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Art is inextricably connected to light.

It’s not just in the interplay of brightness and shadow, or in the brilliance and texture of color. In illuminating a painting, a photograph, or a sculpture, light is essential in helping the art tell a story. Through light art reaches its full potential visually, historically, and pedagogically.

Even before the dawn of electric light, the relationship between art and its light source was intimately intertwined. An example of this affinity can be seen in the display of a painted icon in a Byzantine church where the gold halo is illuminated by carefully positioned candlelight. In the darkness of a church with limited windows, the flicker of reflected light off the gold paint brings the aura and the image to life.

As the lighting of art has progressed from a simple candle to the widespread establishment of electric lighting, museum curators, architects, and lighting designers have additional tools to diversify their approach to rendering art. Today’s museographic lighting palette has expanded to include the use of both ambient and accent lighting and the balance of natural and electric light.

Contemporary museum lighting often calls for an individualized approach in which aimed track heads, precise optical and intensity control, and quiet backgrounds celebrate the individuality of each piece. However, the lighting experience need not be static: Museums can embrace the ever-changing nature of natural light in the display of art through use of controlled skylights and expansive shaded windows, in conjunction with electric spotlighting that mimics that of daylight.

Thanks to advances in LED lighting technology, the range of whites and colors expressed by electric lighting can not only illuminate artworks, but bring out qualities that viewers may not have considered, including how the work looks at different times of day, how to best express the artist’s intent, and how to convey historical accuracy. One example of new technology well-suited to art is Ketra, a revolutionary, dynamic LED product that can produce every shade of white light and millions of colors all from one light source. With such technology, the ways to showcase and experience art are boundless.

But in order to create the optimal art display and viewing experience, this versatile light needs quality controls. Lighting controls are key to create mood and ambiance and to make exhibition spaces more navigable, welcoming, and comfortable places. With occupancy and vacancy sensors, programmable dimming, and automated shading solutions, lighting and lighting control enhance the art and the viewing experience.


The transformative power of Ketra

Indeed, the use of Ketra luminaires offers a host of opportunities for today’s lighting professionals.

Monet's Water Lilies at the Nelson Atkins Museum.

Consider Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, which is on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Monet completed many of his garden paintings at his home in Giverny painting “en plein air”—outside—and therefore the brushstrokes, colors, and style echo the playfulness and dappled effect of outdoor light.

With Ketra, the curator and lighting designer can re-create the natural light of that serene landscape. Natural light changes color temperature during the day, from the warm yellows of sunrise to the sharp blues of midday and back into the softer “golden hour” hues of late afternoon. Ketra lighting can be programmed to correspond to those color temperatures, so paintings such as the Water Lilies can be viewed differently over the course of a day—or, if the curator desires, the light can be locked in to evoke that of midday sunlight.

Ketra's high color rendering index.

Click charts to enlarge

In addition, Ketra’s high color rendering index (CRI) and Vibrancy features can showcase colors faithfully or in an exaggerated fashion. This gives the artist, curator, and/or designer the power and choice to pop colors, bring out the detail of a painting’s brushstrokes or a sculpture’s texture.

The balance of color temperature, CRI, and Vibrancy is not only an aesthetic tool; it can also augment historical narratives. For example, a 16th-century sculpture of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in the Art Institute of Chicago had been displayed under standard gallery lighting for years, making the work appear chalky and dull. Ketra light offered a controllable medium to adjust color temperature, vibrancy, and optics to create the right and historically accurate effect. After many tests, the museum director dialed in one lamp at 2700 Kelvin(K), at a dimming level of 90%, and another at 2850K to illuminate the sculpture’s face and dress, respectively. Thus, a more balanced Saint Catherine of Alexandria came to life.

sculpture of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in the Art Institute of Chicago.
sculpture of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in the Art Institute of Chicago.

“Using Ketra alters the way I think about the lighting process,” says Wendell Walker, deputy director of Operations, Exhibitions, and Design at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. MoMI recently installed an exhibition of “Simpsons” animation cels and used Ketra to bring out the boldness of the colorful works. “It’s so flexible and capable. It really comes down to being able to place the light specifically where you want it, with the right color temperature and exactly the right intensity.”


Curation is control

Lighting controls in general can support a variety of exhibition goals, including the conservation of art pieces. As light can damage and fade materials over prolonged periods of exposure, it is important to have precise control of the light, and in some cases, the ability to turn off lights when exhibition halls are unoccupied.

Thus, using dimmable controls and occupancy sensors, a work on paper or an antiquarian object can be protected by being kept in darkness until a patron enters the room. Motorized shades over skylights or in windows can also act similarly—being programmed by timeclock or triggered by daylight sensors—to cover windows during moments of extreme daylight and open when there is little direct daylight.

In addition to facilitating preservation efforts, controls can create the right atmosphere and aesthetic for any style, preference, or moment—with color temperature transforming the mood of a space and the reading of an art piece, and light levels regulated to create moments of atmospheric quietude or high drama.

Display of Buddhas in the Beijing Capital Museum.

For example, in the display of Buddhas in the Beijing Capital Museum, Lutron controls enable a high-drama atmosphere in which lighting contrast creates a solemn appearance, bringing forth the features of each face while celebrating the individuality of each sculpture.

In general, new LED light sources, when paired with advanced controls, can offer long-term flexibility to an ever-changing environment. Using digital controls typologies—such as Ketra’s wireless protocol or Lutron EcoSystem—each lamp or light fixture can be individually dialed in to the needs of the piece it illuminates, then easily changed as exhibitions rotate. Such flexibility is further supported by robust control systems like Lutron’s new Athena solution, which offers designers and curators the ability to reconfigure and rezone spaces quickly and easily without rewiring. Further, the curator or lighting designer can set the scenes through the Lighting Designer app, giving them the autonomy to make in situ changes.

Whether it’s calling attention to the tiniest brushstroke or textural variation, bringing natural light indoors through automated changes in color temperature, or simply making a display space more comfortable and welcoming, controls can accomplish a host of objectives. With lighting control, light and art are more than connected—they’re partners in making art and spaces into grand statements of beauty and purpose.


Cecilia Ramos.

By Cecilia Ramos, Sr. Director, Architectural Market, Lutron Electronics