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From The Met’s Roman wonders to the Gibbes’ Rotunda, museum designer Jeff Daly recreates our experience of art
High over Meeting Street, through crowded storage rooms, up an old steel ladder, beyond a tiny hold-your-breath-and-squeeze-yourself-through portal, past a tenuous crawl along century-old timbers, there’s a brick maze in a dusty attic. Climb through the maze, gripping onto cables suspended above, and there’s a vault that leads to an emerald stained-glass mystery. Is it or isn’t it a Tiffany glass dome?
“You don’t want to step on the wrong thing; you don’t know where you’d go,” laughs Jeff Daly, daredevil museum designer-cum-trek leader through the Gibbes Museum of Art rafters. The maze, the dust, the dangerous climb and crawl, the mystery—did we mention the August attic heat? It’s all in a day’s work for the intrepid Jeffrey L. Daly, the Indiana Jones of the museum design world. With his affable charm; boyish good looks; and sly, knowing smile, Daly could give Harrison Ford a run for his money, but instead of escapades to uncover esoteric antiquities, Daly has crafted a remarkable career showcasing the world’s foremost art objects, so that we—the average museum-goer, art lover, or school kid dragged along on a field trip—can discover them for ourselves.
Throughout his three-decade tenure at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, including 27 years as the museum’s chief designer, Daly has brought us the columned splendor of the Greek and Roman galleries; the ornate intricacies of the Islamic Gallery; the lace, sequins, and leather from Diana Vreeland’s famed costume exhibitions; and the Vikings in all their ancient, hulking glory. Daly’s able hand and perceptive eye, his innate talent for bringing objects to life in new and surprising presentations and juxtapositions, is evident in nearly every corner and at every turn of the rambling and wondrous Met.
The range of art work that Daly has brought to life is mind-boggling: he corralled the fabulous Venetian “Horses of San Marco” in a 1980 exhibition; illuminated the bodice of Madonna (yes, that Madonna and her signature pointed-cone corset) in The Met’s “Rock Style” installation in 2000; and gave us anew the 2,000-year-old frescos from the imperial villa at Boscoreale, buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 and now on brilliant display among other Hellenistic treasures in Daly’s $70-million reinvention of The Met’s Greek and Roman galleries.
This is the guy who’s crawling in the Gibbes’ attic on a searing hot summer afternoon and spit-shining, literally, decades of grime and dust off the 108-year-old glass dome, pondering whether Tiffany experts will confirm its authenticity. The guy who has been visiting Charleston for one week each month over the last year and a half to consult with Gibbes director Angela Mack and her curatorial and program staff about a major overhaul of the venerable 1905 building.
The renovation aims to make amends for various aesthetic changes dating from a 1930s redo and a ’70s-era stucco addition, including the wooden parquet floor in the second-floor main gallery and outdated lighting. “No more basketball floors!” says Daly. “And under no circumstances will track lighting hang from the Main Gallery ceiling beams.” When it’s all said and done in a couple of years, the Gibbes will gleam again, its jeweled—and perhaps even Tiffany—dome newly clean and brilliant and the intricate designs of the tessera tile floor, now buried under dreary industrial carpet, will be revealed to show off the museum’s original Beaux Arts grandeur.
“I’m thrilled that finally we’ll be able to showcase this marvelous collection in a way that does this museum and this city justice,” says Mack, who met Daly when they collaborated on the 2011 New York Winter Antiques Show that featured six Gibbes pieces in Historic Charleston Foundation’s special exhibition. “When I saw what Jeff did with the Antiques Show, it was truly love at first sight. It is rare that a curator finds a museum designer who envisions something the same way she does,” says Mack, who knew immediately that Daly was who she wanted to work with when she and the Gibbes’ Board of Trustees began considering a capital project to enhance the galleries and return the building to its original dual use—as studio space for working artists in addition to housing the collection of the Carolina Art Association. “I’d begin explaining what our vision was, and Jeff saw it too, in some ways more clearly than we did,” says Mack. “He immediately saw what it would take to make our vision come to life with brick and mortar.”
Daly’s journey from the hallowed halls of The Met to Meeting Street, from designing exhibits such as the elegant “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years” to crawling around the decidedly unglamorous Gibbes attic, has been as happenstance as his whole career. Born and raised in Troy, New York, Daly loved exploring how things worked as a kid. “I had always had an instinctual three-dimensional focus and ability but didn’t even know what that meant,” says Daly, who excelled in drafting/drawing in high school art class and received a master’s in industrial design from Rochester Institute of Technology in 1972. After a brief stint teaching grammar school, Daly got his first job at the New York State Museum in Albany, then moved to the small Stamford Museum in Connecticut. In 1978, on a lark, he answered a newspaper ad for an opening at The Metropolitan and got the job.
