ShareThis Page
Art world adjusts to lighting switch from incandescents to LEDs |

Art world adjusts to lighting switch from incandescents to LEDs

| Saturday, January 11, 2014 10:20 p.m

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

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.