Every semester of the academic year, the MA—EX interviews a member of its community. Through these conversations, we explore our interests, navigate the shared territory of spatial practices and public communications, and ponder the future of exhibition design.
Read the most recent conversations below and check out the student-run zine for more MA–EX content.
Exhibition Designer & Fabricator
Adjunct Faculty CEX_6014
It was more of a practical thing. I graduated college in 1975 with a degree that enabled me to teach art in elementary, middle, and secondary schools. However, at the time, Maryland was laying off art teachers. I was 21, newly married, and trying to find a way to pay off bills. The Walters, which is a comprehensive art and archaeology museum owned by the city of Baltimore, had just completed construction of a new wing, which resulted in most of the technical staff quitting. I had interacted with The Walters through classes and decided to apply for a job as a security guard, thinking I would get a teaching job at some later point. After five years I still was not a teacher, but I had been quickly promoted from security guard to a trainee art handler and had also started working on installing exhibitions and lighting. I learned most of the skills for exhibition design from working as an art handler, and I was quickly promoted to an exhibition designer. I taught myself drafting conventions between projects and acted as an unofficial apprentice whenever we had professional exhibition designers come to work. I ended up working at The Walters for 28 years before taking a job at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where I was privileged to work as a contractor and project manager. That experience gave me what I call my “graduate training.” After the Cleveland Museum, I was offered a position at the Smithsonian Hirschhorn Museum of Contemporary Art, where I worked for 13 years before retiring last year. I now do independent and freelance work in addition to teaching the Materials and Fabrication course for the MA-EX program at the Corcoran.
Your line of work often requires you to engage with a wide variety of people. What are some of your tips for effectively collaborating with others?
Sometimes the people who make decisions are not always the ones who know the most. Read the room. There might be many people working on a project who all speak a different language and who have different goals. So, how do you get them to buy into your goals? Get people involved with every decision from contractors to designers. Treat the whole crew as if they are an important part of the puzzle. Communicate because you can’t put everything into construction documents. If you leave out one member of the team there is a potential for that aspect of the project to fall through.
In what ways do you see the fields of fabrication and exhibition design evolving as a result of the conditions we currently face? (COVID-19, politics, etc.)
The last exhibition I worked on at The Walters was expected to have a huge turnout with 250,000+ visitors. The opening was in part to celebrate a 10-year renovation of the museum. The museum had even worked with logistics specialists for advice on how to manage the crowd. However, the exhibition opened the Monday after September 11th and ended up only drawing a crowd of 20,000-30,000 people. The aftermath of 9/11 was hard to come back from for a lot of museums. With COVID-19, we might see something similar. There may be fewer museums in five years than there are now. I think it would benefit exhibition designers to expand their view of the jobs they might try for. Additionally, I wonder how long we will be able to work without some sort of board certification and what that will be based on.
Do you think sustainability has a place in the world of fabrication for exhibitions/museums?
Currently, the federal government requires that you recycle unused drywall, which can be used in making new gypsum and steel. Sustainability will only be successful in design if it does not require sacrificing quality; designers want things to look as good as possible. There are companies that specialize in consulting for sustainable design, and it’s a field that younger people have an increasing interest in. Now, it’s a matter of convincing older people of its merit. Additionally, because many of these sustainable practices and materials are new, they must all be tested to make sure they work properly in exhibitions. Another design field that younger people are interested in is accessibility.
Scott Clowney MA–EX '11
Director of Exhibitions & Public Programs,
AIA DC Chapter at the District Architecture Center
While completing my architecture internship here in Washington, DC, I thought often about pursuing a master’s degree. The question, however, was whether to continue with architecture or diversify my skills by exploring other options. As I volunteered at the National Building Museum, surrounded by amazing architecture, the building arts came alive for me in ways I had not expected. Wandering the exhibitions on view, I was intrigued by the art of architecture on display. It became magical to me and inspired my journey into the world of exhibitions.
How did you end up in your current position with AIA|DC? In what ways did your time in the program prepare you for this role and what it involves?
After graduating from the Corcoran College of Art + Design, I came across a job ad by AIA|DC—formally known as the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects—for a part-time gallery assistant. The nonprofit was getting ready to debut the District Architecture Center, and I was excited at the prospect of coupling this opportunity with exhibition design contract work I had already landed at the National Building Museum. I interviewed, got the job, and have been with AIA|DC ever since in slightly varying roles focused on exhibitions. Today, as director of exhibitions and public programs, my role has evolved to implement programs such as lectures, films, tours, and more.
The Corcoran exposed me broadly to the process and rigors of exhibition-making through coursework in history, design, graphics, lighting, and more. The experience painted a real picture of the breadth and collaborative nature of this practice, whether in a design firm, museum, or organization. In the positions of gallery assistant, coordinator, manager, and director, I’ve experienced all facets of the process from research and writing to design and installation, and everything in between. At AIA|DC, we don’t have the luxury of the large departments you find in major museums, so understanding the broad practice of exhibition-making has been a real asset for my position.
Were there any projects you’ve worked on that felt like turning points in your career? Why?
My first taste of exhibition design happened while I was an undergraduate student at the University of Kentucky College of Design School of Architecture. For the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, our team—led by the dean—designed Museum Architecture Around the World, an exhibition featuring artistic, experimental, and eye-catching trends in cultural building design after the popularity of architect Frank Gehry’s critically-acclaimed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. That experience stayed with me, showing me that architecture could be encountered through storytelling, visual means, and spatial experiences. It wasn’t just about the practice of constructing buildings.
Are there any areas where you see the fields of architecture and exhibition design overlap? How might both of these fields be used as tools to respond to some of the conditions we currently face (COVID-19, politics, etc.)?
The practices of architecture and exhibition design are similar in that both involve multidisciplinary expertise: Buildings require architects, engineers, mechanical/electrical/plumbing specialists, builders, etc.; displays require space planners, graphic designers, media producers, installers, etc. It’s a choreography of collaboration and coordination between creative and practical partners. Elsewhere, architecture typically serves as a setting or framework for exhibitions—in galleries, museums, and outdoor spaces. The relationship is naturally one of reciprocity or coordination, where the two work together to support a story or experience for an audience.
As stewards of the built environment, architects are responsible for the safety and welfare of the public. That responsibility is heightened when issues like the pandemic, political discord, and social injustice arise with responses needed. Such issues demand creative solutions to the ways we live, work, and play and to the ways we interact, debate, and heal in the public realm. Architects are creative, resourceful, and capable of responding with fervor, whatever the challenge. Exhibition designers—stewards of the experience—must also ensure that information and displays are authentically derived, effectively communicated, and emotionally engaging. With issues like economic hardship, gun violence, and food insecurity, exhibition designers can contribute compassionate and thoughtful solutions that bring understanding, healing, and action to the process of exhibition-making.
You’ve authored a few coloring books that feature historical architecture. How did this project come to fruition? What was the process for getting it published?
Art—drawing, painting, photography—has always been a part of my life, with architecture a core interest in my work. A few years ago, I shared drawings of historic buildings with my associates at the National Building Museum. They encouraged me with their feedback and introduced me to the publisher. From there, the project rocketed forward. After a few iterations, we settled on a look and feel for the book—black-and-white line drawings with a realistic appearance would be complemented by brief facts and historical notes. It’s part fun, part educational, and it all began with Washington, D.C., followed by Boston and New York.
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