A behind-the-scenes peek at the Renoir exhibit

AN event such as this calls for a minimum of four years of planning, international coordination, delicate negotiations, special security measures, and traffic flow projections, among other things. A visit by a head of state? Not exactly. It's the Renoir retrospective, a three-city exhibit that will open at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Oct. 9.

Of the hundreds of thousands of people expected to pour through the museum doors over the next three months, few will have any inkling of the behind-the-scenes efforts that go on to make a major international exhibit like this one possible.

``It's not a King Tut,'' says the museum's associate director, Ross Farrar, referring to the Tutankhamen exhibit that swept across the United States a few years ago, drawing record-breaking crowds.

But 128,000 tickets have already been sold to Renoir fans eager to view some 100 of this much-loved painter's works, and the exhibit is expected to draw as many as half a million viewers before it closes Jan. 5. This is also the first time the MFA has done any pre-ticketing.

``We've gone the full distance,'' Mr. Farrar says, ``and moved into the 20th century with [the use of] Ticketron and all.'' Farrar explains that advance ticketing helps with crowd control for a show of this size, ensuring a limit to the number of people who pass through the gallery in an hour -- in this case no more than 700. Pre-ticketing will also help avoid a repeat of the Pompeii exhibit, where lines stretch around the entire block.

Upstairs in a quiet office, far removed from the daily traffic of museum visitors, Peter Sutton explains the curatorial planning that goes into an exhibit of this magnitude.

``Planning began back in 1981,'' says Mr. Sutton, curator of European paintings, who inherited responsibility for the exhibit from his predecessor, John Walsh Jr.

Renoir completed some 6,000 works of art during his lifetime, an oeuvre that must have posed a challenge to the coordinators from Britain, France, and Boston responsible for choosing the exhibit lineup. How was this mind-boggling number narrowed down?

``You begin with the perfect world,'' says Sutton. ``If you could have anything at all, what would you like?'' An ``ideal'' list such as this, drawn up by the coordinators, may have on it some 300 paintings, but the final number will be closer to 100.

Next, exploratory letters are sent out to museums and individual collectors. Coaxing people to lend their paintings for an exhibit like this one, which travels to three continents, is a delicate process. After all, a painting that is gone for 10 months leaves a big hole on a collector's -- or a museum's -- wall. ``I want to emphasize how very generous people are to give away paintings like these for nearly a year,'' Sutton says. Not that the artwork won't be in good hands: Besides substantial insurance coverage, traveling paintings receive expert packing and courier attention.

As for negotiations with other museums, Sutton says there's a good deal of ``horse-trading.'' ``There's an element of reciprocity among museums in lending,'' he notes. ``It's in the interest of all of us to be cooperative.''

Once the lineup of paintings is fairly firm, layout for the show is the next project. Sutton recently flew to Paris to take a look at the way the exhibit was presented there at the Grand Palais. As background for Renoir's paintings, the gallery walls were hung uniformly with a gray fabric. This gave him an idea about a different presentation for the exhibit in Boston.

``Renoir's palette got hotter over the course of his life,'' Sutton says, ``from warm, light bluish-grays of early Impressionism to oranges, yellows, reds at the end. Our walls will be painted a series of hues that ascend in tonality to enhance that.''

This is where Tom Wong and the design department come in. As head of this department, Mr. Wong's primary responsibility is the visual impact of an exhibit. But he is also responsible for developing traffic patterns, security placement, and crowd control procedures.

``These are the [museum's] two entry points,'' Wong explains, pointing them out on a poster-size mock-up of the museum's floor plan, which is propped against the wall. Fluid lines of arrows indicate the carefully orchestrated traffic flow. Red dots, representing security guards, are liberally sprinkled throughout the museum, with the heaviest concentration in the exhibit area, of course. At an estimated 10 to 20 people per security guard, that adds up to a lot of red dots.

After meeting with Peter Sutton, Wong designed a gallery that has a limited number of walls and uses low barriers (railings based on a 19th-century balustrade design) and benches to divide the room -- an effect that gives an intimate salon feeling, and at the same time keeps a linear traffic flow without creating a ``cattle pen.''

Drawers bursting with color samples for the gallery walls, blueprint mock-ups of balustrade designs and traffic flow patterns, and shelves of security barrier devices and lighting systems are witness to some of the intensive planning that goes into an exhibit such as this one.

Down the hall, museum craftsmen are busy turning the balustrades in a sawdust-filled workshop. ``We could have purchased the turnings,'' says Wong, speaking loudly above the whine of the lathes, but he likes to get as much of the staff as possible involved in an exhibit.

Upstairs in the West Wing of the museum is the Graham Gund Gallery, a spacious, climate-controlled area where the Renoir exhibit will be held. Wong demonstrates the unique wall fastenings in this gallery, a design he came up with to facilitate various gallery configurations. ``I became familiar with this hardware when I was miscast as a sailor years ago,'' Mr. Wong says, fiddling with a six-inch-long metal latch embedded in the side of a wall panel. ``This is a Simmons fastener. It was used as a quick c onnection for jet engine containers. No other museum has exactly this system.'' The fastener holds the walls securely together, yet allows them to come apart easily for rearranging the space.

Some details for the actual layout of the works of art can be worked out in advance, but often, last-minute changes occur once the paintings arrive. ``Certainly the best-laid plans have a wrinkle in them,'' says Sutton. ``You can't see ahead of time the wonderful conjunction of having two pictures that are just made for each other. It can't be done abstractly.'' Here in Boston, for example, Renoir's joyous series of dancing couples (``Dance in the City'' and ``Dance in the Country'' -- both from Paris - - and the MFA favorite, ``Dance at Bougival'') will be exhibited together for the first time since 1892.

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