In Arts & Entertainment

John Irion spends a lot of time leaning over this scale model of the Art Museum's Baker/Rowland Galleries.

In Arts & Entertainment

Keith Nelson get to use both his carpentry and art backgrounds every day in his job as a preparator.

In Arts & Entertainment

Chief preparator Larry Stadler talks with lead preparator Joe Kavanaugh in their "back of the house" shop.

In Arts & Entertainment

Milwaukee Art Museum seems to always have crates coming or going.

Behind the scenes: Staging Art Museum shows takes juggling skills

Even folks who spend a lot of time at Milwaukee Art Museum might have only the vaguest idea of what it takes to run such an institution and the amount of sweat, energy and attention to detail that goes into staging exhibitions.

That's why went behind the scenes recently at Milwaukee Art Museum and met the people who toil long and hard -- getting every last detail right -- so that Brew City can have a world-class art museum.

When I arrived in the designers' workspace recently, exhibition designer John Irion was in his office, refilling his desktop gumball machine with M&Ms. He needs them, he says, for energy to get through long days. At the time of our meeting, for example, he's busy trying to organize a number of shows that will all open at roughly the same time.

It's hard enough to get one big show designed and hung in the galleries, but to do multiple shows concurrently is a juggling act in many ways.

Irion steps out of his office and we walk a few feet over to a scale model of the Baker/Rowland Galleries -- the long, main galleries in the Calatrava-designed wing -- where tiny artworks are placed around the miniature walls, as Irion, the curators and others continue to discuss final placement of works for a giant exhibition from China.

"Presumably it's a lot of work to get to this point," I suggest.

"(There are) a lot of changes (along the way)," Irion says, noting that the organizers of traveling exhibitions have to sign off on the final layout. "When it's physically in there it changes also."

OMC: So once they approve it, are you allowed to change it? Do you have to keep going back for them to sign off?

JI: Some of them are here. They have representatives, couriers, registrars, so if they say it's OK, then we can do it. This is basically just get the order. They just want to know where things are in relation to other things. They may require this (area) to be bigger (points to a section right in the middle of the gallery). They have an unusual rule that everything needs to be five feet back from people.

OMC: So when it comes in, is there basically like a plan and then you guys have to adapt?

JI: We have different options for things. We can move this (display case) back against the wall, or we could move things around, if they say it's OK. We cannot move any walls and do any kind of painting or construction that needs to be done (after a point). We cannot be doing any kind of constructing or painting when they are here with the artwork.

OMC: Then that limits what you can do once you have reached that stage. But changes still happen presumably?

JI: Yeah, but they are small, hopefully.

OMC: So how long does this part of the process generally last?

JI: It depends; we actually had a deadline when we had to send this off to them so they could give it the OK. We actually spent so much time changing it, messing around that we barely made the deadline. It was not enough info for them, so that's why they are requiring more.

OMC: And how do you actually send this off to them, is it just a series of photographs of this, or how do they see what you have done?

JI: I just hand draw all these plans and its kind of rough, like this old one (Irion picks up a blocked-out map of the gallery with artwork ID numbers written in pencil).

It starts with a checklist (and) the curators have their own way of thinking of how it should be and the way they want to interpret it.

This is the first step. We have three different-sized walls, and (arranging them) is the first step. And then the next step is a paint color scheme. Then the next step is the layout of the artworks. These numbers are a checklist number, and so that's how we know where things go. I am going to say this group of objects can move over here, this group can move over here. Those kinds of things are interchangeable.

Sections are pretty much established but within each section things can move a little bit. We still have to work within the parameters of our gallery, I mean every gallery space is different.

OMC: So it's presumed that no matter where the exhibition goes there is going to be some tinkering to the geography of the space?

JI: Yeah, this whole unit here was more up-front than the original, than the Peabody Essex exhibit (the Salem, Mass., museum from which the exhibit is arriving). They didn't say anything about the order; they were just more concerned with the detailed stuff. That five-foot-back radius thing.

OMC: Is it a security issue more than anything else?

JI: Yes, see they didn't use any platforms (at the Peabody Essex) and we are recycling platforms from our Euro design show. They just put everything on the floor with these plastic barriers.

OMC: So when this all gets signed off what happens then, do you communicate with the preparators to go up and actually set the walls?

JI: Yes, we set the walls and then we bring in the props and it all has to be done before the artwork has to come in.

OMC: Do you oversee that?

JI: Well on the plan I can only put so much information so I don't say, "well this is 24 feet away." We go by the arches (in the gallery ceiling). I sort of line things up that way. Occasionally, they mis-count and that can really throw it off, if I am not here to oversee that.

OMC: When the show is up and open is your work done?

JI: Hopefully. (Laughs)

OMC: Are their unforeseen things that get you back involved?

JI: Yeah, we had to put barriers around the models upstairs for the Frank Lloyd Wright show. Even though they are on huge pedestals we had to put barriers around it to keep people away. To keep people from touching them.

Usually that is only done the first week. The opening day indicates what's necessary. That was unusual because it's just mass crowds of people. More so than the normal crowds.

OMC: Are you always working on the next one?

JI: Yes, I got the checklist for this show in the middle of the Frank Lloyd Wright show. But I briefly looked at it, because I can't be in the gallery and working down here at the same time.

So this really did start off getting a little behind, and that's an unusual case, though, because we are doing five shows, and I am only doing three of them. Which seems like more. (The Chipstone Foundation designs one of the remaining two and the other is an on-site installation with the artist.)

It's hard enough just balancing these three. I keep getting pulled off the project I am working on now to work on another one. None of these are done yet so that's the juggling act.

OMC: Presumably you have to be able to speak about all of these at the drop of a hat. Like if you are thinking about this one you need to be able to switch gears and go right into thinking about the other one?

JI: Well I should be thinking about this one ... they're all at a different stage, but they are all overlapping.

It just depends on how it is spaced out, I mean these supposedly sort of tried to be spaced out, because we can't all physically work on them all at once.

OMC: Is it nice being able to configure the galleries the way that you want, with the movable walls, as opposed to being stuck with fixed spaces that you can't really do anything about?

JI: This gives you a lot more options, and gives you a lot more freedom because these can all move and you really can set them up in any configuration you want.

OMC: I guess it's a blessing and a curse if you have more options, then you are tempted to try out more and more options.

JI: Which I have done many times just out of boredom. But, we're locked in with certain things like the gift store. People have to exit through the gift store, and they have to be able to get out this door here (he points to an exit in the east wall of the gallery).

OMC: How soon then do you expect to hear back from China to get the OK on this? How long before you can take the next step?

JI: Well that's all up to them. The first time I heard back and they said, "make it two days."

OMC: So, it's a relatively quick turnaround; you are not waiting weeks to hear back? There has to be some sense of urgency in all of this.

JI: No we cannot wait that long; we have got to get this more firmed up. Well when this (Wright) show closes we have to get this stuff out of there, and then all this wall movement has to take place and all these props have to come in.

OMC: I see, and you have three weeks?

JI: This is very deceiving when they say this because they count weekends, and no doubt you will have to come in on some weekends. They also put down the public opening here, and really we have to open (early) for the press (and member previews).

We are also at the mercy at the couriers and the registrars, because they have to come and inspect everything. So this could slow you down, depending on how long it takes to do their part. Every once in a while there is a lot of standing around so they can do their work while we wait to finish up ours.

We usually are not allowed to open anything until they are present because they have to check it all in. Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)

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