Michael McCafferty Brings Gauguin into the SAM Dollhouse

This month's Essential Seattleite explains how SAM's big shows get onto the gallery walls.

By Seattle Mag January 13, 2012


This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Seattle magazine.

“The choreography is tricky,” says Michael McCafferty, and his position at Seattle Art Museum is indeed a dance of sorts. As director of exhibition design, he works with SAM curators to figure out which artworks and artifacts go where for every show.

The new Gauguin exhibit (which opens 2/9) is particularly complicated, since the pieces (50 paintings and two sculptures by Gauguin, plus 66 Polynesian artifacts) are coming in from collections all over the world.

McCafferty has a mere two weeks between the time these 118 pieces land on SAM’s doorstep and the day visitors arrive. He worked with curators Pamela McClusky and Chiyo Ishikawa to develop the flow, using a table-top foam core model of the gallery to arrange miniature Gauguins and artifacts, taping the tiny paper replicas into position. Once the painting positions are delineated in blue tape on the real gallery walls, McCafferty relies on what he calls “intuitive math” for final tweaking. His goal for these countless hours of planning and effort? “I don’t want any of my work to show.”


McCafferty has been the director of exhibit design and museum services for the last nine years. He started at SAM 37 years ago as a security guard.

Since we’re in a seismic zone, McCafferty must pay special care to mounts for artifacts, such as those in the Gauguin show.

One of the artifacts in the Gauguin exhibit is a Maori meeting-house post—a sacred object that must be addressed verbally daily by a staff member (visitors should say hello, too).

McCafferty and his team design 20 to 24 exhibits each year, at SAM, Seattle Asian Art Museum and the Olympic Sculpture Park.

With no time to be sentimental about shows, McCafferty says, “As soon as it’s up, I’m trying to figure out how to get it down.”


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