Have you ever wondered why art galleries often have white walls? Potentially stark and uninviting, white is a widespread colour choice for many contemporary galleries. But is this the best background against which to display art?

Historical preferences: Before the rise of modernism in late 19th century, art was most frequently displayed in ornate, gilded rooms, against deeply coloured walls or densely patterned wallpapers. Such background surfaces were in keeping with the art being produced at that time, with paintings in both private collectors’ homes and public exhibitions traditionally hung “salon style”: side by side, from eye-level to the ceiling, in a dazzling visual spectacle of gilt and varnish.

Why the rise of white? With the rise of modernism, both art and the contexts in which it was displayed underwent significant change. Modern artists experimented with new ways of seeing, and gallery spaces were adapted to suit the new ideas and materials being explored. White was considered to be an effective means of creating a “pure” space; a void-like atmosphere, in which art could be experienced without superfluous distractions.

So what white is right? With the rise of globalization, white walls were rapidly adopted around the world – thus a seasoned arts patron could feel equally at home in a white-walled New York gallery as a white-walled gallery in Auckland. Yet even such an apparently uniform colour has been the subject of much discussion and variation, with no universal agreement as to the “right white” for showing art. Even in New Zealand, different public galleries gave different preferences:


- Wellington’s City Gallery uses Resene Antique White USA

- Palmerston North’s Te Manawa Art Gallery prefers Resene Gallery White

- Christchurch Art Gallery has experimented with several whites over the years to reach its current preferences: Resene Alabaster for its Permanent Collection Galleries, and Resene Black White for its Touring Galleries. According to Exhibition Designer Nathan Pohio, “The reason for the two different whites is due to the spaces, the lighting units and any accompanying colours that might be nearby.” And this is perhaps the reason for the wide divergence of opinion as to “what white is right” – it is a matter for each gallery to determine, accordingly to its own particular balance of setting, lighting and the nature of the artworks being displayed.
Is white still the best option for showing art? While many galleries exhibit on white walls, a number of galleries have turned the tide against the wall of white. It is said that the National Gallery in London has no white walls, opting instead for deep, dark colours in many of its rooms.


Closer to home, curator Greg Donson at Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery is an advocate of strong background colour for displaying art. He believes it contributes to an exhibition’s effectiveness, by providing drama and drawing attention. “What you’re after is a tone which enhances but won’t overpower the works”.


Te Manawa’s assistant curator Susanna Shadbolt confirms colours other than white are often used, according to what the artist or curator selects to best enhance the works on display. Colours recently used for Te Manawa exhibitions range from the rather sombre Resene Cod Grey to the vibrant orange Resene Hi Jinx.

The practical answer for private galleries, who often have neither the budget nor the energy to change their decor with each new exhibition, is to select a colour that will complement most works the gallery displays. For many galleries, a variety of white will remain a safe bet: it is a colour unlikely to draw criticism from artists and art patrons, and it saves the curator from having to consider different options. At ZIMMERMAN, initially we chose Resene Pearl Lustre (a creamy neutral), before subsequently changing to Resene Black White.

So what’s the conclusion? Whatever wall colour a gallery may select, the key aim should always be to create an environment in which the art, and not the wall colour, takes centre stage. 

For further information contact ZIMMERMAN - www.zimmerman.co.nz / This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.