring tape in hand, stood beside a partially constructed table with drawings that appear to be created with chalk and chalk sticks painted on the surface. They had until the end of the day to install five interactive displays corresponding to themes in Macaulay’s work: “Building Ship: Exploring the Artist’s Process”; “Journey Books: The Evolution of Ideas”; and “The New Ways Things Work from Levers to Lasers, Windmills to Websites: A Visual Guide to the World of Machines.”Meanwhile, staff had already devised and begun building the floor plan for the still-imaginary exhibition. Visitors would enter through a cutout shape of a mammoth — the beloved guide through Macaulay’s book “The Way Things Work.” The mammoth has retained his guide role here. On this Friday, staff had already erected his giant image, sketched in black paint, ready to greet visitors at the doorway. The image marks the beginning of the exhibit beyond a gray vestibule, where the preparatory staff had laid out small vinyl mammoth silhouettes on the floor. Later, the silhouettes were placed on walls to serve as visual aids for visitors.An illustration from Macaulay’s book “The New Way Things Work.”While no artwork hung in these quiet and tidy rooms, staff had prepared for their arrival by painting the walls in vibrant colors: Mandarin Orange in one, Fresh Lime in the next, Toronto Blue just beyond the lime, Peachy Keen further on. The colors replicate those found in Macaulay’s illustrations, and they will help define the themed areas. On walls between these areas, staff drew and painted gears, their interlocking cogs appearing with an outline of a mammoth and a little bird, distinctly marking the transition points.On this day, a broom leaned against a wall near heavy-duty plastic carts piled with tools, two white pedestals awaited displays, and Warren and Smith had four hours left to set up five interactive displays. The bulk of the building would continue into the next week. The pressure was on.The foundationBack in the spring of 2005, an exhibition planning team — members of the Speed’s curatorial, educational, development and marketing departments — began to consider bringing “Building Books” to the museum. The Norman Rockwell Museum had opened the exhibit in November 2004 to public and critical acclaim, prompting the New England institution to prepare a touring exhibit of “Building Books.” Speed assistant preparator Matt Loeser measures signage.Speed staff then calculated the total cost to cover everything associated with the exhibit — participation fees, insurance, installation, educational materials, complementary events and marketing. They wouldn’t disclose exact costs, but they did say the total cost fell into the moderate range compared to other exhibitions the museum has mounted. Staff then identified funding sources, including sponsorships; after Macaulay’s worked was deemed worthy and funds were secured, the museum began scheduling and planning the exhibit.But only after demounting the previous show in the Special Exhibitions gallery — 60 paintings by early 19th-century painter William Ranney, which ran through Jan. 1 — could the space be cleared and prepared for “Building Books.”In the first weeks of 2007, preparatory staff, led by Bill Staley, started implementing plans, beginning with drawing on and painting walls. It was only in the week before opening that a courier from the Rockwell Museum arrived with the goods; the courier worked with curatorial and preparatory staff to unpack and inventory each exhibition item. Then Speed employees started hanging the show just several days before Sunday’s members-only preview opening.An illustration from his book “Cathedral.”Build, build, build! As with adventurous amusement park rides, height is a consideration in almost any respectable exhibition. In most, artwork is hung using a centerline, or average height, of 59 inches to create a comfortable sightline for most adults. With “Building Books,” however, the Speed considered the height of children and, accordingly, hung the art with a centerline of 56 inches. “That would allow all visitors to enjoy the exhibition,” said Scott Erbes, lead curator on the Macaulay exhibition.By last Thursday the preparatory staff had hung most of the artwork accordingly. They were now working on mounting the lighting, using directions delineated by the Rockwell Museum, and completing interactive workstations that Speed staff designed specifically to allow visitors to probe Macaulay’s concepts with their own hands. For these, the preparatory services and education departments worked together closely, with the goal of creating activities for visitors that will provide insight into Macaulay’s processes and encourage them to create and hang their own work in the gallery. “That’s a step up from the refrigerator,” Erbes quipped. David Macaulay: is the author of books like “The Way Things Work” and, more recently, “The New Way Things Work.”Last week, days before the opening, staff was mounting and putting final touches on workstations, including “Be a Macaulay Detective,” where unidentified objects are displayed with clues. Participants are directed to draw their answers and hang them from silver clips suspended from the ceiling. At another station, long sheets of paper folded in panels provide visitors a way to illustrate step-by-step knowledge of how to perform a task. (For the creatively challenged, there is an “idea basket” with suggestions: “How to make cocoa,” “How to catch a snowflake” and “How to change a tire.”) The most challenging activity requires visitors to re-tell or re-create the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” or “Rapunzel” by rearranging pictures affixed to a tabletop. Before Sunday’s opening for museum members, the Speed had trained more than 100 docents to guide tours. They learned about Macaulay’s importance as an artist and illustrator and about the show’s interactive pieces. One docent, Glen Skaggs, who studied the Macaulay exhibition from the Rockwell Museum’s Web site and bought a few Macaulay books in December, took a fancy to the exhibition. On Sunday, he met the exhibition for the first time and, tapping his familiarity with Macaulay’s books, began matching the works hanging on the walls to the illustrations from the books.Meanwhile, Macaulay, now 60 and living in Norwich, Vt., is not participating in the Speed’s exhibit. His publisher told LEO he is “holed up working on his next title,” a book exploring the complexities of the human body. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com