A still-green Daly arrived at The Met during a time of transition; Philippe de Montebello had recently become museum director, and power struggles ensued with various staff members jockeying for position. The fallout meant that only eight months after Daly joined The Met’s design staff, the 29-year-old novice was appointed head of the design department.
In his early Met years, Daly worked closely with fashion dynamo Diana Vreeland, who was “like a bucket of cold water,” he recalls. “She really woke me up and taught me how to be confident, how to make it spectacular, and to not be afraid of color.” That verve soon became Daly’s trademark—as demonstrated by the “Horses of San Marco” exhibit that he had all of two weeks to plan and two weeks to execute. On opening day, an impeccably dressed museum patron approached Daly: “I just want to say that this is the most stunning exhibit I have ever seen, and my name is Brooke Astor.” “Oh, thank you, Mrs. Astor, that means so much to me. This was exhausting,” confessed Daly, who felt as if he had been working “48-hour days.” “It looks it!” she replied.
Despite the grind, The Met’s relentless pace and enormous scale became Daly’s ultimate proving ground. “I was lucky to be innocent enough to not know what the hell was going on and diligent enough to keep going,” he says. And keep going he did, graduating from designing smaller special exhibitions to masterminding entire new wings as The Met doubled in physical size during de Montebello’s 30-year tenure, with Daly’s staff expanding with it, from nine designers to 22. After serving as chief of design from 1979 to 2005, Daly was senior design advisor to the museum director for capital and special projects from 2006 to 2009, at which point he left The Met to begin a private design practice, working with clients such as New York’s annual Winter Antiques Show. Enter the gorgeous Mrs. Gilmor.
“Everyone falls in love with Mrs. Gilmor,” says Daly, who counted himself among the smitten when he first saw the Thomas Sully portrait of the fair-skinned, dark-haired, exotically adorned beauty, one of six pieces from the Gibbes’ permanent collection that was included in the Antiques Show exhibit. Turns out Daly was equally impressed by Angela Mack when he came to Charleston to prepare for the show. “I’d never even heard of the Gibbes Museum of Art, but when I visited, I immediately saw that the quality of art objects was superb, and then thought, ‘Oh my God, who is this woman, Angela Mack? She really is something.’”
Despite his formidable reputation and primo stature in the museum world, Daly is surprisingly down-to-earth, approachable, and funny. “There’s not a prima donna bone in his body,” says Mack. He starts talking fast, his voice playful and excited as he explains what will go where in his sketches of the reconceived Gibbes layout. The glorious stained-glass dome “will glow again instead of looking sad and forlorn,” Daly gushes. The three skylights in the main gallery will be reopened and restored and the dark ceiling will get a face-lift. “Who paints a ceiling dark?” he asks. “The thought, evidently, was that the ceiling is supposed to disappear. No it’s not, it’s supposed to be spectacular!”
When Daly was first brought on, his task was to design the installation for the permanent collection on the second floor. And then the scope broadened: Redo the other gallery spaces so the art now “owns the second floor,” according to Mack’s charge. And tackle the rotunda. Then she asked, “Do you do cafés?” What about lighting, the classrooms? Evans and Schmidt architects had already completed the plotting of the building’s footprint and floor plan, so all those elements were in place, but Daly’s role kept expanding to consult on other bits and pieces, such as “by the way, there’s a garden in the back; we need to address that.” The miniatures gallery was a particularly fun challenge, resulting in Daly creating custom rotating display trays allowing 350-some pieces of this collection—the third largest in the country—to be exhibited at one time. “This is as important as anything in the museum,” says Daly of the miniatures. “There’s as much art here as in the Main Gallery.”
The task of reinventing the Gibbes has struck a nostalgic chord for Daly, bringing him full circle in his career. “This takes me back to my roots at a small regional museum. As soon as I got my first job at the State Museum in Albany, I fell madly in love with museums,” recalls Daly. “I love that the Gibbes has this ‘I think I can, I think I can’ conviction, this amazing spirit and will stemming back to 1857. The art community in Charleston really had its act together; they were serious about having a real art museum, and God bless Mr. Gibbes who gave the money to build it,” Daly adds. “This was the very first art museum in the South. It deserves every bit of prestige and grandeur. It’s a place that’s really worth it.”
To read Jeff’s blog on the Gibbes Museum Renovation Plans, click here.