Curatorial Tutorial

A peek inside a gallery director’s job as a major Andy Warhol exhibit opens at Bellagio

Photo by Andrew James

Photo by Andrew James

Curtained off to tourist foot traffic passing by its doors, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art is in a rare condition—closed—its newest houseguest not ready for company.

Inside, Andy is naked.

Once the wardrobe goes on, Warhol Out West will be snappily dressed all over these walls, which will belong to Warhol for nearly nine months. Still, this day these walls are white and bare, waiting to wear what’s lined up on the floor beneath them: portraits of John Wayne, Teddy Roosevelt, General Custer and Annie Oakley. Framed, iconic, unhung.

Everywhere around here, in fact—some still stacked in crates, others freed but girdled in plastic—Andy is waiting to get suited up, photo by photo, painting by painting. Soon, he will be ready for company.

Upon the February 8 opening, Bellagio will host the most comprehensive Warhol exhibit in the U.S. beyond the artwork’s home base, the Andy Warhol Museum in the late pop artist’s hometown of Pittsburgh, and the source from which 56 pieces—paintings, prints, sculptures, celebrity photos and wallpaper—were borrowed. (Yes, the Campbell Soup paintings are included.)

Cue the wine, the cheese, the accolades, the revisiting of an eccentric, brilliant man’s impact on American culture—the whole art-world schmear.

That’s the end product. But how did the product begin? How did Andy get from there to here? Enter the curator, captain of this cultural ship, as we peek inside the making of Warhol Out West. Our guide: Tarissa Tiberti, curator/director of the Bellagio Gallery.

Select the theme.

“We look at what’s on tour, or what we’d like to do. Warhol is transcending time right now. With social media right now, things he was doing in the ’60s and ’70s are coming back again. He was ahead of his time, in terms of advertising and how people are trying to get the word out for whatever their agenda is. It’s fun to look at that again and put it into context for ourselves.”

Visit the loaning museum.

“I’ve seen plenty of Warhol pieces in group shows, and I had an agenda before I left about what we were looking for: The “Diamond Dust Shoes” [painting], I really thought that would be incredible, and the dollar sign [painting]. When I was out there, I was like, I would love to have that, and I’d get back and start putting it into our model and seeing what can fit, and they come back and say, that can’t travel or we only have one of these but it’s a smaller version or it’s only a silk screen or a print—going back and forth. “

Consider how your choices fit into the gallery space.

“How do people walk into a gallery? Which way do they go with your layout? Are people going to go to the right automatically? Are they going to go to the left? Do you have an audio guide? What is the flow, how does it tell your story? Then there’s what walls to build. I know I have four walls and one in the center that are permanent. Everything else I can change.”

Decide how to group the pieces.

“They [the Warhol Museum] have a large space—four or five floors. We have a limited space [2,600 square feet on one floor]. We’re doing it chronologically, but we’re not taking entire decades; we’re putting things in other groupings as well. We have his Cowboys and Indians series, so we’re putting those together. We have celebrity Polaroids, so even though we try to do things chronologically, they belong together.”

Adhere to the requirements of the loaning museum.

“They gave me a free hand but you have to work within parameters, hence the [cow] wallpaper. If there’s something hanging on top of it, it has to be on or near the decade it was created [in 1966]. We can’t put the wallpaper in the room with the stuff from the ’80s, that wasn’t how Warhol made it. I have to give them a layout of the show so they can see how the work is going to flow.”

Keep eye level in mind.

“There’s a median height that everything goes at, it’s called a center line, and it’s usually at 60 inches. That takes into consideration an average of people’s height, where somebody who is 6-4 and somebody who is 5-4 both feel comfortable viewing something. If you have all pictures or photographs, they’re all flat, but you also don’t want things bouncing along the walls, so you need to keep an even center line.”

Space the pieces conveniently for the viewer.

“When you put something on the wall, then what’s on the wall next to it? Do you have enough distance to step back and see the whole piece? If it’s a large piece, what’s the piece next to it? If somebody is going to get more intimate with [a piece] and look at it more closely, you don’t want them in the way of the view of the person stuck in the back. I’m a spatial person, I’m a trained sculptor and a three-dimensional artist, so space to me is the first thing I’m looking at.”

Arrange the lighting.

“Lighting is a huge thing. Each piece can only support a certain amount of light on it because light deteriorates paint and paper. Things on paper, whether it’s photographs or prints, you can use less lighting than you can with oil paint. If something isn’t lit well or lit from the right angle, it can get a reflection from the glass if it’s behind glass. With a long space, if you turn around, the light can be glaring you in the eye, so it’s all of that.”

Create wall text and an audio guide to tell the story.

“[The museum] sent specific stuff on each piece, and we will also do our own research. We try to make our audio guide between 30 and 40 minutes because that’s a good amount of time for the space we have. People quantify their experience by how much time they spend and how many pieces they see. In the past, the text was more biographical and the audio guide was more about the pieces and the theme of the show. With Warhol, there is not going to be much text because there are so many pieces, so it’s mostly going to be the tour.”

Inside, Andy’s still being dressed—painstakingly so. On the wall reserved for Warhol’s celebrity snapshots, it takes nearly 30 minutes to hang one Polaroid of Dennis Hopper. Positioned center-wall and center-height, it will set the standard so the 10 other famous-folk photos—including Liza Minnelli, Sly Stallone, Jane Fonda, Truman Capote and Grace Jones—can fan out left and right of Hopper in the same dimensions. Each will get the same 30-minute TLC.

Hugging the floor while awaiting their turn to dominate another wall, the 90-by-70-inch “Diamond Dust Shoes” and dollar-sign painting—Warhol’s ode to consumerism—are wrapped in special, non-coated plastic, without the gasses and chemicals that might otherwise leak through to cause damage.

Gallery regulars will note that an 11-foot wall has been erected near the entrance to create an open-ended enclosure, now slathered in his famous cow wallpaper. Gun-toting Elvis, cowboys, Indians and Warhol’s arrangement of multiple “Mona Lisa” depictions are scattered around the floor, all wall-ready.

On the gallery’s center wall, however, one has already made it to prominent display position—the artist’s self-portrait, geeky and ethereal, surveying his new Vegas digs.

Andy’s about ready for company.

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