Exhibition Lighting


For most of us, the purpose of exhibition lighting is to showcase the pieces on display and entice people to buy them. In order to create an environment conducive to selling, the exhibition has to look elegant and effortless.

It’s like planning a performance: To orchestrate the desired results, many factors need to be considered, including the type of fixtures and bulbs, the lights’ brightness and heat, how the lights are pointed and their distance from the artworks, whether to use washes or spots, how to minimize glare and how to thoughtfully combine the accent lighting with complementary ambient lighting.

Goals of Your Presentation

What do you want to call attention to? Textures and brushwork? Depth and range of color? The overall piece? A specific show-stopper, with the rest of the pieces in the show playing supporting roles?

Brightness and Placement

The lighting can’t be warehouse-bright or dungeon-dark. It must draw the viewer in, but can’t overwhelm him with sensory stimulation.

In fact, overly bright, hot lighting can damage artwork. Incandescent lighting is beautiful, but it mustn’t be so bright and hot that it wrinkles the paper, or burns, melts or fades the work on display. Some delicate works, such as antique textiles, must be carefully lit with ultra-low light.

The light shouldn’t create a glare off the surface of glazed works on paper or glossy oil paintings, nor should it illuminate the viewer who would then see his reflection in such pieces. A one-to-four ratio is recommended for these types of works, meaning if the vertical height from the floor to the lamp is “four,” then the horizontal distance from the wall to the lamp should be “one.” This will create a narrow cone of light near the point at the light fixture, and the wash or spot illuminating the artwork. Directed at the art, and not at the head of the viewer, this generally is an effective presentation. If the light is further away from the art, the viewer will be in the light stream and will create a shadow on the artwork.

The one-to-four ratio offers another advantage: It’s difficult to point it in such a way as to blind a viewer elsewhere in the room.

Balancing Highlights and Ambient Lights

Accent lighting will need to be combined with ambient lighting. In other words, besides the highlighted artwork, the center gallery areas where people walk and gather to talk also need an appropriate level of light.

The accent lighting and ambient lighting schemes should be complementary, both in terms of intensity and type. For example, if you have beautiful, subdued incandescent spots carefully showcasing paintings on the wall, the last thing you want is fluorescent lights illuminating the rest of the gallery. Similarly, if those spots are indeed hushed and subdued, you don’t want a grocery-store brightness in the rest of the gallery. Be sure the transitions are harmonious. Areas of high-contrast punctuated by dark areas can create eyestrain and gallery fatigue.

Types of Lights and Fixtures

The kinds and shapes of the fixtures will make a difference, as will the kinds of bulbs. Wattage, dimmers, the bulbs’ color-cast and halogen/incandescent/fluorescent will all make a difference in the presentation. As to fixtures, will you be using a wash or a spot? Spotlights range from pinpoint to large in size and can showcase tiny works or a special part of a sculpture or other work.

Fill lights can be used, i.e., more than one light on a piece in order to light it more evenly. Even filters can be used for different effects or to change the color-cast of a bulb.

For further information, I recommend visiting several galleries and museums and seeing firsthand what works. I also recommend the book The Art of Displaying Art by Laurence B. Smith, and The IESNA Lighting Handbook. The first book is available for $29.95 at www.Amazon.com and is a fabulous overall look at arranging, handling, hanging, lighting and captioning the work in a show. The second book, published by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, costs a whopping $425 at www.IESNA.org but it’s the definitive reference work on retail, industrial, exterior, sports, underwater, security, public-space, theatre, television and photographic lighting.

Carolyn Blakeslee Proeber founded Art Calendar magazine in 1986.