“Anatomy of a Hanging”

Read about Peter’s take on what it takes to hang an exhibit in the gallery

What goes into hanging a show in a gallery? Some people think you just put some nails in the wall and hang the pictures. Maybe chronologically or by subject matter. I mean, how hard can it be?


Yet gallerists and curators play a vital role in the art world, and a successful gallery is a little like a fine restaurant: for the guest everything appears smoothly and inevitably in its place, but for the chef and the maitre d‘ an immense amount of preparation, both culinary and aesthetic, go into the dining experience. Both galleries and restaurants are places where the art succeeds when it does not call attention to itself.


To explore the behind-the-scenes world of the gallerist, who better to talk to than Susan Peragallo? Hired in 2011 as gallery coordinator for the Art League of Long Island, her job is to organize and Sue Peragallo photohang the two juried shows a year; to help select and then work with the artists who rent the space—two to four times a year; to curate the annual Instructors Show and Members’ Shows; and every now and then to dream up a show of her own. “I’ve really only done that once,” she recalls. “It was called “Earth and Water: An Exhibition of Ceramics and Water Media.” Her eyes light up when she speaks of this. “We even had a ceramic fountain by Jack Fink.”


Susan is one of the staff members of the Art League who brings skill and dedication to her work, but who may be unknown to most of us. When I caught up to her on a Friday morning, she was making preparations for the Instructor’s Show. “It’s one of our highlights,” she tells me. “It’s a way for us to thank our cadre of teachers — almost 70 of them — for their service. We offer them the chance to show work (and to sell it) in the big gallery. The diversity and talent of our instructors are really impressive.”


Impressive also the work she does to put the show together. The first task is getting the word out to the instructors. Second, the follow-ups and reminders. Meanwhile the publicity card must be designed and sent out to all the members; attempts are made to reach the press. Gradually the jpegs arrive for Susan’s selection.


“That must be a ticklish process.”


“It can be. For this show or any show, where you are in the role of making choices and dealing with the feelings artists have about their work, a certain tact is involved. The last thing I want to do is alienate one of our teachers. On the other hand, I have a show to put together that does justice to a great many different talents.”


Then the work starts to come in. She takes out her little scale mock-up of the gallery, creates tiny scale images of the works, and tries out arrangements until she has a design for the show that she is happy with and can serve as a ‘skeleton’ or jumping off place for the installation.


“And that, too, can be a ticklish process,” she says. “For example, there are favored spots in any gallery. In ours, those two walls that face you as you walk in the door. Or that first wall to your left as you come in where the show starts and where the viewer is likely to have the freshest eyes. And frankly, the second floor never seems to carry the same weight as the first though I love its airy openness, and I think it shows some works off particularly well. Artists want their work to catch the eye, and so part of my job in allocating space is balancing between the right work for the space and the artists who, by length of service as well as quality, have some expectation of being treated a certain way. This show can ruffle or smooth feathers, and in the end I am the responsible party.”


“What’s the fun part?”


“It can all be fun. Working with artists is what I want to do, showing them off, creating a space in which people look at art and are moved and inspired. But when it comes to actually installing the work, making choices of arrangement and placement so that the show is more than the sum of its parts: that’s where I have the most fun.”


“It’s where you get a chance to be an artist.”


“Of sorts, yes.”


“I want to hear about that, but can you tell me a little bit about your background?”


“OK. I actually went to the Art Students’ League of New York when I was young, where my focus was anatomy and figure drawing. I studied painting and printmaking in college but eventually focused on ceramics at Nassau Community College and Buffalo State College. When I returned to Long Island I was hired by Nassau CC as studio manager. And then,” here she gives a little sigh, “I had a family, took over my father’s import business, and that was the next 25 years of my life. I worked to keep art in my life, painting and doing ceramics, taking classes at the Art League, but it was not easy.


“After the 2008 recession, my business life came to a close, and I started looking around for something more meaningful to do. I started by being a docent at the Heckscher Museum. It was a lot of hard work, just in researching the artists in each of the shows, but I got reconnected to art again, and all of my study expanded my world.


