Model Citizen

Deep in the SFMOMA basement, Sarah Choi creates an art lover’s wonderland, in miniature.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibitions design manager Sarah Choi surveys a model of one of the museum’s galleries.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibitions design manager Sarah Choi surveys a model of one of the museum’s galleries.

Sarah Choi lowers her gaze to peer into the fourth floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The museum is preparing for its big spring exhibition there, Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, a retrospective of the pop artist’s work that’s opening May 18, and Choi is responsible for making sure everything about its presentation is just so. In the middle of one of the gallery rooms, several of Warhol’s Brillo Box (Soap Pads) sculptures are stacked together. Choi picks one of the wooden boxes up, turns it delicately between her fingers, and sets it back down.

Of course, this particular sculpture is only three-quarters of an inch tall—and certainly not worth the $3 million that one of the real-life Brillo boxes recently fetched at auction. In the museum’s model room, Choi has created a dollhouse stand-in for the 460,000-square-foot museum that serves as a brainstorming and staging area for upcoming exhibitions. Choi, as SFMOMA’s exhibitions design manager and model maker, reigns over miniaturized versions of the hulking museum’s galleries, and some 6,000 tiny artworks scaled to fit inside them, including Warhol’s Brillos.

In an era when three-dimensional digitally designed mock-ups and CAD renderings are the industry norm, this decidedly analog approach is charmingly anachronistic. Yet for Choi and the team of curators, assistants, conservators, and graphic designers who together decide on the pacing—and spacing—of an exhibition, the model room offers a refreshingly hands-on approach to exhibition design. Like other large museums, SFMOMA does sometimes use computer-modeling programs like SketchUp for such work, but, as Choi says, “a computer screen is really just for yourself with one mouse, versus having a group of people together discussing [the exhibit] and moving things around and saying, ‘How about here? How about there?’ ”

A miniature version of the sculpture Geometric Apple Core, by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.
A miniature version of the sculpture Geometric Apple Core, by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

Looking over the gallery models is like peering into a matchbook-size version of the museum’s upcoming year. Seven models sit atop seven long, rectangular tables: one for each of the museum’s floors. There’s also an L-shaped model for the fourth floor, where SFMOMA stages its largest exhibitions. On a table adjacent to the Warhol show’s model is an initial plan for L.A. performance and video artist Suzanne Lacy’s spring exhibition, We Are Here, complete with little visitor figurines gazing at the plywood walls.

Choi, a former jewelry designer, learned the art of model making from her predecessor, Kent Roberts. After working as an exhibition coordinator at a Bay Area gallery, she earned a master’s degree from San Francisco State in museum studies, and in 2009, she joined SFMOMA as an exhibitions design intern. Four years later, when the museum closed for its three-year, $305 million expansion, she started working in earnest on exhibition models for the new galleries. Though the old building also had a space for models, Choi was the first to truly bring an artist’s eye to the miniatures—her predecessors had tended to simply block out a work’s approximate size rather than try to effectively replicate its look. “It’s my fault, I think,” Choi says of the monumental effort that goes into each exhibition design. “I love the challenge. Like with the [recent]Donald Judd furniture show, I was so excited to make the maquettes for those.”

The work of building out an exhibition model begins between one and three years before a show goes live. As each work of art is secured, either through a loan, from the Fisher Collection, or from the museum’s permanent collection, Choi begins to delicately craft a model of the piece from scratch, working at a scale of a half inch to one foot. Materials run the gamut, depending on the artwork Choi is trying to reproduce. Sculpey clay is a frequent choice, along with balsa and wood glue; X-Acto knives are a favored tool. (Choi attaches magnets to the back of each creation; the walls and floors of the model galleries are covered with magnetic paint.) All told, Choi speculates that she creates some 3,000 tiny works of art a year, each of which takes between a few hours and a few days to complete. Once they’ve been staged and the exhibition has opened, the maquettes are discarded; only the museum’s permanent collection remains filed away for future use.

It’s impossible for Choi to pick a favorite Warhol model. She’s still working her way through the 300 pieces to be displayed, although the pink-and-yellow Cow (1966) wallpaper splashed across all four walls of a room in the gallery model is quite striking. Then there are the Brillo boxes—which, as is so often the case with art, offer their own kind of meta-commentary.

After all, Warhol’s Brillos are, themselves, scale models of the real thing, or, as Choi puts it with a laugh, “maquettes of maquettes.” 

Ian A. Stewart is a San Francisco–based writer and editor. His work has appeared in San Francisco, Diablo, and the New York Times.

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