Impressionism in a New Light


Linda Benedict-Jones, Amanda Zehnder & Akemi May

We are asked all the time how long it took to put together Impressionism in a New Light. When we tell people that it took more than two years, they always wonder why. Well, there are lots of reasons for that. To begin, we had to simply sit down and discuss whether it made any sense to try to merge paintings, pastels, prints, and drawings with photographs. We had to survey our collection to see what we had, and this is more complicated than most people can imagine because it means looking at each possible work of art individually. Many of them are in storage; works on paper are fragile; and, frankly, lots of them had not been looked at for years and years.

After a lot of brainstorming that came from frequent get-togethers, we concluded that this curatorial partnership could make this show unique for the audience. Somewhere along the way these ideas had to be pitched to the director and the rest of the CMA staff. These shows never happen without careful planning, a well-designed budget, and help from colleagues in the development department to secure important sponsorships. Once we got the green light to move forward, we decided that most of the show could come from our own collection, but to include additional artists that would support specific points in the exhibition, we decided that the show would be enriched by a few carefully selected loans.

It’s probably safe to say that most people don’t realize what goes into securing loans for a museum exhibition. In our case, it meant setting up appointments with private collectors and at many different museums, including some that didn’t result in useful material for the show. Once we finally determined what our wish list would be, paperwork flew back and forth between our colleagues and potential lenders, with emails and phone calls that dealt with shipping, insurance, light levels, facility requirements, and much, much more. We were thrilled by the loans we secured for the show largely because we know that our visitors in western Pennsylvania have never had a chance to see these specific works from distant collections.

Akemi & Amanda marking final placement of the works

Planning for the actual installation took about a year. We had to figure out how best to present Monet’s Water Lilies, for example. We had to sort out how to recycle the carpeting from the Teenie Harris show for the second gallery. The workshop and conservation departments were key for these tasks and for the successful physical manifestation of the show; we worked with them hand in glove. Our curatorial assistant, Akemi May, was indispensable on every level and she helped us supervise three CMU interns to research period quotations for the walls. We relied on them to use a complicated computer program to determine how many works we could actually fit into the show, given the size of each and their placement on the walls. And as with any exhibition, we had to choose paint colors and work with the designer on graphics and the overall look of the show.

CMA art handlers preparing to move Monet’s Water Lilies from Scaife Galleries for the exhibition

Throughout it all we worked closely with our colleagues in the publications department, too, to attend to a wide variety of needs such as the 150 wall labels and text panels for the exhibition. These took an eternity to write and required lots of skillful editing. We watched with glee as they designed and printed these as well as 10 distinct bookmarks for the audience to enjoy. Speaking of writing, we also were interviewed for an extensive feature article in Carnegie Magazine that really showcases the exhibition and the depth of the content.

With our colleagues in the education and IT departments, we spent time exploring the advantages of including digital interactive devices for the galleries. We agreed that these would enhance the visitor’s experience by bringing some aspects of the show up to date. The amazing corps of docents worked really hard leading up to the opening date and we enjoyed talking with them on several occasions to get them geared up for some new ideas.  Thanks to our meetings with folks in the education department, we prepared for a nerve-wracking but exciting Opening Night with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra which meant that we got to visit the Maestro’s Suite at Heinz Hall to plan our “casual discussion” that would take place in front of 1,400 at Carnegie Music Hall. Speaking to such a large audience was a new experience for us both and the preparations for this program were at least a year in the making. In the end it went well and we were ready for our glass of champagne.

It truly takes a village to mount an exhibition like Impressionism in a New Light and we feel really fortunate to have the professional and skillful support network that helped us on this show.

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