When I was hanging an exhibition recently I was asked "How high should I hang the art?".  

Of course, there's a lot to consider when installing an exhibition and many opinions on this topic. So this will be a brief overview of some things to consider when hanging 2D art in a gallery.

First off the general - by the book- rule is that the center of the piece should be 58" from the floor.... but rules are boring. I only ever get so precise when I'm hanging a collection in a grid or the subject of the work really requires the work in the gallery hung at equal distance. 

When I set out to hang art for an exhibition I start by considering the variables for the show:

  1. The Artwork
  2. The Exhibition Space
  3. The Audience

1. The Artwork

  • If the work is a retrospective I'll likely hang them in chronological order.
  • People often default to hanging artwork in a traditional (piece after piece after piece) style. This makes perfect sense for some exhibitions but other times it can create a boring exhibition for the eye.
  • For a mixed group show, I'll likely hang them in small groupings where there may be a nice relationship between the pieces. Related to this, I identify pieces that just aren't meshing well with other pieces and ensure they have appropriate space, e.g. a portrait of a recognizable celebrity or politician can be hard to place beside other pieces and will likely need some breathing room.
  • If the pieces are hung in small groupings, never have them touch. Doing so, you're making a direct interpretive connection between the pieces. The viewer will read them as being the same piece and that can be in sharp contrast from anything the artist intended. Instead keep the pieces several inches apart...at least.
  • A lot of interior design resources speak of "gallery walls" where several pieces are hung together on one wall of your house, often stacked only inches from the ceiling. In galleries this is called "salon style". Installing work "salon style" will distract the viewer from being able to focus their attention on one piece since the pieces aren't at optimal height or light. However, for the right artwork (like a series of landscapes) this is a fun exhibition style and can keep a group of viewers interested for a long time. 
  • Consider how close the viewer will need to be to the piece to comfortably view the art. A large expressive painting can be appreciated best from a distance however a small piece, pencil drawing, or photo is best up close. Try not to push the viewer back and forth instead make a nice transition in the viewer's distance from the wall.
  • When installing in separate galleries you want to be thoughtful of the story you're telling the viewer. What they saw in previous galleries will influence how they read the artwork later on. Installing more challenging takes on the exhibition theme in the later galleries is a strategy worth considering.
  • As far as hanging height is concerned, the by the book rule isn't always the right choice. For example you may have a portrait painting where the face is in the upper 1/3 of the painting and the subject is looking at the viewer. You may want to hang a piece like this a little lower than what the rule is, so the viewer can best appreciate the piece.

2. The Exhibition Space

  •  I usually start by walking into the exhibition space to identify which walls/art I'll see first to ensure they are eye catching and a nice representation of the exhibit as a whole.
  • I consider windows in the space and what's on the other side. If there's foot traffic then I think about what those viewers will see. Don't put pieces that are collage or watercolor near windows as they'll fade quickly in sunlight.
  • Be mindful of different wall issues such as chair rails that may affect the height of the work. 
  • Lighting also needs to be considered. If you have a piece with a significant texture to it you'll want to be able to put a nice strong light on there to play up the shadows. (Lighting is a big deal to me and must be talked about in another post)
  • Think about other uses for the space during the exhibition. I won't hang art that is very sensitive and tactile in a space that may also be used for meetings or art classes.

Photo by Faith of Intuit

3. The Audience

  • This is where the height issue really comes in. If your exhibition venue or the artwork itself is geared towards children then hang the artwork a little lower than is optimal for you as an adult. 
  • Consider the flow for the reception. People will likely congregate where the food is. For this reason it's my preference to separate out salty snacks, sweet snacks, and beverages into three different stations so there's a better flow in the space. Be thoughtful about the sensitivity of the pieces near the food stations and what people will see as they approach and leave the food. Try to entice them to explore a different gallery in the distance.
  • I like to reward viewers by putting an unexpected piece around a corner. 
  • Wall text is a different conversation so I won't get into that right now, but since we're mentioning audience I have to point out that the viewers comfort in the space be considered. Make sure you have accessibility maps handy showing where there are quiet spaces, hands-on activities for fidgety kids, elevators, changing tables/nursing rooms for moms etc..

An exhibition is story telling, so as curator it's important to be respectful and supportive of the artists and the viewers.