Sanders, Joseph 1954—

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Joseph Sanders 1954

Exhibition designer

At a Glance

Made It in the Big City

Worked for Himself


Joseph R. Sanders, the designer responsible for bringing together such prestigious New York City exhibitions as The Black Male at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, The Harlem Renaissance at the Studio Museum and The Cosmic Dancer: Shiva Nataraja at the Asia Society, looks forward to the day he can design for himself, rather than clients. You have more control that way, he explained in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB).

For now, however, Sanders enjoys being the man top New York curators entrust with arranging and dramatically displaying the hundreds of artistic masterpieces or historical treasures that make up any major exhibition. Sanders is also one of the few African American exhibition designers. Joseph Richard Sanders, Jr. was born on October 11, 1954 in Atchison, Kansas. His mother, Margaret May Robinson Sanders, was a housewife and his father, Joseph Sanders, Sr., was a postal worker whose first love wascarpentry. Sanders father served as a strong catalyst for his sons future artistic career. As a child, I used to follow my father around. He was constantly working on the house, working on cars, Sanders recalled during a CBB interview. My father was good with his hands. He would make things for us to play on: merry-go-rounds, seesaws. He made a go-kart, a lot of things other kids could never have. I believe it sort of led me into the art world. The value of working with his hands had a big impact on young Sanders and figured into his decision to study art at Benedictine College, a small school in Kansas. Art was where I found myself, I liked doing it.

Although his private Catholic school education shielded him from some of the worst racism of the twentieth century, Sanders still experienced the sting of discrimination. He was only about four or five years old when he walked into a store with his mother, called her attention to the lunch counter with its abundance of snacks, and was informed by her that they could not eat there, I figured out what it was about, he told CBB.Sanders alsoexperienced racism while he was in graduate school at Ft. Hays State College in western Kansas, pursuing a masters degree in art. Because the college had an extremely small African American population, Sanders was often the subject of unwelcome stares. I really felt prejudice, more so by ignorance, he said. One night, while leaving a club with several Nigerian friends,

At a Glance

Born Joseph Richard Sanders, Jr., October 11, 1954, in Atchison, KS; son of Joseph R., Sr, (a postal worker) and Margaret Mary (Robinson) Sanders (a homemaker). Education: Benedictine College, Atchison, KS, B.A., 1975; Ft. Hays State University, Hays, KS, M.A., 1978; Pratt Institute, New York, MFA, 1980. The Studio Museum in Harlem, exhibit designer and art preparer, 1980-83; Brooklyn Museum, exhibits manager, 1983-86; Sanders Design Works, owner, New York, NY, 1985-.

Selected exhibits: The Cosmic Dancer: Shiva Nataraja The Asia Society, New York, 1992; Hispanic Heritage Celebration/NYNEX, New York, 1993; The African American Mosaic and Moving Back Barriers: The Legacy of Carter G. Woodson the Library of Congress, both 1994; Buddha of the Future/The Asia Society, New York, 1994; Black MalerRepresentations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art/the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994-95.

Addresses: Office Sanders Design Works, 28 W. 38th St, New York, NY 10018

Sanders and his group were attacked by a group of young whites. One youth approached him menacingly with a broken bottle but slipped and fell, which defused the situation.

Made It in the Big City

Sanders enrolled at New York Citys Pratt Institute of Arts in 1978 and obtained his master of fine arts degree summa cum laude in 1980. Living in New York proved to be an eye-opening experience for Sanders, I learned more from being in New York than going to school, he theorized to CBB.In his studies, Sanders explored abstract sculpture and worked with fiberglass and other materials. At Pratt, a course involving conceptual art particularly influenced him. The whole idea was that instead of making beautiful objects we were to make something that communicated some beautiful idea, Sandersexplained. That meant changing your abstract artwork. Taking that course led me to analyze why I was doing this particular art. Simultaneously, he was exploring his interest in the history of religion, a natural extension of his religious upbringing. He told CBB, I started trying to convey those kinds of ideas in a new form of art. The art I did, leaving Pratt, was very minimalist and tried to convey an idea. I wanted the viewer to look at thepiece and be affected by it, to know what it was trying to communicate.

As a student, Sanders held several internships that entailed working at New York City art galleries and encountering firsthand the reality of trying to make a living as an artist. My job was to tell artists coming in that we werent accepting new artists. I realized how political it was and how artists have to manipulate their art and be commercial. I didnt want to do that.

Unsure of how to make a living and pursue his artistic ambitions, Sanders got a lucky break through the nowdefunct federal program CETA Comprehensive Employment and Training Administration). Theres no telling where Id be at if that hadnt been there, he said of the program to CBB.CETA helped Sanders land a much-coveted job as a preparer of artworks for installations at the renowned Studio Museum in Harlem. After two years he was promoted to designer and has been one ever since, rising through the ranks of hisprofession.

Working as a designer does have its disadvantages, though, according toSanders. You dont have as much freedom as an artist, he remarked during the CBB interview. Youre compromising all the time with your client. But youre still creating an artwork, putting together different elements, different ideas, the end result being that visual thing, the design. The designers job is that you have to please the client, but you also create something that you feel good about in the end.

