Gallery designers shape your experience

Artists show you what they want you to see.

Critics explain why a body of work is or isn't worth your time.

But there's another group that tells you how to look at art. And if they do their jobs well, you'll never know they were guiding your eyes or pointing your feet.

Kurt Warnke, the Mint Museum's head of design and installation, is such a guy. Lin Barnhardt, visual arts director for the Cabarrus Arts Council, is another of that unheralded breed.

The former presides over spacious, empty galleries at the uptown museum. The latter utilizes every attractive bit of space at the historic Cabarrus courthouse in Concord.

Warnke, a painter and printmaker who has worked for the Mint since 1983, speaks in the same vocabulary as the artists he displays: "I use shape, space, balance, tension and rhythm."

Barnhardt, who works in ceramics and specializes in 3-D representations of buildings, joined the arts council staff in 2005. He creates an experience so unified that mixtapes playing through the galleries are themed to fit the current show.

Yet their challenges remain the same: to present two- and three-dimensional pieces in a way that maximizes your pleasure and comprehension and leaves you feeling satisfied, rather than bored or fatigued.

'Surrealism and Beyond'

This new exhibit - three exhibits, really, of surrealists working in America in the middle of the last century - stops you in your tracks before you start. A freestanding wall, built for this show, introduces you to the four artists with texts before you get much of the flavor of their work. Even that wall, Warnke reminds us, is a choice the Mint team had to make.

The team in this case consisted of Warnke and curator Jonathan Stuhlman, not to mention educators and conservators and documenters who researched and/or wrote wall texts and brought the art to Charlotte in proper condition.

"The curator's is a scholarly position," says Warnke. "Mine is a visual position. We'll argue, each from good perspectives, about the way to display any show. But we often agree."

Take something as simple as color. Warnke's squad painted the walls green for Yves Tanguy and Kay Sage, reflecting the color palette the husband and wife both favored. (It's also a visual pun: sage green. Warnke says that was unintentional.) Blue and purple walls do the same thing for the other surrealists.

He explains that reflected light coming off a bright red or orange painting may also affect the way you see a gallery. Sometimes chilly white walls work best; sometimes, as with baroque pieces, they don't.

Warnke, who's more than 6 feet tall, doesn't design the art for his ideal eye line. Instead, he aims for a 58-inch center point that strikes an average between NBA power forwards and children or viewers in chairs. Lighting matters, obviously, though "that's the last thing we get to."

Artists' postcards and letters and family photos in freestanding cases create a homey environment. "It's a way of demystifying the art and the process," he explains. "(Artists) are regular people who simply see the world in a different way."

Perhaps most crucially, designers place the art - often chronologically, sometimes thematically - in ways that create patterns. Sometimes they lead you through galleries in certain directions; sometimes they reinforce themes by grouping three or four pieces.

"You have to look for conversations," Warnke often says of related objects that enhance our overall understanding of an artist. "I see those conversations outside the gallery and then I can hang the art."

'In and Out'

Lin Barnhardt searches for conversations, too. But it's a trick to pick them out of the visual tumult created by 19 extraordinarily different artists.

He makes deft use of all valuable space at the old Cabarrus County courthouse: traditional galleries, a long central hall, a smaller hall leading down to the rest rooms, a reception area with a greeter's desk, even a conference room. A small rectangle that might serve you and me as a closet has been turned into a gift shop; a larger one, a slice of space cut between two galleries, holds his office.

All the pieces here are for sale, unlike the Mint. Barnhardt prefers large group shows so that "if you come in here, I know you will find something you like."

He may receive five to seven objects from each artist in a large format, nine to 11 in a small one. He doesn't know "what it's all going to look like until it shows up. Then I have two weeks between shows to assemble this gigantic puzzle." (Warnke gets three to four weeks to change a show.)

Yet the Cabarrus rooms don't look haphazardly arranged, even when paintings in oil and wax share space with vivid quilts or ornate, bejeweled fabric pieces.

"Sometimes I find shapes that connect pieces," he explains. "Stones in a glass bowl may be like the eggs in a painting. The vine pattern in a quilt will echo the woven reeds in a basket.

"If there's an intense color in a large work, a quilt or a painting, I may choose other pieces for that room that relate to it."

He has restrictions, too. The county doesn't want to remove a mantel in one room, so he has to put small pieces on top of it. Another room holds a handsome wooden conference table and chairs. A 3-foot chair rail from courthouse days runs hither and yon. So certain objects have to be hung high, though Barnhardt also prefers a center point about 5 feet above the ground.

Prices vary hugely - $50 to $6,750 in the current show - but he makes sure every artist is represented in the two front galleries or the main hall, so casual visitors can see work by all of them. He even hangs strong pieces outside the restrooms, so everyone in the building has an equal chance to pass potent art.

Trusting intuition

And in the end, neither man can always describe what he does.

Barnhardt recalls the time he "hated a show we'd put up - it wasn't cohesive, somehow. So we re-hung everything."

Warnke mentions pragmatic choices: avoiding bottlenecks where a clump of visitors might choke off a traffic flow, trying to accommodate living artists' preferences for display (within reason).

At the same time, he says, there's an intangible quality about the way a group of works presents itself to him.

He likes to paraphrase John Nash, the mentally troubled subject of "A Beautiful Mind." Says Warnke, "He believed his genius was not in understanding mathematics, but in understanding relationships."

And once you understand them, you can reveal them to others in a thoughtful if unobtrusive way.

"There's a little bit of theater in what we do," says Warnke. "But you want to stay away from the point where the exhibit matters less than its design."