The Secret To A Great Art Gallery? It Might Not Be What You Think

Dec 8, 2017

It’s one of those things that’s best not noticed. It’s also the difference between seeing subtle shades of reds and whites and not. And it hangs above almost all gallery installations at art fairs this Miami Art Week.

Did you guess what is it? 

Lights.

Some of the lit art at Superfine.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

Inside the cavernous hallways of the Miami Beach Convention Center or the tents of art fairs in Miami, light is a necessary part of showing art, to bring out subtleties in color or highlight bold contrasts.

“Light, unfortunately, is this commodity that people don't really think about, until you've seen the difference between one versus the others,” said TJ Grewal, who works for the light company Soraa, which is lighting some of the art at the Super Fine Art Fair in Midtown Miami.

Soraa has lit galleries at the Natural History Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston.

“When artists are creating, most of the time they're doing it in natural light. They control that. Do they have control once it goes into a museum or goes into a show?” asks Grewal, “It’s really up to the venue really.”

Suprefine Art Fair.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

And while positioning and focus of lighting is important, the light element itself is equally important. A light’s quality does so much to bring out certain colors—or not. Imagine one of those old LED curly light bulbs that produced almost harsh, grey fluorescent light trying to light a Rothko—color block paintings with incredible subtleties in shading.

That’s where Soraa see itself storming into in the museum lighting market. It, too, is an LED, but with light quality is claims is almost like natural light.

“We're filling up the color spectrum in a way that is difficult for [other LEDs] to achieve,” said Charles Selander, head of global specifications for Soraa. Like many in the LED world, his approach was from the environmental side, concerned about energy efficiency.

Soraa lights.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

“Cold storage facilities is one of the easiest applications ten years ago for a good [return on investment],” said Selander. “If you're doing a freezer facility in Kansas or wherever it might be, color quality's much less of a important factor there. LED has progressed you know in so many ways since then.”

Soraa was co-founded by Shuji Nakamura, now a Nobel Prize winner in Physics for his work on creating a high-brightness blue LED. 

“We should be saving energy. But it almost kind of went too far,” said Grewal. “You still want to have great color and great characteristics of the things that you see. Light really does matter.”

Increasingly, he says there doesn’t have to be a tradeoff. Soraa is taking its lights to the everyday consumer market in the next few months. Already there are LED products in a variety of hues make by the likes of Phillips and EcoSmart.

Grewal says paying attention to light should not just be for museums, but for the home, so you can highlight the couch you spend hours hand wringing over what pattern fabric or cushions to get.

Lighting before final adjustment at Superfine Art Fair.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

“Our house is a little OCD on that front,” said Grewal

He says he’d like people not to notice how his 8th graders’ art is lit the same as a fancy painting because not noticing the light, but noticing the art is when they’ve got it right.

So maybe look up next time you’re in a gallery or museum.