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

(page 2)

Preparators dig in next

After John Irion and the curators have worked out the design details for the museum's exhibitions, it's time for the preparators to step in. Using their carpentry, lighting, painting and other skills, this team preps the exhibition space and hangs the artwork.

We walked up the hall from design, where we met Keith Nelson and, later, chief preparator Larry Stadler.

OMC: What's your background? How did you come to the museum?

Keith Nelson: I went to school at MIAD, got a BFA in painting, and when I was there I was doing work-study at the gallery there, and that kind of work just kind of snowballed into this job. I worked there for three years as a student. After I graduated, they hired me on full-time. Actually, I worked at the MIAD galleries and the Eisner Museum for two years after I graduated, and then I worked at the Haggerty (Museum of Art) for a little while.

OMC: So you already have a background in painting and carpentry and basically the type of things you do a lot here?

KN: Yeah, I do a lot of the carpentry stuff. I worked as a carpenter, doing drywall and I picked up a lot there. I have always been kind of handy. My dad's a carpenter, too, so I grew up with it. This job is kind of a good mixture of art and that.

OMC: Do you think the appreciation of art helps you understand better what you're trying to do, what the ultimate objective is?

KN: I think it definitely helps to have an appreciation for the artwork, have a respect for it. And there are certain parts of the job -- like when we are designing a show -- sometimes decisions are made on the fly and having an aesthetic background helps there.

OMC: Do you feel involved in the process beyond the hard work?

KN: Yeah, if there are ever questions about how to do something or where something should go, I have a say and I feel like I can be part of it sometimes.

OMC: What is a typical day like for you?

KN: Well, right now we are preparing for the China show. There is usually a lot of that, preparing for the next show. There is always a little bit of prep work going on. Usually there is a fair amount of outgoing loans, things like that, or incoming new acquisitions (and) we are always dealing with that. We also deal with crating and uncrating.

OMC: Is there maintenance to do, too?

KN: Yeah, you have to go around the museum and dust, and just walk around and make sure that things are in place. That's kind of the day-to-day (stuff that) needs to be done.

OMC: How many people are in your department?

KN: Well let's see, four full-time and three part-time.

OMC: And do you have specialties? Are some of you better carpenters, for example, than others?

KN: Yeah, everyone kind of has his or her niche, I suppose. Dave does most of the crating, although I do that, too. I am kind of the go-to guy that goes all over the place. So you know Dave (Moynihan) specializes in crating, John (Dreckmann) does the lighting), Larry (Stadler) is kind of the manager, and does all of the paperwork. Kelli (Busch) does a lot of the painting.

OMC: How long have you been here?

KN: I have been working here going on seven years. I'm still the young kid around here, though, this guy's been here for 40 years.

OMC: (And, as if on cue, we are joined by the department boss, Larry Stadler.) Keith is telling me about what your department does.

Larry Stadler: Well, we handle the artwork and install the shows, so our main responsibility, of course, is the installation, the permanent collection and the care of that to a certain extent. But our main thing really is installation. They are thinking again of another re-installation of the building, so everything comes down and goes somewhere, the contractors come in and actually build the walls. It all comes together when it is re-installed.

OMC: Is that a daunting task for you?

LS: Well we have done it a number of times, (but) yeah. I probably won't be around for the next one, which is a couple of years away. But otherwise it's the exhibitions and, well, I have probably been involved in over 1,200 over the years.

OMC: So you know a few things about it? (Laughs)

LS: Yeah, about moving things around, and of course exhibitions like the Chinese show or the European (design) show, that's all decorative arts, so that's all cases and platforms, which is way more complicated. We build a lot of it unless we don't have the room or the time. Then we bring in contractors to do the rest or to build it off-site and then bring it in. But it's a lot of building. That's really what stops us -- trying to find room here. When you build 40 pedestals, there is no place to put them.

OMC: Do you have more room since the addition was built?

LS: No, not really, this building was built in '75 (the David Kahler addition to the earlier Eero Saarinen-designed War Memorial building) and we got the shop and we got this big elevator, and all of that, but that (new) building, zero. It all plays back to this one, and it works because, for instance, the freight elevator here (he points to the over-sized elevator outside his office door).

Everything comes in here and we've got 20-foot trucks that come into this really nice loading dock. Then it has to fit on the elevator. But if it fits into a semi-trailer, well, then it very well will fit into the elevator. That's like a two-block walk (between the loading dock and elevator), but it's about three miles if you are doing it all day long.

OMC: Do you guys have especially busy times or do you just basically work at a similar pace all the time?

LS: No, it all builds up over time, like right now we are planning three Chinese shows. It really comes in spurts. It's been a lot more consistent the last couple of years, though, with all that going on. The shows we are doing now are a bit more complicated, too. The Euro design and the China design require a lot of prop building and a lot of logistical stuff.

OMC: How involved are you guys in the model planning with the curators and John?

KN: That part is handed to us, though as we are installing we realize things don't fit, so perhaps we can have a bit of input. Generally, when they are doing the planning they're on their own.

OMC: Do they come to you, Larry, with questions when they're doing that? 'Can we do this, can we do that?'

LS: (John Irion) has been doing that job for approximately 40 years also, so ... he knows what to do and what not (to do) and whatever. If he has any questions he generally comes to us, but usually it's pretty well set, before we check on it.

OMC: Do they come down here to check on you guys, when you're building the cases and things?

LS: Well, we get a lot of e-mails. (Laughs)

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