Exterior view of the Yale University Art Gallery.
Christopher Gardner Exterior view of the Yale University Art Gallery.

With more than 200,000 objects in its care, the Yale University Art Gallery houses a vast permanent collection with works ranging in date from ancient times to present day. The collection has grown significantly since being founded in 1832. And today, after a $135 million renovation, the gallery finally has a structure worthy of its holdings. Or, rather, it has three structures. In December of last year, the Yale Gallery opened to the public after a massive overhaul led by New York–based Ennead Architects, which united three disparate buildings—a 1953 modernist structure by Louis Kahn; the 1928 Old Yale Art Gallery by Egerton Swartwout; and Street Hall, designed in 1866 by Peter Bonnett White—into one seamless museum. This project also marries a complex array of natural and electric lighting strategies, including a significant number of LEDs, to create a vibrant experience for visitors.

Figuring out how best to light almost 70,000 square feet of gallery space over three buildings, plus safely illuminate the more than 4,000 works that would be on display in the galleries, was the job of Steven Hefferan of Boulder, Colo.–based Hefferan Partnership Lighting Design. “It was one of the more complicated and rewarding projects I’ve ever worked on,” Hefferan says.

The first consideration was daylight. The architectural team, led by Ennead’s management partner Duncan Hazard and design partner Richard Olcott, hoped to expose some of the windows that had been covered throughout the years, to bring in light as well as views of the Yale campus. “Light was one of the motifs for the whole project,” says Hazard. “These are beautiful buildings and they have beautiful windows with views, but a lot of them had been obscured by storage rooms or offices. We were determined, to the maximum extent possible, to bring those back.”

Ancient art sculpture hall.
Elizabeth Felicella Ancient art sculpture hall.

This led to a healthy debate within the museum, according to Jeffrey Yoshimine, Yale’s director of exhibitions. “There were those focused on audience who wanted to allow a lot of vistas and provide inviting, bright, naturally lit galleries,” Yoshimine says. “On the other end of the spectrum were the conservators who wanted to preserve objects. We had to find a happy medium.”

In some galleries, Hefferan says, scrims were added to knock down light levels but still allow obscured views. In other exhibit areas, it was simply about a strategic placement of artwork. “It’s no coincidence that the south-facing window[ed] rooms get the Greek and Roman sculpture,” Hefferan says.

American paintings and sculpture galleries.
Elizabeth Felicella American paintings and sculpture galleries.

European art galleries.
Elizabeth Felicella European art galleries.

Because there is a science to how much light an art object can be exposed to over the course of a year to minimize damage, Hefferan helped the staff develop an annual light exposure budget for the different gallery spaces where sensitive artworks could be exposed to light readings above conservation standards for short durations, but then black-out shades and other similar devices are employed to minimize exposure when the galleries are closed. “If the illuminance criteria is defined on an annual basis then you can allow naturally higher summer daylight light levels to balance with lower winter daylight exposure and allow for a more dynamic viewing experience that changes with weather and seasons,” Hefferan says. “This is critical to allow daylit spaces to have more life and give patrons more of a connection to the outside world.”

Hefferan had a myriad of electric lighting needs to tackle as well. Some of the galleries required contemporary updates to historical fixtures, while others necessitated that 21st-century lighting systems be installed in 19th-century spaces. But the biggest challenge was determining the type of light source, says Hefferan: “Do we want LED or do we want halogen? There is pressure to move to LED—it’s fashionable for its efficiency and energy cost savings—but in the museum world there is hesitancy. The museum staff has been looking at these objects under halogen their entire life and LED just looks different.”

European art galleries.
Elizabeth Felicella European art galleries.

Indo-Pacific art galleries.
Elizabeth Felicella Indo-Pacific art galleries.

Modern and contemporary art galleries.
Elizabeth Felicella Modern and contemporary art galleries.

Hefferan began by educating the curators, conservators, and staff from Yale’s 11 different collecting departments on the nuances of LEDs, including the specifics of color temperature and color rendering. When the buildings were handed over to the museum at the beginning of 2012, they had almost a year to install the galleries and select luminaires before the grand opening. Hefferan says that the project greatly benefited from not having to specify exact track-mounted fixtures before construction, which meant that he could choose from the latest in LED technology. “Every three months, I’m amazed by what becomes possible in the LED world,” he says.

Mock-ups proved a useful communication tool in working with the curatorial and conservation teams, something that Hefferan learned during his days working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Curators like to see the art in situ with the paint color on the wall and the placards in place. The Gallery hung and displayed art in different gallery settings and let the staff experience the varying LED lamp types firsthand. Yoshimine says it changed the way the curators felt about LEDs. “The eye has been trained for so many years to accept the warm, almost yellowish characteristic of incandescent light as being the standard,” he says. “What Steve was able to do was demonstrate how LED lighting showed reds to be truly red, blues to be true blue. He demonstrated that across the curatorial departments so that he got [a] nearly unanimous buy-in for going in the direction of LED.” In the end, “the curators chose the 3000K color temperature,” Hefferan says.

