You’ve laid out all the two dimensional artwork in your show. Gotten you left to right spacing just right, and now you need to start putting it on the wall. This is when you need to pick the centerline of the room, or wall,or maybe even just a single work. Finding a centerline for an installation is one of the most important things you need to do before you start hanging. It’s one of the things I get asked advice on most when installing in non-museum or gallery spaces. Just a note for the info going forward…this is about 2-D works. Pedestals and cases bring a different group of challenges.
Is there one perfect centerline? Some institutions subscribe to a specific centerline, but it is a misconception that there is a perfect height. It really is just a number that I have had dictated by artists, curators, directors, and sometime left up to me. For the most part my center lines run between 57” and 60”, but sometimes they have gone way out of that range. Here are some things to ask yourself when deciding on a centerline. The goal of these questions being, making up your mind and sticking to a plan. Changing the centerline halfway through a install can throw off the whole plan, and at that point you should just hang it salon style.
What is the perspective of the artist, curator, or designer?
Most artists, curators, and designers I have worked with have a specific idea on what their ideal centerline height should be. As I mentioned previously, most people fall somewhere between the 57”-60” range. I find this is usually in direct correlation to their height, but sometimes that theory doesn’t hold water. It’s always good to ask, and if the decision maker in the scenario doesn’t really know, start at the low end of this range and work up.
I have had specialized requests for very high or low centerlines. They have usually come directly from the artist. I was once asked to hang works at a 49” centerline line because the works were meant to be perceived as a horizon line from across the room. In similar reasoning, I had an artist in a wheelchair ask that his works be installed at a 52” centerline because it was the preferred height from his perspective. Another artist asked for centerlines even higher at 62” so that his visitors felt that art loomed over them, and made them feel threatened . This aspect of installation really can change the way visitors experience the works, and taking time to figure it out will help realize the experience that is desired by your client.
How big is the work?
Size does matter when it comes to centerline. At a certain height you won’t be able to maintain a average center height. Once the works and objects are taller than approximately 60” you will need to pick their hanging height a different way. Sometimes the hanging height of the wall will dictate this for you. I once had a 13’ tall painting to install on a 13’6” high wall. The math was pretty well done for me. At a certain point it is simply the physics surrounding getting the work onto the hardware.
I do have a rule of thumb though for large works that have all the height you could need (or this could apply to works that artists would like very low too). I don’t hang works lower than 15” from the floor if I can help it. The reason? Most baby strollers, wheelchair footrests, and machine powered floor buffers are about 13” high at the front point. Sadly this knowledge comes from the worst kind of experience, and that is damage related experience. Do yourself a favor, if you have to go lower than 15”, add a barrier of some sort. I’ll get into barriers in another blog, but a low set of stanchions can save you from a nasty conservation project.
Especially in the new culture of selfies where people back into things.
Is this work the only thing on the wall?
What’s happening near or in front of the artwork?
So a lot of the time I install artwork in places other than museums (private homes, hospitals, offices, hotels), and at these kind of locations the centerline can go way out of the normal range. I once did a festival install in a nail salon and my centerline line was 70” because it had to go over a group of massage pedicure chairs. The biggest challenge was balancing on a foot bath while trying to hammer hardware in the wall.
In unconventional spaces try to consider what else happens around the works. You should also consider overhanging the works with regards to the hardware you use. Clients will thank you when someone runs into a wall with a custodial cart and nothing falls off.
Another thing I recommend, if you are working in a private residence consider what will be going on in front of the works. I had a client once whose entry included a stairway up to his second floor kitchen. Since he wanted groups of small photos all the way up, I hung them with the expectation that grocery bags would be carried past them regularly. These questions are also important to ask when hanging over couches and furniture. I have regularly asked clients to sit on their couches while I measure to make sure heads will not knock back into treasured paintings.
In my opinion, the main thing when deciding on a centerline is to remember that you need to blend perspective with functionality. What is the desired effect, and how can you achieve it while keeping the work safe and accessible. Many people will make decisions based solely on the aesthetics of the work in the space, this is important, but short sighted. There is little point in installing work that can’t be appreciated, but there will be no work to appreciate if it ends up being destroyed because a foreseeable accident was not considered. Your client will rarely appreciate you insight at the time, but I’ve had many repeat contracts after my advice was heeded and it turned out to save the work from being damaged.