Post Date: 03/23/23
For our first installment of the “Not So Small” museum guide, Litelab sat down with Brian Balderston, Exhibition Production Manager at the Queens Museum in Queens, New York, to discuss the museum’s relationship to its community, the opportunities and challenges of working in the historical World's Fair building, and strategies of exhibition and lighting design.
Litelab: For people who may not be familiar with the institution, the Queens Museum focuses on Contemporary Art and exhibits the works of both regional and international artists. Is that accurate?
Balderston: Yes, it is. Our next exhibition is a South African artist named Tracy Rose and we have New York-based artists Xaviera Simmons and Charisse Weston in the current exhibition. I think that within the context of the New York Museum world, while we're not really focused on regionally produced work, we do provide a venue for regional artists outside of the realm of the MoMA and Guggenheim, for example.
As a result, we tend to be more engaged with the regional community, even if it is not the particular focus of our program. In the current exhibition, you can see both regional and international artists — for example, Christine Sun Kim, whose work is also currently on exhibition, is an American-born artist living in Berlin. We benefit from being in New York and having access to the international art world, but also being a little bit removed from that world and off the beaten path of a lot of museum-goers.
I also feel like it's almost a rite of passage for many New Yorkers and visitors to New York to come to the Queens Museum to see the Panorama. Many New York City residents come to see the Panorama, or came to see it when they were younger, so when I talk to people I know from New York, many of them are familiar with the Museum through the Panorama and our association with the World’s Fairs.
Litelab: When finding artists, do you have an open call for artists or does your curatorial team select artist work that they are interested in, or is there a submission process?
Balderston: It is more towards the latter. We occasionally have open calls, like two seasons ago, when we had an open submission during the epidemic. Like many other institutions, our programs were disrupted, the artists were suddenly unavailable, or there were other reasons that the exhibitions weren’t tenable, or had to be pushed.
Our approach was to make a very conscientious response to the pandemic in what was literally called the Year of Uncertainty (YoU) exhibition season, during which we did take submissions. There was a cohort of seven artists, two of them working together, to produce six projects that were all a response to various prompts regarding all of the things that were happening, from Racial Justice Reckoning, to the pandemic itself, and other disruptions occurring at the time.
So, for the most part our exhibitions are generated through research from the curatorial side of the Museum, but every now and again we do have open calls. For example, we have a program with the Jerome Foundation, where we work with emerging artists on their first solo Museum exhibition. We have a new cohort of Jerome fellows that are getting ready to start, and this year, for the first time, there is a fellowship program that we’re calling our “in situ” artists. Three artists are coming to the Museum to become staff members. We’re offering them a salary for a 2-year period with full benefits, with the expectation that they are engaged not only with studio production, but also working with different departments as members of the Museum’s staff as they work towards an exhibition.
Litelab: Since you mentioned the pandemic, a lot of museums experienced significant hardships during the pandemic; the Met had to lay off a significant number of staff, some museums unionized in response, and many had to reassess collections, programs and other initiatives set in motion before the pandemic. How did the Queens Museum address the pandemic economically and institutionally?
Balderston: Like other museums, we were closed for four months. We were actually in the middle of an exhibition turnover when we were forced to shut down. I think that a lot of other institutions were in the same place. There was a lot of uncertainty, and our response was to embrace that and make an exhibition out of it. So, when we were allowed to come back, we finished out the exhibition that we were turning over, and the very next exhibit addressed “how do you respond to where we are.”
In terms of the direction of the museum, there was a lot of figuring things out on the fly — like the food pantry that we set up near the museum when we were shut down — the Cultural Food Pantry, which still operates today. The pantry is open every Wednesday, and there is some programming around that as well. For example, Xaviera worked with the Cultural Food Pantry while she was here.
At this point, I think it has become a part of our identity, and I think that our current director was already moving towards this type of community engagement. She came in with a very clear idea of how the Museum could live up to our aspirations as a community entity and partner. The pandemic might have accelerated how we were going to make that happen, and probably changed some of the things we thought we were going to do to make that happen. In a way, it just pushed us in the direction that we were already going in a little faster.
Litelab: You're an interesting institution because you have a pronounced historical attraction through the multiple World's Fairs that have been housed in this building, and you have a Fine Art focus as well. I would imagine that these two aspects of the Museum’s program might balance each other, with people who visit for the art discovering something new about the area’s history, and people who come for the history discovering something new about art.
Balderston: I think that's definitely the case. The biggest draw is definitely the Panorama. People from New York come here, tour buses stop here. People come for the World's Fair, for the Panorama, and then they end up wandering through the Contemporary Art galleries and vice-versa. It’s a funny institution that way. The majority of our collection is associated with the World's Fair. There are exceptions to that, but for the most part we're very much tied to that history, even architecturally — in some respects, we are an Art Museum that has been retrofitted inside of a World’s Fair building.
When I first got here, it didn’t immediately click that this dual program was such a unique thing, but the longer that I’ve been here, the more I appreciate that.