LEDs were also used in many of the exhibition cases and in special installations, such as for backlighting a 16-foot-tall stained glass window—The Good Knight— by John La Farge. Hefferan worked with the gallery’s carpenters to customize a removable curtain of 54 4200K white LED light panels to go behind the window. “That would not have been possible any other way without making it either incredibly difficult to maintain or without having to provide accommodations for heat buildup,” Yoshimine says.

The architects added a suite of special exhibition galleries atop the Swartwout building and the largest gallery includes an undulating ceiling made of a resin material with a large skylight. “It’s great to have a skylight, but this is a special exhibition gallery, so the demands can go from 100 percent light to zero percent light depending on the show,” Hazard says.

Special-exhibition galleries in the Old Yale Art Gallery.
Elizabeth Felicella Special-exhibition galleries in the Old Yale Art Gallery.

Modern and contemporary art galleries.
Elizabeth Felicella Modern and contemporary art galleries.

To address this, the architects added operable louvers to the skylight to darken the space. However, Hefferan says, “the curators also didn’t want that ceiling to be dead in a blackout situation, so we developed an LED uplighting system to illuminate the louvers when they are closed creating a false sky effect.”

Since color temperature preferences vary depending on the show, Hefferan designed a system where each curator gets to mix the color to his or her preference via an easy-to-control dimmer system in a nearby closet. The question then became: Could the entire project be outfitted in LED alone?

Hefferan had some concerns. In a gallery setting, the illumination restrictions are low, and at Yale it’s just 5 to 15 footcandles for most of the objects displayed. The trick is creating a situation where visitors can adjust to the interior light levels quickly and stay there, or else you can create what Hefferan calls the “matinee effect,” where a user becomes blinded by the bright light. “A stray window or a high-glare track fixture immediately jumps you into a high [visual] adaptation [level] and then the place can look gloomy,” he says. Ultimately, Hefferan and the museum staff opted for a blended approach, with a combination of 20W MR16 halogen accent lights used to highlight the art with a 25W LED source for general ambient illumination and wallwashing.

Hefferan says he can see a day when a museum could be outfitted in all LEDs, but that the industry still has some work to do. “When I give a presentation on LED lighting used in museums, my subtitle is ‘A Cautionary Tale’ because of the potential for glare,” he says. “From my perspective, we’re going to get there, but it’s OK to move forward in small incremental steps.”

Street Hall elevator and stair.
Elizabeth Felicella Street Hall elevator and stair.

Project: Yale University Art Gallery Renovation and Expansion, New Haven, Conn. • Client: Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn. • Architect: Ennead Architects, New York • Lighting Designer: Hefferan Partnership Lighting Design, Boulder, Co. • Structural Engineer: Robert Silman Associates, New York • M/E/P/FP Engineer: Altieri Sebor Wieber, Norwalk, Conn. • Civil Engineer: BVH Integrated Services, Bloomfield, Conn. • Preservation Consultant: Building Conservation Associates, New York • Landscape Architect: Towers | Golde Landscape Architects, New Haven, Conn. • Exterior Envelope: Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, New York • Construction Manager: Dimeo Construction, New Haven, Conn. • Project Size: 159,000 square feet (Kahn building: 62,000 gross square feet; Old Yale Art Gallery and Street Hall: 97,000 gross square feet) • Project Cost: $135 million (Kahn building construction and reinstallation: $44 million; Old Yale Art Gallery and Street Hall construction and reinstallation: $91 million) • Lighting Cost: Not available • Code Compliance: IECC 2003 and 90.1-2001 • Watts per Square Foot: Most of the gallery space has a lighting power density (LPD) that varies with the collections displayed. On average though, the exhibit lighting in the galleries—a combination of LED wallwashers and halogen accent lighting—came in at 1.1W for the initial installation. • Manufacturers/Applications:  Bega (18W CFL steplight at main staircase);  B-K Lighting (20W MR16 halogen adjustable burial accent lighting at sculpture terrace);  Eaton’s Cooper Lighting Business/io Lighting (3000K high-output LED wall grazer at main staircase);  Focal Point (recessed adjustable accent light and wallwashers in elevator vestibules and gallery-adjacent corridors; 4' T5HO linear fluorescent slots in restrooms; and 4' T5HO fluorescent wallwashers in administrative offices);  Lighting Services Inc (museum-grade tracklighting systems—surface, pendant, and flangeless profiles—with 2044 series LED—25W, 3000K—and CX16 series 20W MR16 halogen trackheads in the galleries);  Nulux (recessed multilamp adjustable accent 20W MR16 luminaires in period rooms);  Philips Color Kinetics (alternating rows of 2700K and 4000K white LED striplights—QLX Series—above translucent ceiling in special exhibition gallery);  Rambusch Lighting (restoration and replication of historic decorative fixtures throughout the project using LED retrofit and CFL lamps);  Xicato (Artists Series LED modules for gallery tracklighting);  Zumtobel (recessed 4' T8 fluorescent fixtures—ML Series—in offices)