The lighting of an artwork is an art in and of itself, one which takes into consideration many factors, from the temperature and colour of the light to its positioning and brightness. “There’s nothing better than a beautifully lit piece of art,” says Richard Mishaan, a New York-based interior designer who has been featured on many top-of-the-pack lists.
It is now a known fact that the light on an artwork should be about three times as bright or intense as the ambient light. However, as art pieces are sensitive to heat, infrared radiation (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) radiation, these should be avoided. Direct sunlight can reach over 30,000 lux (luminous flux per unit area), and hence, it is not recommended to use it in any circumstances on light sensitive artworks, because it leads to deterioration.
Studies have proven that the maximum desirable exposures for a painting are 30 foot-candles (ftc, a non-SI unit of luminance or light intensity), which is equivalent to 325 lux. Light is one of the essential and influential elements in exhibition spaces. The role of light in art galleries and museums is not just to facilitate viewers to see the work, but also to preserve the artwork. Therefore, galleries are one of the most complex building types to be illuminated by daylight. Most galleries and museums prefer louvered top lighting system; skylight/roof-light as it is the best way to provide ambient light. Some use side-lighting, while others use reflective surfaces and directional natural light.
Currently, a mixture of LED is the best kind of light for direct, as well as ambient lighting of an artwork. However, many modern and contemporary art galleries and museums are considering natural light as an important factor for ambient light. This is because according to several studies done by experts, the visual quality of viewing any artwork mainly depends on the field of view, which should have both aesthetic qualities and a certain degree of interest. To prove this, one cites the most well-known research conducted by Nick Baker and Koen Steemers (2002), titled ‘Daylight Design of Buildings’. Artificial light is static and monotonous, which may lead to visual efficiency, but also results in ‘emotional fatigue’.
No-matter how well-intended an art lover you may be, the human eye is used to continuous change and due to this adaptive mechanism, each ‘scene’ is viewed differently, depending on the brightness and its surroundings.
According to John H. Falk’s study in Florida Museum of Natural History (1984), the viewing behaviour of an adult is constant during the first 30 to 45 minutes of viewing, and after that they experience ‘museum fatigue’. The use of natural light, which changes with time, can help in providing relief from this fatigue, and hence, many museums and top notch galleries, like the Louvre in Paris, Lisson Gallery in London, Sackler Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts, Tate Britain, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris - all factor-in a bit of natural light spilling into their gallery so that the viewing of artwork can be experienced in a holistic manner.
It is a well-documented fact that throughout the construction of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright and James Johnson Sweeney, the then director of the museum, often disagreed about the building’s design and function. Lighting was an issue that was constantly discussed, and that was only resolved after Wright’s death in 1959, when Sweeny hired the American Lighting Corporation, a lighting consulting firm, to improve the visitor’s experience.
The intention was to illuminate the entire interior of the museum so it appears bathed in sunlight without shadow. To achieve this, the American Lighting Corporation created a complex system of louvered sections and specially designed fixtures. All lights were fluorescent, and mixed with sunlight that filtered through skylights. As mentioned in the press release, the result was that “visitors ... will see completely new concepts of museum and display lighting” that allowed “paintings to seem to float on walls of light.”
Once the museum opened, American Lighting Corporation published The Lighting of a Great Museum as an educational brochure, detailing their different solutions and techniques, and it is a go-to text for many lighting experts.
Recently, the Serpentine Sackler Galleries emerged with a refurbishment programme for the Victorian Diploma galleries, commissioned to Foster + Partners. Under that programme the three main exhibition spaces have skylights composed of translucent walls, followed by operable louvers and blinds. The reception area is also used as a part of exhibiting sculptures, displayed with a combination of glazed translucent glass walls complemented with artificial lights. Since the glass walls faced north, they did not receive direct solar radiation - a favourable for artworks like marble sculptures. The use of daylight in the reception makes the area more inviting.
For their newly commissioned exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries, artist Patrick Staff will present their most ambitious work to date - On Venus - a site-specific installation using light, and exploring structural violence, registers of harm and the corrosive effects of acid, blood and hormones through architectural intervention, video and print.
An innovative use of natural light can also be observed at 079 Stories, a spanking new gallery in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The gallery has been conceived as a multi-purpose cultural centre, which hosts not just art exhibitions but workshops, outdoor theatre and flea markets as well. The lady behind it, Purva Damani, worked with Vastushilpa Consultants to conceive the 30,000-square-foot art and cultural centre. Headed by Khushnu Panthaki Hoof and Sönke Hoof, it plays with a fair bit of natural light, and uses space in a manner so as to create a sense of openness and unobstructed movement.
“The square-shaped building comprises a central courtyard and circulation spaces, forming a street-like open connector, tying together the entrance with a garden, amphitheatre, boutique and café,” says Damani. The main gallery is on the upper floor, which also has a balcony and terrace meant to catch the spillover crowds. The gallery has used a combination of top and side lighting, and currently around two walls receive a fair share of direct sunlight, but the special quality glass used for the windows reduces the intensity of the light.
Much of the Tate Modern in London is primarily lit by natural light. This is because according to the Tate archive, when the Tate first opened in 1897, there was no electric lighting in the building, and the only light was that from the windows and skylights. As a result, the Tate would shut at 4 o'clock - or even earlier in the winter months or when the weather was foggy, because there was not enough light to view the artwork or for the attendants to sufficiently guard it. It was only in 1935 that the Tate received its first electric lights, and it was because of the efforts of its director Charles Atkins, who had worked at the Whitechapel Gallery that used electric lighting.
Since the Tata Modern received more viewers than even the country’s National Museum, a committee was formed and the Tate was given electric light so that the museum could stay open till 5 pm. However, it has been observed that daylight areas of the Tate are the most crowded mainly because daylight does not only provide a better colour rendering, but also have better luminous quality that cannot be achieved by artificial lights. Visitors always contend that natural light is more pleasurable and enjoyable.
NOTE: The author has referenced The Lighting of a Great Museum by Francine Snyder, Importance of Daylight in Art Galleries by Ameer Mustafa Varzgani, a study for term paper at Sustainable Environmental Design, Architectural Association School of Architecture; Tips for Lighting Art: How to Light Artwork in Your Home by Tim McKeough and Tate archive.