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Familiar faces in new places at the Norton Simon Museum

The Norton Simon Museum wanted to create a space for Edgar Degas' 'Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen' and other fragile works. Tricky choreography made the moves — and visitor experience — seamless.

November 09, 2013|By Suzanne Muchnic

On a recent Monday at the Norton Simon Museum, everything was in its usual spot in the grand gallery where visitors first encounter an extraordinary collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art.

Edgar Degas' "Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen," a must-see for little girls who dream of becoming ballerinas, was still the centerpiece. The bronze statue with a net tutu and satin hair ribbon was surrounded by smaller Degas sculptures and paintings by Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.

Two days later, when the Simon opened after its regular Tuesday closure, the gallery had been transformed. "Little Dancer" remained in place, though not for long, and all the paintings had been moved or supplanted by other works in the collection without a trace of effort.

The change caused some double-takes. But it was only the beginning of a major re-think and re-do of three galleries — the first since 1999, when the Pasadena museum was completely remodeled.

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Now that the job is done, dozens of works have been relocated, primarily to create a gallery for light-sensitive pieces. It's the new home of the bronze ballerina, with its delicate 100-year-old skirt, and a group of pastels and other fragile works on paper.

The displaced pieces from that room — late 19th-century works by Édouard Vuillard, Georges Lacombe and Émile Bernard — and many others have been shifted to present a more chronological journey through 19th-century French art history.

"It's a good change. Not too dramatic, and it's nice to freshen things up," says curator Leah Lehmbeck, who planned the reinstallation with Carol Togneri, the museum's chief curator. "This gives the pastels a better place and allows us to create some good pairings and context for works that have been a bit overlooked."

But moving key pieces and creating a new visual flow that works for the art and the timeline is tricky.

As Togneri says, "This is the type of museum where people make pilgrimages to see their favorite pictures in their accustomed places." Moving a couple things might not raise eyebrows, but rearranging an entire section could be upsetting.

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Especially in this particular part of the Simon. The museum's founder, industrialist Norton Simon, launched his collection with French Impressionism and built a holding of 19th-century French art often said to be the best of its kind west of the Mississippi. Although the museum also has distinguished collections of European Old Master paintings, Modern works and the art of South and Southeast Asia, the French galleries are by far the most popular.

The decision to reorganize the galleries began with curators' concerns about the pastels and other works that are especially susceptible to light damage. They were safely exhibited in a long, relatively dim space that connects two galleries illuminated by skylights. But "going from light to dark to light was rather jarring for visitors," Lehmbeck says. "And it was a bit of a walk-through, with no indication that something special was there."

Now, the fragile pieces are in a more intimate setting. The light is still low, but the walls have been painted a dark gray-green, which makes the spotlighted artworks appear brighter.

"The pictures will have a new life there," Lehmbeck says of feathery textured works by Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jean-Louis Forain and Pierre Bonnard. Degas' sculpture and pastel portrayals of ballerinas beckon visitors into the space, where they also find landscapes and delicately crafted images of daily life and outdoor activities.

The long gallery that formerly housed the pastels now offers a smoother historical transition between a large gallery of early Impressionism and the grand gallery, which focuses on Post-Impressionist works and leads into a wing of 20th-century art. And light in the main traffic pattern is more consistent.

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"We wanted the visitor experience to be seamless," Lehmbeck says.

But that required considerable behind-the-scenes effort, with the help of Adobe Illustrator graphic design software. After months of talks about a possible new installation, Lehmbeck took photographs of all the works in the galleries, including their frames, and scaled the images in the correct proportion on her computer. She then moved the images around a digital mock-up of the galleries to try different arrangements and printed out a layout for Togneri's consideration.

The curators made a few tweaks before settling on a final plan. And almost inevitably, because seeing tiny reproductions on a computer screen is not the same as viewing the actual art in a gallery, a few works changed position during the installation. But the fundamental plan remained intact.

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