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Summer Lecture Series 2017: Behind the Scenes at the National Gallery of Art

Each year millions of visitors come to the National Gallery of Art to see its fabled permanent collection and extraordinary special exhibitions. In roles not always visible to the public, the staff works diligently to preserve these timeless works of art and to enhance the visitor’s experience. This summer’s Sunday lecture series looks behind the scenes at some of the many specialized and diverse departments that are crucial to the operations of the National Gallery of Art.

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Museum curators have many responsibilities: acquiring, caring for, and presenting works of art; researching and writing scholarly content; and organizing temporary exhibitions of works borrowed from other institutions and from private owners. At smaller museums there may be only a few curators, and they are often expected to have wide-ranging knowledge. At large institutions with diverse collections, such as the National Gallery of Art, curators must be experts in the art of specific periods, regions, or media. In this lecture, held on August 27, 2017, Franklin Kelly, deputy director and chief curator at the National Gallery of Art, examines the various roles that curators play in the functioning of today’s museums and in shaping the visitor’s experience of art.

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Although the National Gallery of Art has presented special exhibitions since its opening in 1941, it was the opening of the East Building in 1978 that greatly expanded their number and complexity. The new building provided the design team maximum flexibility, including the allowance of objects soaring to nearly 40 feet, safe installation of objects weighing over 13 tons, and a sunlit space over 100 feet long. With the addition in 2016 of two new exhibition spaces, a new exterior sculpture terrace, and staircases that allow the visitor to move freely between all levels, the East Building continues to offer new and exciting opportunities. In this lecture, held on August 13, 2017, Mark Leithauser, senior curator and chief of design, discusses the history of the department, how an exhibition evolves from concept to reality, the installation process, and illustrates how the same East Building gallery space has been repeatedly redesigned and reconstructed to display works of art at the highest possible museum and scholarly standards.

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The history of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA) at the National Gallery of Art is closely intertwined with that of the institution, and especially with the planning and design of the East Building. This richly illustrated lecture—delivered on August 6, 2017 by Dean Elizabeth Cropper—goes behind the scenes into the conception of a research institute housed at the gallery, and traces the development of the Center since its founding in 1980. Cropper looks at CASVA’s programs of fellowships, meetings, publications, and research, and discusses the wider importance of research institutes today.

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The Gallery’s oldest public program and the longest-running free concert series in Washington, DC, began on May 31, 1942, just over a year after the Gallery opened its doors. On July 30, Danielle DeSwert Hahn, head of music programs, gives a brief overview of the fascinating story of the music department, as well as a preview of what’s to come in the 76th season, which begins on September 23, 2017. Several short performances will be interspersed throughout the presentation.

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For more than 75 years, the National Gallery of Art Library has played a key role in the Gallery’s educational mission. In this lecture, held on July 23, 2017, Roger Lawson, executive librarian, John Hagood, head of reader services, and Gregory P. J. Most, image collections chief, offer a look behind the scenes and into the stacks to reveal how the library grew to be one of the world’s foremost resources for the study of art history. Along the way they highlight some of the rare and unique books and images that comprise its collections.

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The National Gallery of Art is home to one of the most highly respected and extensive art conservation laboratories in the world, with a staff of more than 50. Among them are not only conservators of paintings, three-dimensional objects, works on paper, photographs, textiles, and frames, but also scientists and specialists in preventative care, which encompasses everything from monitoring environmental conditions to pest management. In addition to treating works of art in the collection, conservators and scientists collaborate with curators to perform research that improves our understanding of artists’ techniques and materials, and ultimately of the works of art and their historical contexts. In this lecture held on July 16, 2017, Mervin Richard, chief of conservation at the National Gallery of Art, discusses the history of conservation at the Gallery and some of the many activities that occupy the department today.

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Did you know that horticulture has been a part of the mission of the National Gallery of Art since the doors opened in 1941? The design for the West Building, by John Russell Pope, included gardens as an important element of the museum. Greenhouses were added in 1954 so that plants and flowers needed for interior and exterior gardens, special exhibits, and events could be grown on site. The role of the Gallery’s horticulturists has expanded over the years with the openings of the East Building (1978) and Sculpture Garden (1999), and the restoration of the Andrew W. Mellon Memorial Fountain (2017). Special endowments fund seasonal plant and flower displays to enhance the visitor experience. In this lecture held on July 9, 2017, Cynthia Kaufmann, chief of horticulture services at the National Gallery of Art, discusses the many facets of the Gallery’s horticulture division.

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In this lecture, National Gallery of Art scientists discuss the ongoing adaptation of technologies used originally to identify and map minerals on Mars to better understand art in the Gallery’s collection. These new imaging techniques, based on molecular and elemental spectroscopy, have allowed researchers to develop more detailed maps of the distribution of materials such as pigments and paint binders. For example, the types of paints (oil vs. alkyd resin) used by Jackson Pollock in his famous drip painting Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) were mapped. In an early Renaissance painting by Cosimo Tura, the pigments and paint binders were mapped and a preparatory sketch was revealed. In addition, these imaging technologies have been used to visualize compositions that have been painted over, such as the woman beneath Pablo Picasso’s Le Gourmet, and also to illuminate early paint composition changes in Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Young Girl Reading.