In museums, tracklighting is a workhorse. For decades, it has been the go-to solution when dealing with the demands for flexible gallery lighting. A simple piece of track is the vehicle to precisely place a spotlight to illuminate artwork, to get the right angle to reveal the modeling of a piece of sculpture, to control glare on a painting, or to conserve light-sensitive pieces such as drawings or photographs. While it seems like an easy solution, tracklighting has its drawbacks and detractors. In the past 10 years, museum architecture has become increasingly expressive and more complex formally. With attention on unique designs, architects and curators are challenged to find ways to incorporate track without deterring from gallery ambience.

“The challenge is how do you design a grid or pattern that puts light in the right place and is part of the architecture,” explains Washington, D.C.–based lighting designer George Sexton, who has worked for years developing recessed track systems. Full integration of the track system into the architecture is not just visual—it also has to be cost effective, maintainable, and energy efficient. The Museum of Modern Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York; the Bloch Building Addition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.; and London's Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Kew Gardens are four museums that each illustrate innovative lighting design based on the traditional track motif.

Project The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London
Tracklighting System Suspended hi-track system with tungsten halogen adjustable spotlights
Lighting Designer Speirs and Major Associates, London
Manufacturers Erco, Lutron

Kew Gardens is home to a renowned collection of botanical art, but until the opening of a new gallery this past April, most of the 200,000 examples were, for reasons of conservation and climate control, stored in the Kew library and inaccessible to the public. London-based architects Walters and Cohen designed the exhibition space as a “box within a box”—a central gallery surrounded by smaller rooms. Lighting design firm Speirs and Major Associates used a flexible track system to light the rotating collection. Mounted below the clerestory in the main gallery, the suspended track is not visible outside the museum's glass façade. Linear T5 fluorescents uplight the gallery soffit.

The three-circuit suspended hi-track system adapts to the varied nature of the botanical artworks, which encompass a variety of media: watercolors, drawings, oil paintings, and sculpture. The artworks in the main and side galleries are illuminated with track-mounted 20W and 35W narrow- and wide-beam tungsten halogen adjustable spotlights with UV filter and spread lens accessories, while the walls of the reception area are lit with track-mounted 55W compact fluorescent wallwashers. The system also conforms to strict conservation requirements (maximum 50 lux) and achieves low light levels by reducing the lamp wattage, using interchangeable accessories and individual spotlight dimming via a simple lighting control system.

Project Museum of Modern Art, New York
Tracklighting System Recessed track with adjustable spotlights
Lighting Designer George Sexton Associates, Washington, D.C.
Manufacturers Edison Price Lighting, Litelab, Nulux

Lighting designer George Sexton has been working on museum projects since the early 1970s. He acknowledges that tracklighting is the most cost-effective means to put a fixture in the right place to correctly illuminate art without glare or reflection. His design for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) uses recessed track with adjustable spotlights. The track, known as busway, works better with present-day lighting codes, allowing for longer track lengths and fewer junction boxes, which ultimately is more cost effective. Sexton worked closely with the museum's exhibition team, architect Yoshio Taniguchi, and executive architect KPF, to achieve a highly integrated design.

Slotlux (a term coined by Edison Price) is a flexible and recessed linear system that is tightly designed into the ceiling construction. Used primarily in the MoMA public entry lobby spaces, the flangeless system is adjustable and versatile. The panels that give the fixture a streamlined appearance can be moved and replaced according to display demands and curatorial needs. Sexton developed a similar system with Price at Edison Price Lighting in the 1980s and has continued to refine its components with Price to accommodate MR16 lamps.

Project New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
Tracklighting System Custom-designed track system with linear fluorescent and quartz halogen PAR lamps
Lighting Designer Tillotson Design Associates, New York
Manufacturers Bartco, Lighting Services Inc.

Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, known together as SANAA, are masters of minimalism. Every detail of their New Museum of Contemporary Art (a stack of spare, white cubes in the once gritty Bowery neighborhood) is highly refined, including the lighting. When the architects first presented their concept to lighting design firm Tillotson Design Associates, the illumination scheme was simply expressed as a series of parallel lines of light. “The light is as much about the architecture as it is about the art in the building,” says David A. Burya, a senior lighting designer at Tillotson. The challenge for the team was to find a flexible, neutral system that would create a bright environment suitable for contemporary art.

In terms of lighting, contemporary art requires less attention to preservation than older works, thus it is able to withstand fluorescent exposure. Tillotson worked with lighting manufacturers Lighting Services Inc. (LSI) and Bartco to design a custom bus scheme. It uses linear T5HO fluorescents adapted to mount on a busway spine the designers selected from LSI. Accent PAR38 spotlights link into the same track. Keeping with SANAA's minimalist aesthetic, the Bartco fixture was retooled to fit into the track, and refinements included removing extraneous knock outs and screw holes until the fitting was nearly just a piece of bent metal. All emergency lighting is integrated into the busway, which is fed from both ends, with one dedicated emergency feed, so the gallery ceiling remains a model of simplicity.

Project Bloch Building Addition, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.
Tracklighting System Stitch track system to respond to ceiling configuration
Lighting Designer Renfro Design Group, New York
Manufacturer Edison Price

The signature of architect Steven Holl's Bloch Building Addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum is five glass pavilions. The architect refers to them as “lenses,” because they flood the below-grade galleries with daylight. Clerestories in the pavilions allow for a connection to the outside and shape the interior architecture. In addition to the tracklighting, the natural light offers a small amount of ambient illumination for the artwork. Moreover, ceilings in the galleries are not flat; they slope and peak to follow the rolling grass planes above. Lighting designer Richard Renfro's “stitch track” is a response to the challenge of the sculptural architecture. Unlike traditional linear track, stitch track deftly conforms to the unusual architectural topography. The recessed system looks like a dashed line sketched across the surface—12-inch segments alternate with 16-inch gaps. The track is connected and aligned in 8-foot units above the ceiling. Below, each stitch can hold two low-voltage track heads: either tungsten halogen PAR38 adjustable wallwashers with spread lenses or tungsten halogen AR111 adjustable accent fixtures. The lamp used depends on the ceiling height, which varies from 12- to 20-feet high throughout the galleries, and the kind of artwork being illuminated.

Renfro's and Holl's teams worked closely on the lighting solution, eventually blurring the line between architecture and lighting design. “At one moment in the back and forth collaboration the track became part of the materials of the building,” Renfro explains. “The track is not just a tool to light art, but part of the architectural experience.”