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 OnMilwaukee.com 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.
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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