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Frankenthaler Grant Powers Chazen’s LED Lighting Conversion, Sustainability Drive

Thanks to a grant from the Frankenthaler Climate Initiative, works at the Chazen Museum of Art will be seen in an entirely new light.

Ideally, everything will look exactly the same.

The $67,000 grant is funding conversion of the Chazen’s remaining halogen lighting to specialized LED bulbs, which, besides having exceptional color rendering capabilities, will save an estimated $30,000 a year in energy and labor and costs.

“We’re grateful for the support of the Frankenthaler Climate Initiative,” said Kristine Zickuhr, the Chazen’s chief operating officer. “To our knowledge, we’re the first museum in Wisconsin to receive funding from this initiative.”

The Chazen was among 48 grant recipients in the $4.7 million funding round, which also included the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Some might recognize the name Helen Frankenthaler as the artist who painted Pistachio, a 1971 abstract painting featuring bold washes of color that’s a Chazen audience favorite. Frankenthaler, who died in 2011, created a foundation that later launched the climate initiative.

Zickuhr said the project aligns well with the Chazen’s strategic direction of ensuring sustainability, as well as a campus-wide sustainability initiative recently announced by UW–Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin.

For years, museums favored halogen bulbs because their crisp white light came closest to natural light. But more museums are switching to LEDs, pushed by federal lighting efficiency mandates and improved LED technology.

“Lighting is such an important part of the museum experience, but it’s often a passive experience until it’s missing,” said Kate Wanberg, the Chazen’s exhibition and collection project manager. “One single bulb burning out can disrupt the visitor experience. LEDs provide better light quality for viewing and they last so much longer, so it’s less likely our visitors will see artwork without a spotlight.”

The timing for the Chazen was a bit tight, according to John Berner, one of the prep team members who for the past several years have been riding up and down on a 20-foot lift, spending seven hours weekly changing 40 to 80 halogen bulbs. “We had to get our order in before March 1 last year because they weren’t making those halogen bulbs anymore,” he said.

Berner did extensive research on the new lighting initiative, which also included converting some fixtures so that all now use a single bulb type, and selecting bulbs that give the most accurate light for viewing art.

The familiar “warm to cool” color temperature rating that’s on most consumer LED bulbs was only one factor to consider. The Chazen also looked at the color rendering index (CRI) of bulbs, settling on a product with a 95 rating out of 100, with 100 being natural sunlight. “It just means something looks the way our eyes expect it to look, so a red apple will look like a red apple instead of looking maybe kind of washed out or a little bit bluish,” he said.

Unless you’re in the galleries on a daily basis, it’s not likely you’ll notice a difference, Berner said. “It might feel a little more neutral, a little less creamy, but overall we don’t think it’s something most guests will notice.”

Since LED bulbs last many times longer than halogens, spending large blocks of time every week replacing burned out bulbs will be a thing of the past. After lighting in the Chazen’s Elvehjem building was converted to LEDs in 2018, Gallery XVI of the Chazen was converted as a test. “I haven’t changed a single bulb in Gallery XVI yet,” he said.

The switch will save not only time but the careful orchestration with outside staff that was needed to replace halogens as they burned out. The Chazen is equipped with light-beam smoke detectors, which had to be switched off for hours weekly by Facilities Planning & Management staff.

LED bulbs also offer another time-saving advantage over halogens: consistency. Replacing burned out halogens wasn’t just a matter of swapping a new bulb for an old. Since halogen bulbs’ color temperature was less consistent, Berner said preparators used to spend considerable time matching new bulbs with those already in place.

“You might replace one halogen bulb in a gallery that will have the same even warm color temperature, and you put in a new bulb and it looks bright blue,” he said.  “It could be a real pain if you’re installing a new show and you’re having to completely start from scratch with the lighting, just sitting there swapping out bulbs over and over to get one that looks right.”

Chazen staff expect the project to be wrapped up by early summer, when the preparator team will be able to redirect bulb-changing time to other pressing projects. “It’s a win for everyone,” Wanberg said.