Museum focuses on artists' wishes
A variety of light sources illuminates galleries in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland, including LED, incandescent and natural light.
“Artists have always been among the first to explore and experiment and in some cases develop types of lighting,” said Chief Curator Lulu Lipincott.
European oil paintings from the 19th century, for instance, hang on dark walls and are lit primarily by natural light. The muted light scheme aims to re-create the conditions under which the painting was made and, therefore, should be viewed, officials said.
In the next gallery over, sculptures made and meant to be seen outdoors are shown in a much brighter environment, set against white walls and bright lights.
It is part of the ongoing quest to find the best light for different pieces of art, Lipincott said.
“What the government is doing is usually of very little concern to us,” said Lipincott, co-author of the book,“Light!: The Industrial Age 1750-1900, Art & Science, Technology & Society.”
Instead, the museum focuses on the artists' lighting wishes.
“We had one artist who insisted her (photographic) work be shown under fluorescents,” Lipincott said. “We thought she was insane, (but) it wasn't up to us. We very much follow the artists' program.”
Barbara Jones decided to put the new LED lights to the test.
When officials at the Westmoreland Museum of Art debated replacing its halogen bulb fixtures with a more efficient but expensive LED system, Jones, the museum’s chief curator, wondered whether the bulbs would provide the same quality of lighting. So she instructed staff to hang several oil-on-canvas paintings, including George Hetzel’s “Two Young Fishermen in a Summer Landscape,” and bathed them in LED light.
For visitors and staff accustomed to seeing the paintings under halogen bulbs, Jones said, “the response was incredible.”
“It was the detail. With the halogen bulbs, you saw detail, but you had to stand right in front of the painting. With the LEDs, people from across the room were saying, ‘I can see things in that painting I never saw before.’ ”
As federal regulations, including a Jan. 1 ban on manufacturing 40- and 60-watt incandescent bulbs, force consumers to rethink their lighting options, museum officials across the nation say they have explored such options for years.
They often do so with a singular focus, officials said: to find the light source that makes a piece of art look its best.
But other factors matter, including cost, sustainability and a government mandate to replace inefficient incandescent bulbs with light sources such as LEDs.
With change comes uncertainty, said Ken Kane, executive vice president for Lighting Services Inc., a Stony Point, N.Y., firm that supplies museums.
“There have been huge issues for museums in terms of conversion from incandescent and halogen bulbs over to LED or any other light sources,” Kane said. “It’s not only an aesthetics decision. There’s a whole other layer of technical decisions based on data that is not yet there or is just becoming available.
“At face value, there are a lot of benefits from using LED systems. But then you get art conservators and curators with very specific questions about things like spectral distribution — (which is) a way of telling you how much energy is found in different wavelengths — and all that plays into the decision of whether a museum might make a change or not.”
The art community, which depends on light in ways most industries do not, has debated LED systems for years.
The pros: They last longer and use much less electricity.
The problem: For a long time, the technology did not meet the demands of museum officials who were concerned about light quality and the potential damage a largely untested light source might cause to invaluable art.
With change being forced on many, concerns about the quality and safety of LED systems are waning, Kane said.
“But up until a couple years ago, that was a really big debate,” he said, noting that extensive testing by groups such as the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles proves LEDs will not harm artwork if used properly and often provide superior light.
“The two most important aspects of the viewing experience are the appearance of the gallery — what the place looks like — but even more important is: How are you illuminating the artwork so that it looks its best?” said Harriet K. Stratis, senior research conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Prints and Drawings.
“In the beginning, I was one of the skeptics,” she said. “Even five years ago, LEDs were not quite where they needed to be. But with each passing year, they’re getting better and better and better.”
Cost can be a barrier, forcing some museums to replace their systems bit by bit, Kane said.
To replace a bulb and fixture with an LED system can cost as much as $400 per unit, he said. Many museums retrofit old fixtures to accommodate LED bulbs — a cheaper alternative but one that produces inferior lighting, he said.
Other museums stock up on cheap incandescent bulbs, costing $2 to $3 each, delaying a decision.
The price difference is huge, Kane said.
One of his clients, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, has 10,000 light bulb fixtures. Replacing its entire system would cost about $4 million; retrofitting fixtures and buying only new LED bulbs would cost about $500,000, he said. Buying 10,000 incandescent bulbs at $2 or $3 each would cost $20,000 to $30,000.
Many museums cannot afford the upfront costs of replacing systems, Kane said, though doing so would dramatically lower electricity bills over time.
“You’ve got a lot of layers to the decision,” he said. “And museums are traditionally very conservative; they don’t like change.”
At the Norton-Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., officials converted one gallery to LEDs three years ago as a test. Pleased with the results, they anticipate converting more galleries.
Until then, a spokeswoman said, the museum is using an energy-efficient incandescent bulb, one which does not fall under the federal ban, in remaining galleries.
At the Westmoreland Museum of Art, which recently began a major renovation and expansion project, the gallery space will be illuminated by 375 LED track lighting fixtures, Jones said. The museum cannot afford to replace its 275 old fixtures and will use LED bulbs in retrofitted fixtures instead.
“We’re all in the same boat here,” Jones said. “We can’t just afford to say, ‘OK, we’re going to change it all out at once.’ Cost is a major piece of it.”
Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or email@example.com.