Litelab: It also seems like for people who don’t regularly engage with Fine Art, it can be intimidating; people might feel like there are certain expectations, that if you don’t understand it, or maybe don’t like it, that it reflects poorly on you, but the dual program of the Queens Museum might help make this type of art more accessible, it invites people in, and lets them engage the art on their own terms.
Balderston: I think that has always been part of our program. We were talking earlier about the pandemic, and I think that it helped us realize how our community here — we have Corona on one side and Flushing on the other — and I don't know that they are populated by people who necessarily seek out, or feel comfortable or welcomed into what might be viewed as an elite cultural institution, but with, for example, the food pantry, there are several hundred families who come through every week who may not otherwise think about entering a museum. They come in here with their families, their kids are here, and they're walking around looking at things.
This has been a question that has been around since our new director started, “How do you bring communities that might not feel comfortable or feel welcome, whether or not either are true, feel inclined to go to a contemporary art museum?” I think it's something we're very aware of. We are trying to really bring in the community, our local communities, in addition to the larger art world of New York.
Litelab: The space is incredibly large, a little over 40’ at the peak of the shallow arch that defines the main space. I imagine that poses as many challenges as it does opportunities in terms of the kind of art that you can exhibit. For example, the works of an artist like Richard Serra might feel quite at home here, but I also imagine that it can be incredibly challenging in terms of showing or staging art in this space. The lower galleries, which are approximately 20’ tall are still rather high, although the exhibitions in those galleries appear sequenced in a way that the art reveals itself to you, creating these smaller, more intimate enclosures through the positioning of works that forces the viewer to experience the art in its fullest expression. Do you work directly with the artist in arranging that scenography or are you primarily responsible for the design of that interaction?
Balderston: It's often a conversation between the curators and the artists. They will lay out works in the space. I come in as a practical eye for certain elements — for example, I might provide perspective on how something will or won’t work, in terms of placement and installation. For all the space that we have, it’s oddly challenging to work in some of the spaces, or rather to present work in them. There’s a profound lack of intimacy, we don't have any like small little nooks or spaces.
For example, one of our galleries is 100’ long and over 19’ tall. That's great on one level — we have all this space to work with, but on another level, it can seem very soulless and divorced from the work. How do you create intimacy with work when everything is so plain — white walls and open space. That's part of the challenge, and every museum, every gallery, every exhibition venue is going to confront this challenge of adapting the space to the art.
But there is an interesting relationship between the art and the space. In the main space, we have a piece that’s 16’ tall, 15’ wide and 40’ long — it is a massive structure that we were able to put in here because of the quality of the space. But, when it’s not here, it’s just a big void — so how do you deal with the void?
It's interesting working in the spaces from a lighting perspective as well, it is such a large area to try to control light in. This is the first Museum I've worked in, but now that I work in this role and in this setting, I go to a museum and I feel like I look at the art for a minute, and then I spend the rest of the time just checking out how other museums utilize the space, how they’re lighting things and how they’re mounting projectors, and just nerd out on all that stuff.
Litelab: Like many people in the museum world, I understand that you have an art background. What is your practice?
Balderston: I have mostly done sculptural installations, architectural installations, photography and video informing that work in some ways, although it has been some time since I would have called myself a photographer.
Litelab: How does your experience with three-dimensional art and the recording of three-dimensional art inform your work at the Queens Museum? I’m thinking back to when we were talking about exhibition design, and you mentioned that you can help bring an “eye” to the installation. Despite the spatial constraints of the galleries, the works are set up in a way where viewers are forced to engage with them, there is a sense of intimacy despite the scale of the galleries, even when they are only housing three sculptures. One of the strategies used in the current exhibition is that the walls have been painted these very deep, rich blues and reds, which helps to compress the scale of the space. The galleries are almost more reminiscent of salon style exhibitions, which were typically held in people's apartments.
Balderston: I have to say that the painting of the walls comes from the artist. Xaviera was very interested in creating a more intimate space and I think that the combination of the color and the lighting really contribute to the showing of the work. If you just had plain lighting in Gallery 5 with those images it wouldn’t present as well, the piece would read only as an image in the middle of a gallery.
By manipulating the light a little bit, it is possible to create a sense of intimacy, a more emotional response, even if you don’t immediately recognize it when you walk into the room, which I feel you do — you do recognize the shifted light. So yeah, I think there are little tactics that you can use to lead people through a space, there’s an understood flow of how somebody might walk through a space, how they might view the work, and how the artist might induce an emotional response.
That said, in other installations, the approach is very abrupt, and there might only be one way to really look at a piece. It is very case-by-case, every work, or every collection of works presents their own challenges, have their own intentions, and will require different tactics. I usually start with modeling all of the pieces to scale in SketchUp — that’s typically our starting point. It gives us an understanding of how the exhibition might look, whether or not there is enough space for people to actually navigate, whether or not the design is ADA compliant.
Then, when we get to the point where we are really building things, we're at least at a point where everyone's agreed on about 90% of the design. There’s always a little bit of a tweaking of things in the real world, but Hitomi [Iwasaki, Head of Exhibitions and Curator] is always very precise in what she sees and how she wants things to look, so even in a 2000 sq.ft. space, an inch matters.