Sanders stayed at the Studio Museum until 1983. He also did exhibition design at the Harlem State Office Building. He soon landed a job at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where he was one of two in-house designers. The job offered excellent learning opportunities, and Sanders was called upon towork on everything from architectural signage to calendars and brochures for the exhibitions themselves. He was also doing freelance work for the Studio Museum and the gallery of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Although the job at the Brooklyn Museum of Art allowed Sanders plenty of creativity, he was exhausted every day and desired more freedom. Those two years at the Brooklyn Museum of Art were a big learning experience for me, he admitted to CBB.But after three weeks of being there I wanted my own business. So, Sanders opened his own company, Sanders Design Works, in 1985. This company has given Sanders the opportunity to produce his most creative and prestigious work. Describing his work toCBB, Sandersexplained, My job is to work with the curator of the museum and sometimes the artists.

Worked for Himself

The curator gives Sanders a list of the objects to be displayed, which Sanders arranges in whatever order and design he deems appropriate for the exhibitions theme. Historical exhibitions are typically chronological; artistic exhibitions are far more creative and fun. As Sanders told Upscale magazine in 1994, In designing a museum installation, the most important goal is that people walk away remembering the exhibit itself rather than the pieces in it. The lighting, the design of the display cases, the signage should all focus on making the exhibition experience the main event. Background should be background. The art should stand out.

Constraints do exist. It depends on the budget; thats the bottom line,Sanders said in the CBB interview. Sanders typically brings to the job all the experts hell needpeople to fashion the lighting, display cases he designs, paint the walls, and hang the art. He has a computer graphic designer and interior designer who work for him regularly. Beyond that Sanders is in charge, free to come up with the floor plan he thinks will work, free to decide on the wall color he believes will work best.

I tend to prefer doing sculpture exhibits, working with very old objects because, if the budget is right, Im able to do something nice with architecture, Sanders told CBB.Theres a lot more design involved in three-dimensional objects than flat things you put on the wall. One of hisfavorite sculptural exhibits was The Cosmic Dancer: Shiva Nataraja at New Yorks Asia Society, in 1992. Nataraja or Lord of the Dance was the form of the great Hindu god Shiva that has most captured the Western imagination. The Asia Society responded to this interest with its exhibition celebrating Nataraja figures sculpted from bronze in south India during the Chola period (880-1279). It was Sanders job to echo the movement of the sculptures, withtheir legs raised for the dance, their multiple sets of arms flailing, their heads surrounded by a halo of flames.

Sanders solution was to use grandly curving display tables, dramatic lighting, and an exhibition logo contained within a lightbox fashioned tolook like one of the rings of fire in the collection. Similarly, for asubsequent Asia Society exhibit, Buddha of the Future in 1994, Sanders welcomed visitors to the event by having them walk through an archway framed by pillars made of styrofoam, closely mirroring the ancient temples of India. He also built pedestals to resemble the tops of temples. And he chosegray-green for the walls, echoing the color of the aging bronze.

For the Hispanic Heritage Celebration, a 1993 corporate exhibit for the New York telephone company NYNEX, Sanders built a mini-roof over the walls of the galleries holding the photos and artifacts of the exhibit. The roof consisted of cardboard tubes painted to look like tiles. The color scheme hechose was warm Southwestern oranges and browns. For The Decade Show, which paid homage to the 1980s with works of art displayed at threemuseumsThe New Museum in New York Citys Soho, the now-defunct Museum of Contemporary His panic Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem--Sanders needed a uniting device. He decided upon a diagonal wall built across the length of each gallery, piercing other walls. That way, visitors to all three galleries would have roughly the same architectural experience at each one, to pull the three-part exhibit together.

For the Black MaleRepresentations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art exhibition at the Whitney, from 1994 to 1995, including works of suchrenowned artists as Robert Mapplethorpe, and photographic images ranging from basketball star Michael Jordan to the criminal Willie Horton, Sandersbuilt a V-shaped wall that visitors entering the gallery had to go around from either side. One of the main problems was there were a lot of pieces and the difficult thing was to make people flow through the gallery spacewithout it seeming crowded, Sanders said, The curator didnt want a linear approach where you were forced to go one way. So I designed it to allow freedom of movement.

Sanders has designed many other exhibits through the years, including showsfor the American Craft Museum, the New York City Transit Museum, the Schomberg Center, and the Library of Congress. Sanders and his associates have also designed for trade shows, corporations, and private homes. For example, they were once hired by New York Newsday to redesign the home of a woman who had brought back artifacts from New Guinea. Their assignment included restoring the womans home back to its original form.

Now in his early forties, Sanders enjoys his work but looks forward to designing for himself-items such as board games, books, and miscellaneousinventions. In a profession that is largely dominated by white males, Sanders says he feels little pressure as an African American. I dontdwell upon not getting work because Im black or upon discrimination, he said. Im so involved in doing the work that I dont dwell upon those issues. And, if you do the work long enough, people see the work itself and know youre good.


Additional information for this profile was obtained through museum exhibition catalogs for The Cosmic Dancer: Shiva Nataraja, at the Asia Society; Black Male at the Whitney Museum of American Art; and Blueprint for Change: The Life and Times of Lewis H. Latimer. and through aCBB interview with Sanders on March 16, 1995.

New York Newsday, September 15, 1991, Home Section, p. 22.

New York Times, April 5, 1992.

Upscale, June/July 1994, p. 76.

Joan Oleck

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Sanders, Joseph 1954—

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