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When the metal rolling door goes up and the gray curtains part, a museum different than any I have ever seen appears. The bright reds and yellows of Toulouse-Lautrec seem to scurry about the walls in random bunches, chased by workers wielding paint rollers dripping with serene blue and pristine white.

There is not a painting in sight but the buzz of a half-dozen workers and the clash of color give the room a vibration of excitement. The workers are calm, but purposeful, and no one is idle.

This is what it’s like behind the scenes of a museum hanging. Everything from the configuration of the rooms, to the levels of the floor, to the colors of the walls is changing. Fast.

The San Diego Museum of Art took down the Toulouse-Lautrec posters that had been on display for months on Jan. 2. But the walls don’t stay bare for long: A show featuring the British painters Thomas Gainsborough and Howard Hodgkin is scheduled to open Jan. 29.

Dylan Rodgers rolls on a fresh coat of paint for a new exhibit at the Museum of Art. Photo: Sam Hodgson

This is a hugely important event for the museum. Not only is it the new executive director Roxana Velásquez’s first visiting exhibition, but also it is the first time the museum has exhibited the work of Gainsborough, an 18th-century portrait painter and the first West Coast museum opening for Hodgkin, a living abstract artist.

“We have two artists set apart by 200 years who are working with the same idea that paint is a fantastic medium to express emotion,” says Julia Marciari-Alexander, the deputy director of curatorial affairs and education for the museum.

The walls are all being repositioned to show off multiple artists instead of just Toulouse-Lautrec. One of the most important things in the process are “sight lines” for visitors who will walk into the room with the Hodgkin paintings first, and from there be able to see into the room with Gainsborough’s work.

“After we took the (Toulouse-Lautrec) paintings out, we started breaking the walls apart and putting them into the new configurations,” explains Scot Jaffe, the associate director of exhibition and collections. “They are currently filling the seams of the re-positioned walls so it looks continuous.”

The process to configure the room took a half-dozen drafts on the computer and was complicated by the fact that 18th-century-style dresses will be exhibited on “exhibition decks” along with Gainsborough’s paintings. They will allow visitors to touch some of the lush fabrics they see in the paintings.

As I watch, workers screw small platforms, called exhibition decks, into the floors, and ready them for a smooth wood coating that I mistakenly call plywood. I am quickly corrected. Plywood can give off fumes, Marciari-Alexander says. The San Diego Museum of Art uses only a strong particle board called MDF.

“Even with the wood we use, we are careful,” she says. “This wood won’t harm the works of art.”

The new configuration includes a room at the end of the exhibit for the work of another artist, video artist Vanessa Beecroft. By displaying Beecroft’s work alongside Gainsborough’s and Hodgkin’s, the museum can show “contemporary art in its broadest context,” Marciari-Alexander says.

But to get there, there’s weeks of construction first.

Rodgers (right) and fellow painter Pat Hogan talk about the process as they work to get the painting done for a new exhibit.Photo: Sam Hodgson

While curators typically work many hours painting and repainting sections of walls and hanging the works to find the perfect color, this exhibit is a bit easier. Both collections of artwork have been successfully hung in other museums, so the local museum staff decided to continue with what curators casually call “Gainsborough blue,” which looks like a rich sky blue, and “Hodgkin white.”

“And (the Hodgkin walls) wouldn’t be that color if the artist didn’t agree,” Marciari-Alexander explained. Living artists often have opinions on wall colors as well as other aspects of an exhibit, she said.

Dylan Rodgers paints the walls in line with what curators call “”Gainsborough blue” and “Hodgkin white.”Photo: Sam Hodgson

The paintings from both collections are either in transit or being packed up for shipping. Museum officials don’t want to say much about the transportation of the paintings to San Diego to protect their security. Until they get here, the focus right now is preparing for them, something the curators call being “art-ready.”

Have a question about the process behind the scenes? Dani Dodge can be reached at Dani@DaniDodge.com.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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