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THE BERKELEY CIVIC ARTS COMMISSION LUTHERIE EXHIBITION

by Ervin Somogyi

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In the Spring of 2005 I was approached by the Berkeley Arts Commission to see whether I would be interested in mounting a public exhibition highlighting the skills, methods and tooling of lutherie. I agreed, thinking that this would be a nice project that wouldn't require an awful lot of work. Now, looking back on it, I can see that it turned out to be a wonderful project, but it took an awful lot of work.

The Addison Windows display -- which is what it's called locally on account of its location the street of that name -- is, to the best of my knowledge, the first open public exhibition of guitar making techniques and procedures anywhere. As the guitar has become an ever more accepted cultural icon in our culture there have been a number of formal guitar exhibitions and displays for the public, but they have without exception been displays of completed guitars and not the fine points of creating the instruments. And these are usually guitars of historical interest and importance, or guitars from prominent private collections, or guitars owned by the rich and famous. But aside from factory tours such as at the Taylor and Martin factories, there's been nothing at all about the processes of the art or the craft -- and factory tours just don't compare. This has been a real first.

The exhibit space is in downtown Berkeley, California; it's a series of display windows that face the sidwalk, exactly as though one were in front of a large department store. The space is well lighted; it is eight feet high, and three feet deep and almost seventy five feet long. There's also a smaller, eight foot long separate window to the right of it (which exhibitors usually use for personal, biographical information). This is more than large enough space for a good show of 3-D displays, photographs, parts, components, and finished guitars, as well as the signage that would accompany all these - including something personal about who we (and the larger lutherie community) were - in order for the exhibit to make full sense to a lay audience. This stretch of Addison Street is called Theatre Row: the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the Aurora Theatre, and the Roda Theatre take up most of the block directly across the street from the Arts Commission Windows. Therefore, besides the normal daily foot and vehicle traffic that Addison street supports, theatre goers line up in front of these theatres every evening of the week, and later exit in equally great numbers, all right across the street from the exhibit windows. So, apart from the kids from Berkeley High School two blocks over, and the normal downtown pedestrian traffic, this exhibit was going to be viewed by a lot of prosperous, educated, successful, and cultured older adults.

I made an announcement and called for participants at the next meeting of the Northern California Association of Luthiers. From that, we assembled a core group of ten members who were interested in chipping in and make this exhibition possible. The ten of us were a mix of full-time and part-time [acoustic and electric] guitar and ukulele makers, as well as friends and groupies who simply liked the idea of the show, and had had previous design and layout experience, and felt like helping (even though, not being builders, they wouldn't have anything to display). The parameters for the exhibit were pretty much open to whatever I/we wanted to do, the only fixed item to guide us being the scheduling of the show: we had eight months to prepare it, and it would be up for six weeks. The core group consisted of Lewis Santer, Michi Matsuda, D. Mayeron, Ralph Novak, Peter Hurney, Steve Card, Mike DaSilva, Annie Kook, Ray Kraut and me. We went to work: we had meetings.

We also needed to deal with what kind of intstruments to include or exclude. The question came up of whether to make this a one-off, or whether we could/should design the show in a modular way so that we could shop it around and ship it to other venues. The question came up of who "owned" the display materials between shows? And how would we share the out-of-pocket expenses, considering that some of us were exhibiting, and others were "merely" helping out. And did we want to do our own promotional mailings from our own mailing lists? Finally, acknowledged the need to balance and cull: we didn't want the show to be weighted toward one aspect of guitar making at the expense of another, nor so busy and cluttered as to overwhelm the audience.

Once we decided our display's direction, we needed to decide on our Theme. This would be our organizing principle/focus and would become both our main display signage header and press release opening statement; yep, there was going to be a press release involved, that the city would submit to the community's arts media. So, we talked about our Theme for several meetings. We discussed pros and cons such as: (1) is a given theme or phrasing intelligible to the layman? (2) Should we say "luthier", or "guitar maker", or "stringed instrument maker"? (3) Should we identify ourselves and our work with Berkeley, or the East Bay, or the Bay Area in general, or even Northern California? (4) How much information did we want to put out?: too much would confuse the public; too little information might be boring. (5) Did we want to have a lot of photographs and signage and a few lutherie-materials displays, or the other way around? We made a list on a large bulletin board and discussed theme ideas one at a time, and eliminated the unclear, wordy, pretentious, clumsy, awkward, and least pleasing ones. Eventually, we zeroed in on what we liked, and what we felt represented what we wanted to show. We chose: "Where Do Guitars Come From? The East Bay's Guitar Makers", and were pleased with it. It was a hook one could hang a lot of stuff on.

We thought of bringing in large pieces of plywood to provide background or backdrop surfaces. But, besides the expense of this (we were paying out of pocket), this left us with the problem of showing wooden objects against wooden backdrops: this would reduce contrast and make it harder for anyone to see the display items -- even if we brought in different colors/woods of plywood. We tried to put guitar parts against plywood "swatches" to get a sense of what would work. Wood on wood: bad idea. Finally, we decided to keep the off-white walls and use black foamboard backings and backdrops to frame our individual displays: foamboard is less expensive than plywood or fabric; it's dramatic and contrasting; it's not heavy and clumsy; and it wouldn't compete with the wood-color and -texture values of the objects we were going to show. The fact that the space had really good lighting was a gift and a plus: everything was going to be clearly and adequately highlighted. We felt that using black in the show would give the display more visual pizzazz. And, best of all, having both wood and foamboard against the cream-color-painted sheetrock walls would enrich the display texturally. At this point we felt we'd arrived at a couple of win-win decisions. Finally, we did something really smart in checking out the flow of traffic, to get a sense of whether our display narrative would make more sense from left to right or right to left.

It was a successful show: we'd managed to create a smoothly flowing diorama about our work that was informative, interesting, and easy to see even from across the street. After it came down, the Berkeley Arts Commission told us that this exhibit got the most positive response from the public that they'd ever had. We have reason to be proud of it.


©2010, Ervin Somogyi, all rights reserved.
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