by Amber Spicer
Editor’s note: This fall, University of San Francisco museum studies graduate student Amber Spicer sat down for the following interview with Professor Stuart McKee to discuss his new spring 2015 exhibition design practicum and career as a designer. Next month, Stuart will be giving a public lecture at USF on typography in conjunction with Thacher Gallery’s Reformations exhibition.
Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in design?
Stuart: What inspired me was the ability to produce handmade books as a printmaker. My undergraduate degree was in Fine Arts from Washington University in St. Louis. I first came to San Francisco in 1984 and fortunately found a job working as a fine art printmaker for Donald Farnsworth at his West Oakland press. My responsibilities included working with different Bay Area publishers to produce limited-edition books. I realized that I was equally interested in the books as I was in the prints. These projects led to my interest in becoming a designer.
Q: When did your interest in book design expand to exhibition design and museum work?
Stuart: While I was preparing to go to graduate school I happened to attend an exhibition at the Legion of Honor on the works and drawings of Leonardo. It was an incredible exhibition. I was really moved and impressed by the artifact cases, in particular. Since the artifacts were mainly drawings that had two sides, they were framed inside cases that allowed visitors to walk around the piece and see the back of the drawing through the transparent case. It was a lovely presentation and it inspired me to consider focusing on exhibition design when I went to graduate school.
Q: You’ve had a lot of interesting experiences in the field. Could you tell me about a favorite?
Stuart: I have lots of favorites because I really like what I do. In fact, my career is very easily defined by both exhibition design practice and book design practice. I became a full time educator during the late 1990s. You need a team of people to produce an exhibition: to design it. I realized when I became interested in design education and research that I couldn’t do both, as they are both full-time jobs. I have therefore focused on book design. That said, I’ve had so many projects that have been exciting to me for the reason that both fields are intellectual. I’ve made it my focus that I will only take on projects throughout my lifetime that have a strong educational foundation, and books and exhibitions both do that nicely. I’ve designed exhibitions for the Smithsonian Institution, and books for institutions like Office of the Chief Architect in Washington DC. It’s fun to do that kind of work because I know it’s going out with a good purpose.
Q: What are some of your current projects?
Stuart: I’m mostly writing and teaching right now, and I’m also designing a book for Father Antoni Ucerler and the University of San Francisco’s Ricci Institute of Chinese Western Cultural History that I’m excited about. It’s titled Legacies of the Book.
I’ve also been researching my own book project on typography for eight or so years, and it is about halfway written. I’m trying to keep my design time down until I get that manuscript complete, which I think will be another year and a half to two years.
Q: Can you tell us about the Exhibition Design Practicum? What are some of your goals for the class?
Stuart: The course is an opportunity to give students experience working with an actual exhibition, and that’s why we call it a “practicum.” The students will design an exhibition of Native American basketry for Thacher Gallery. We have to consider movement through the space, how the narrative becomes something that uses that space well, and how the artifacts and their cases use that space. We will be assisting in the design of the floor plan and the case layouts as well as many specific graphic elements. We will very likely also have a website, and hopefully a series of interior and exterior banners, for promotional and educational purposes. It will be, over the course of a semester, a really nice experience.
Q: University of San Francisco’s graduate museum studies program is comprised of people who want to pursue lots of different careers within museums. Why do you think that exhibition design is important to study regardless of the museum profession a student intends on holding?
Stuart: If you could sum it up in one word, that word would be: insight. I really believe that in order to have a good experience in Museum Studies, students should learn a lot about what is required to put on a successful exhibition. A great way to do this is to participate in the design process. Perhaps some students in my course may decide to pursue a career in design. And that’s a good thing. Design studios need people who are good at programming, planning, and thinking. Every exhibition design studio that I’ve worked includes someone who works as a curatorial expert with skills in presentation. For instance I worked for a couple of years with the Burdick Group here in San Francisco during the early 90s. I worked with a very good designer who also had strong curatorial thinking skills. And that would be the kind of person that a museum studies graduate might be. They might choose to work for an exhibition design office but to serve that design office in the capacity of a presentation expert.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like us to know about the class or yourself?
Stuart: I’m excited by the theme of Native American basketry that we’ll focus on in the course. I have a very strong research interest in Native American culture. I expect that the subject matter will benefit or inspire each student in very different ways.