How Do I Hang Works For a Show?

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David Teniers the Younger, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery in Brussels, 1650.
David Teniers the Younger, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery in Brussels, 1650.

Dear BURNAWAY,
I’m organizing an exhibition and trying to create a layout for the walls. Is there an easy way to do this on the computer or by hand? It’s a very large group show and the pieces are all different sizes, so I want to have it well-planned out before I start hanging.
Thanks,
Dan the Man


 
Dear Dan the Man,
You’re head is in the right place, and you should give yourself a pat on the back for that! So many curators go into hanging groups all willy-nilly style and it can all end up a complete disaster. I think we really have a tendency to overestimate our “uncanny ability” to “eyeball” just about anything.
When you’re hanging a show, things get tricky, and guess what, you simply can’t just eyeball it. It doesn’t work that way. You need to have a system. Or if you don’t have a system, you need to at least have a simple game plan to follow, or else you’re going to have a wall that looks like Swiss cheese. And no one wants that.

Installation view of "Benches and Binoculars" at the Walker Art Center, Nov. 2009-Nov. 2010.
Installation view of “Benches and Binoculars” at the Walker Art Center, 2009-10.

There’s a saying in construction that my friend and gallery superior, Dane, uses often: measure twice, cut once. I’ve always liked that rule of thumb because it goes completely against my nature, which has, for most of my life, been measure once, cut once, fuck it up, try again. But after installing several exhibitions, I eventually learned my lesson the hard way. Dane’s adage rings 100-percent true. Measure twice or three times or however many times you need to before you start cutting, or in this case, nailing.
So, all that is to say, a plan is necessary. If you were hanging a relatively small show or a solo show, you could probably just sketch it out on a piece of paper. Measure the total wall distance, measure each piece, measure the space in between, and lay it out old school.
But if you have a group show, it can get trickier. Especially if you are organizing a lot of works, which you are, or you have a range of sizes, which you do. You may also want to group smaller pieces into clusters on the wall, which definitely entails a more sophisticated plan.
Picasso's dangling Two Nudes at MoMA in 2014.
Picasso’s dangling Two Nudes at the Museum of Modern Art in 2014.

Furthermore, if you are not installing the show yourself, as the curator, it will behoove you to give your art installer(s) a detailed, indisputable, clear-as-day layout. Trust me, it will make your life a lot easier. It will ensure that nothing is left up to them and their own “avant-garde” curatorial tastes, which might be drastically different from yours. It will ensure that you don’t walk into your gallery space to find your artwork dangling lopsided near the floor, like Picasso’s Two Nudes did at MOMA last year. ¡Ay caramba!
So if you’re looking for a layout program, there are a couple of options. If you’re design savvy, you can use Google Sketchup or Photoshop to create a layout from scratch. Lots of people do that, and it works great. But let’s say you don’t know how to use those programs. What then?
For those asymmetrical groupings of a bunch of small and medium-sized works, some gallerists and curators will lay works out on the floor to find the configuration that works best, and then transfer that arrangement to the wall. This is perfectly fine, as long as you don’t step on any art in the process!
Even better, there’s a cool new app called Walleries that is pretty legit. It’s marketed more toward interior design for homes, but it totally works for gallery walls. Here’s how it works: You upload a picture of your actual wall, then upload images of your artwork. Next you drag-and-drop the art on the wall, and then use layout tools to tweak things up until you find a design that you like. But that’s not all! Once you have your design, the app company can ship you a full-size template, or you can order the PDF file and have it printed at FedEx or wherever you print your things. Then, you’ll tape the giant paper template to your wall and set your nails straight through the paper, tear away all the paper and voilà!, it’s ready to hang. This method is pretty foolproof. While the whole show might not need wall-size templates, some of the trickier areas may. So, that’s an option.
Good luck with the show!
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is co-founder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more: saraestes.com.