“Also, I was volunteering at the Art League. Pat Ralph was the leader of the gallery and chairperson of the exhibition committee and continues in that capacity. She was such a significant force and I was fortunate enough to learn from her and work with her. She continues to work with me; we make quite a team placing the work when it comes in. She really showed me that installing a show is an art.


“How so?”


“Pat taught me that the works on the wall need to have a flow, a rhythm— not just varying in size, but in color and shape as well. You want the right kind of variety, and this is irrespective of subject matter. Works of art can talk to one another in all kinds of ways.”


“For example?”


“Here’s a story: I was still volunteering at ALLI and watching Pat and learning. And for some show we were installing, there were two paintings, very different in subject matter: one was of ballerinas and the other was of sailboats, you know with their mast and booms. And I thought, ‘These two have to go together.’ There was another volunteer there, and she was looking only at the subject matter and didn’t see how they could possibly go together. But I saw the way these two pictures were both explorations of line and shape and space and rhythm, the dance of one helping the viewer to see the dance of the other. This is the kind of thing Pat understood. She helped sensitize me to this interplay—and also to believe in my own instincts.”


As I listen to Susan, I realize that I have never observed a show from the gallerist’s point of view. I usually get lost in the looking, as I do in a film where I stop paying attention to the orchestration—soundtrack, shot selection, pace, acting, etc. — and experience the movie as a seamless whole. In a gallery I never think about the fact that every picture has been placed as a consequence of subtle criteria. The gallerist seeks a fluid balance that gives each picture its own space and at the same time insures each contributes to others and to the whole. A well-installed show becomes for the viewer a journey in which formal elements — size, color, subject matter, structural aspects — converse with one another in harmony and counterpoint.


In my mind I visualize imaginary threads not only linking neighboring pieces but stretching across the gallery from one side to another, forming a veritable cat’s cradle. The pleasure of gazing at one picture after another in a sequence is only half the fun of a well-installed show. The other is catching these imaginary lines.


When I came home, I found the card announcing the show on my work table. I looked at it with fresh eyes. Susan chose those three paintings for the card and she chose their placement on it as well. I realized the card design was a small but quite real curatorial challenge. I take a closer look.


Its immediate effect is pleasing. Harmonious in color, the effect is warm, late summer colors. But the sequence is dynamic. In our talk Susan reminded me that our cultural habit of reading left to right informs how she arranges work on a wall. So here on the card.

Instructors Exhibit Collage 2015 (1)

left to right: Lauren Singer, “Through the Beige and Bam!”, acrylic on canvas; Suzan Haeni, “Big Sky”, gouache on paper; Vivien Pollack, “Table Set For One”, silk painting


The churning image on the left sets off the restful expansive landscape whose rolling clouds, opening to the right, drives into the bouquet on the table. But that swooping table top seems to spin my eye right back through the horizon line of the landscape and into the picture I started with.


Now all the synchronous colors start to light up, and the jazzy conversation among these three becomes more and more lively.


For example, the flanking pictures, both verticals, fill their pictorial space and go beyond it. Though the Matissean tea-table on the right seems contained, the fact is it swells to occupy and flatten the whole room. Tilting and swiveling at once, the picture generates something like a visual queasiness. Its sister image on the left has an all over and sexy mischief that reminds me a little of de Kooning. Connecting the two verticals, Susan gives us the landscape, the clouds, and that good, old-fashioned thing we love when it is done well; perspective. Against those flat paintings on either side that jam right up against us, that prairie distance invites reverie.

The longer I look at these three pictures, the more I see in each and the more each enhances the others. The three create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. This is, I realize, a mini-example of curatorial artistry.


When the Instructors’ Show goes up, the simple geometry of the space will come alive as art fills it, the works mirroring, reflecting, and counterpointing one another. Thanks to my talk with Susan, I will be in a better position to appreciate her arrangements, though I suspect, in the end, that only she, alone in her space before the doors open or after the public departs, can hear the all interplays she has scored.