Lighting Upgrade Helps Protect a Priceless Work of Art

03/20/2019 | By Sarah Kloepple

How do you properly illuminate a priceless work of art? Museums around the world have found answers to that very question. LOOP Lighting, a New York-based lighting design company, needed to do the same when it took on re-configuring the lighting system for the Nevelson Chapel at Saint Peter’s Church in New York.

Importance of Nevelson Chapel

The midtown Manhattan church that houses the chapel, Saint Peter’s Church, was completed in 1977 as part of the development of Citigroup Center.

The corporate/church/public facility is home to the only remaining comprehensive sculptural environment by modernist artist Louise Nevelson. Titled “Chapel of the Good Shepherd,” the sculptural environment comprises nine white paint and gold leaf three-dimensional wood abstractions of thematic material from the Christian tradition, intended as a place of joy, peace and transformation.

A view of entrance to
(Photo: A view of entrance to “Chapel of the Good Shepherd,” with Nevelson’s “Cross of the Resurrection” at left and “Grapes and Wheat” lintel over the door. Note: Not representative of the newly installed lighting program. Credit: Thomas Magno)

The chapel is currently undergoing a $5.75 million restoration, partly funded by a Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and an art conservation grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. The former grant funds improvement to things like lighting or HVAC to provide long-term care that protects national heritage materials.

[Related: The Impactful Benefits of this LED Lighting Retrofit]

The New Lighting

Ryoko Nakamura, partner at LOOP Lighting, led the lighting design effort on the Nevelson Chapel. LED lights replaced original bulbs, allowing for a decrease in the amount of heat and light damage on the artwork.

“We didn’t know anything about this chapel [beforehand],” she says. “We went on a site visit and did a walk-through and saw the artwork, and it’s a beautiful space. We were interested in providing lighting services and working with the team.”

Under the direction of Kostow Greenwood Architects, who is leading the design team, art conservator Sarah Nunberg and Pastor Jared R. Stahler, LOOP Lighting created mockups of different designs before the chosen design was agreed upon.

“We came up with a more minimal approach, creating very clean perimeters,” Nakamura says. But mimicking the old lighting scheme using new LED tunable technology, while working with art conservationists, proved to be challenging.

The final design preserves the quality of the light as well as the shadows—so important to Nevelson, Stahler says, as she is regarded as the first sculptor to employ shadow as a formal element

Recessed wall washer fixtures with LEDs hang above sculptures, allowing for fewer fixtures to fully light the sculptures as the artist intended, while at the same time reflective of the original fixtures and their layout. Track lighting allows for additional ambient lighting in the evening.

[On topic: Tunable White Lights Can Improve Health and Well-being]

“Tunable white mixes natural and artificial light sources,” Nakamura explains. “We tried to mix the color of natural daylight with the artificial LED lights. … The tunable [technology] changes the color and intensity of the LEDs throughout the day.”

Comparing Tunable LED Lighting Controls Costs

As the technology becomes more accessible, tunable LED lighting controls are proving to be a popular preservation tool. The high light quality and ability to control color temperature can do priceless works of art the justice they deserve. When considering relamping or retrofitting with this new technology, Nakamura recommends looking first at cost.

“Four to five years ago, retrofitting was still the best solution because of the cost of LEDs,” she explains. “They’re not that expensive anymore. Sometimes retrofitting costs more, takes more time and could be more difficult than having new lighting. It depends on the project, but you need to ask yourself, ‘Do I want to retrofit or just have new lighting installed?’”

As the Nevelson Chapel prepares to reopen to the public (a date has not been officially announced, as of press time), future visitors can rest assured that the artwork inside will be refreshed and well-illuminated.

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