August 06, 2007

Museum exhibit designer enjoys creative challenge

by Andrea Hahn


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CARBONDALE, Ill. — University Museum exhibit designer Nate Steinbrink had an idea what color he wanted to paint the display stands even before the Preston Jackson sculptures arrived. But it's all right with him if visitors don't notice. In fact, he'd rather they didn't.

"This green is a nice complement to the oranges and reds in the bronzes," he explained. "The eye should go right to the sculpture. Our best work is when people don't remember what color any of the display stands were."

Steinbrink is the exhibit designer for Southern Illinois University Carbondale's University Museum. It's his job to make the best use of the space and lighting available to ensure that museum visitors see each exhibit at its maximum advantage.

Museum staff schedules exhibits about a year in advance. They try to incorporate suggestions made by museum visitors and they make certain to bring in a variety of different mediums and artists. Museum staff includes students from the School of Art and Design, so there are always new opinions and ideas about what the museum should do next.

Steinbrink said artists generally trust his judgment about setting up an exhibit and don't send along instructions. "Creating art can be very solitary," Steinbrink, himself an artist, said. "The point of the exhibit is to interact with people and to get that feedback. Usually artists are looking to see different ideas about their work, and that includes how it is displayed."

For Steinbrink, it is a creative challenge. This summer, for example, he had two exhibits set to remain on display into the fall semester. The Preston Jackson exhibit came in late July and stays until early October. The Patrons' Choices exhibit went up in mid-summer and stays until early September. The difference between the two exhibits is just one example of the variety of display techniques Steinbrink uses.

Preston Jackson is a nationally known, multi-award winning sculptor. He is a professor of sculpture and the head of the Figurative Area of the Institute of Chicago School of Art and the owner of the Raven Gallery, home of the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria. Though he earned his bachelor of fine arts degree here at SIUC, this is his first exhibit at the University. The exhibit is a themed collection of bronzes called "Fresh from Julieanne's Garden." Each sculpture tells a story, and many of the stories are from Jackson's family trove of personal history. Not all the stories are happy.

The Patrons' Choices exhibit, on the other hand, is a miscellaneous assortment of pieces selected from the University Museum's 75,000-plus permanent collection. To make the exhibit, museum patrons were given free rein and told they could pick one thing (or maybe a small set) – whatever they wanted – to share with the University and area communities. Museum Director Dona Bachman said the experience became very personal for most patrons. Some made it a mission to show off some of the unique items in the University Museum collection while others found connections to the community in the museum vault that surprised and inspired them.

For the Jackson exhibit, Steinbrink chose a matte color for the walls and display stands to complement the bronzes. Because the sculptures tell a story, he selected a font for the exhibit signs that resembles book print. Museum visitors tend to enter an exhibit room and turn to the right, he said, so he chose one of the first sculptures Jackson made for the collection and set it to the right of the entrance, where visitors might begin their gallery visit. The rest went from there.

"That was an obvious place to start," he said. "You try to work with the themes present in the collection. You start to see a rhythm and a pattern. I didn't want to have all of a similar subject matter grouped together or to have all vertical pieces together. I want to keep the visitor's interest, to keep them going from one sculpture to the next. I also want to show the artist's personality."

The Patrons' Choices exhibit is altogether different. There is no cohesive theme to the selections, freeing Steinbeck to invent one. "With this, I don't want people's eyes to get stuck on one thing. I started the exhibit with this David Smith sculpture, though, because it is such a big deal that we've got it." Big deal? To put the significance of the piece in perspective, Bachman noted that another Smith sculpture, the 1965 Cubi XXVIII, became, in 2005, the most expensive piece of contemporary art ever sold at auction when it went for $23.8 million at Sotheby's Manhattan auction house. Though the University Museum piece isn't quite that dear, it is still a good representation of Smith's early work.

For the rest of the exhibit, Steinbrink used a combination of aesthetics and timeline. One corner of the exhibit, for example, features three pieces from a similar time frame that also complement each other visually. In the center of the exhibit space, Steinbrink featured examples of Southern Illinois pottery, selected by two separate patrons interested in local industry and local history. And another wall holds several examples of wooden carving, some of it Oceanic and some of it American folk. While the lighting Steinbrink chose for the Jackson exhibit was subdued and thoughtful and focused on the individual pieces, the Patron's Choices exhibit is overall more brightly lit and casual.

"For this exhibit, I just brought it into the space and worked it out like a puzzle," he said. "You find something about the art and you figure out the best way to show it so people can examine it."

Steinbrink said the entire staff gets in on scheduling and exhibition display – including the students who work at the museum. They also welcome comments from the University and area communities, he said.

"We're here to serve the community," he said. "We try to give the public what they like and what they want to see. We're interested in what the community has to say."

"This has been a great experience," added art student Jason Kehrer, a senior from Marion who works as a gallery assistant. "The Preston Jackson exhibit is really special, I enjoyed working on it."

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The museum is not open on Monday. Admission is free, donations are voluntary. The museum store is open when the museum is open.

nate drill

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Putting it into place – Nate Steinbrink, right, works with art student Jason Kehrer to place a bronze sculpture created by artist Preston Jackson for a temporary exhibit in the University Museum at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Steinbrink and museum staff create unique display space for every exhibit that comes through the museum. In this case, Steinbrink selected colors to complement the sculptures and sign lettering to enhance the story-telling nature of the artwork.

Photo by Russell Bailey

The art of displaying art – Nate Steinbrink, exhibit designer for University Museum at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, puts the final touches on the “Patrons’ Choices” exhibit. Museum patrons selected individual pieces of art and artifact from the museum’s 75,000-plus item collection for an eclectic exhibit that showcased some items rarely seen by the public. In the foreground are pottery examples from Carbondale and Anna. In the background, right, are several examples of artifacts from the Sepik River of Papua New Guinea.

Photo by Russell Bailey