It's a quiet Tuesday morning at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. School children file into a room housing Egyptian funerary artifacts lighted from above by tiny fiber-optic dots—and Clint Paugh is perplexed. The museum's in-house lighting designer is bent over his laptop nearby, and he can't figure out why the software controlling the illuminators, the brains behind those lighted fibers, isn't working. The color seems to be off in one glass case, and he can't change it. An assistant emerges from a closet to report that he has tried adding and removing a small terminator on a cable. “It doesn't seem to be making any difference,” Paugh says. “Let's just leave it off and I'll keep an eye on it the next couple of days.”
This software anomaly presents Paugh his toughest challenge during the course of the day; it recurs as he makes his rounds of the museum's treasure-filled galleries. Museums typically employ outside consultants, so it's rare to find a full-time in-house specialist like Paugh dedicated to lighting issues such as this.
MR16 halogen lamps. Fluorescent tubes. Ganglions of fiber optics. These are Paugh's tools in making the artwork the main event of the museum experience. All light that shines on or near a piece is his responsibility. (Electrical engineers handle all other fixtures in open, artless areas and back-of-house spaces. As for outdoor sculptures, it is the museum's policy not to illuminate them.)
Paugh has begun this December day, as he does once or twice a week, walking through the museum, mostly looking up. A lanky six-footfive, he circles room after room, head cocked and eyes alert for dark spots in tracklighting and dull spots on the walls. Nearly a dozen times he stops, clicks the Notes App on his iPhone, and leaves himself a reminder to return and install new lamps. In one gallery filled with impressionist paintings, Paugh finds a “dead” spotlight that's supposed to wash the wall between works by Cézanne and Pissarro. He explains how he might accessorize the halogen spotlights to achieve the desired effect—spread lenses to diffuse the light, hand-cut window screen to reduce it, or daylighting filters to tweak colors.
While planning for a forthcoming exhibit, “Monet's Water Lilies,” opening April 9, Paugh found that adding daylight filters to three of the 12 spotlights aimed at the Museum's violet-tinged version helped the 14-foot canvas pop. Monet painted approximately 250 canvases depicting the water lily pond in the garden of his home at Giverny, France. The spring exhibit will reunite the Nelson-Atkin's painting with two companions from the art museums in St. Louis and Cleveland. “A little bit of that cooler color hitting the painting seemed to make a difference,” Paugh says.
Paugh's interest in light began with photography. The Wichita, Kan., native, now 40, attended graduate school at the University of Illinois, where he worked odd jobs, including lighting and exhibit design, at the campus museum. After leaving Illinois in 1996, he taught photography at a community college in western Kansas.
Although he eventually switched his artistic emphasis to sculpture, his eye for light served him well. He landed at the Nelson-Atkins in 1999, first spending a three-month, part-time gig in packing and storage, then was hired on full-time as a preparator and lighting technician. He was in the right place at the right time. In 1999, the museum began planning an expansion project, and the new addition—the Bloch Building, designed by architect Steven Holl—was all about light. (Opened in 2007, the new wing sports five glass-walled pavilions that bring natural light into underground spaces during the day and glow at night. See “Sculpting with Light,” Sept/Oct 2007.)
Early on, Paugh had the chance to spend a week-long internship at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and he attended a museum-lighting workshop at GE's Lighting & Electrical Institute at Nela Park in Cleveland. This provided a good foundation when, in 2001, he moved from his position with the preparation staff (art handlers and exhibit builders) to one of design.
Another training opportunity arose when he spent three weeks in 2004 interning with George Sexton Associates in Washington, D.C. Sexton, an independent lighting designer, had worked on gallery renovations for the Nelson-Atkins in the 1980s. Paugh learned about fixture specification and placement and picked up technical skills involving mathematical formulas and footcandle levels. But much of what he brings to the job today comes from his time working with, watching, and learning from lighting consultant Richard Renfro and his colleagues at Renfro Design Group, who were tasked with solving the lighting challenges of Holl's Bloch Building. “The whole process was one big learning experience for me,” Paugh says, and involved everything from angling tracks to using low-voltage fixtures.
Paugh is the sole lighting designer at the museum; a former lighting technician, Amber Mills, was not replaced when she moved to the exhibition design department, though Mills and others do help Paugh handle lighting duties. On his rounds this December day, Mills takes the 14 Bloch Building galleries as Paugh inspects most of the 64 individual galleries in the museum's original, 1933 Beaux Arts palace. After a couple of hours, lamps replaced and some focusing adjustments made, Paugh huddles with an electrical engineer about tweaking fixtures in a Bloch Building gallery.
Next stop is a small dark room where several staffers have gathered to look at backlighting mock-ups for the Monet exhibit. The show will include X-rays of the museum's Water Lilies. Paugh has set up three options for European curator Ian Kennedy and exhibit-design colleagues. One mock-up uses an electroluminescent panel, the others incorporate LEDs with either cool or warm filters. They settle on the brighter and warmer LED option.
Although LEDs are the solution for this installation, Paugh is cautious about them. “As for using LEDs on most artworks, so far they haven't got there yet,” he says. “Mainly the color quality isn't that good yet and the beams aren't as tight or as neat as I would like to see them.”
Lighting issues don't take a break. A few minutes later, Paugh finds himself standing on a ladder, opening a display case lid in the Native American galleries. It's another issue involving the software breakdown between Paugh's computer and the fiber-optic illuminators from that morning. Now, to lower the intensity of light in the case, Paugh has to bypass the system software and connect the illuminator directly to the laptop on his mobile cart.
The illuminator is like a single lamp with numerous tentacles—the fiber optics, that is—says Steven Mark Johnson, master electrician with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, who volunteers to work with Paugh at the museum a few hours a week. Among the advantages of the CMY150 illuminators is the ability to mix colors when necessary, to control timing and fine-tune lighting effects with relative ease. In addition, Paugh notes, a single 150W device with numerous pinpoint fibers can replace 900W or more of conventional lamps.
After lunch, Paugh meets with Colin Mackenzie, senior curator of early Asian art, who is in the midst of gallery renovations in the Chinese collection. Mackenzie hopes to minimize the room light and keep the drama on the artifacts. “I wanted this gallery to have an air of mystery,” he tells Paugh.
To Paugh, that means the usual period of give and take, balancing viewer comfort, object safety and ideal illumination. “Some curators leave me to light the show on my own until a final walk-through,” Paugh says, “while others are more involved throughout the process. Most often, though, I would say it falls somewhere in between—a real collaboration.”
Steve Paul is a senior writer and arts editor at The Kansas City Star, where he writes about culture, architecture, books, food, and other subjects.