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Packing Up to put State of the Art on the Road

Crates

Crystal Bridges’ groundbreaking exhibition, State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now, is going on the road!

State of the Art entrance at Crystal Bridges, Fall, 2014. Photo by Marc. F. Henning.

State of the Art entrance at Crystal Bridges, Fall, 2014. Photo by Marc. F. Henning.

State of the Art, which debuted at Crystal Bridges in 2014, featured the work of 100 artists, selected from more than 1,000 artists our curators visited in their studios all around the country over the course of nearly a year. Now, those artworks are themselves traveling around the nation, in the form of two exhibitions:  one encompassing 5,000 square feet of gallery space and the other 10,000 square feet.

Bookings for the show are in progress, but so far we know that the exhibition will be traveling to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, February 18 through May 29, 2016; Telfair Museums, Savannah, Ga., February 19 through September 4, 2016; and Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tenn., January 29 through March 26, 2017.

Ely crew members Ryan Langston (left) and Kirk Hoffman roll an artwork painted on silk in a layer of archival cloth before packing it.

Ely crew members Ryan Langston (left) and Kirk Hoffman roll an artwork painted on silk in a layer of archival cloth before packing it.

To prepare the artworks for their road trip, the Museum has hired Ely, Inc., a professional art packing company. Their crew, headed up by Bruce Lee, began constructing crates for the exhibition in their Maryland-based workshop in October; and a crew of four is now wrapping up three weeks at Crystal Bridges, packing the works themselves before they are shipped out to the first venue.

There are 270 objects in the two exhibitions combined. They range in size, weight, and material from Hiromi Moneyhun’s delicate cut-paper installations to Peter Glenn Oakley’s 300-pound marble sculpture. For each of these objects, Ely’s crew has built its own custom-designed packing container—be it box, tube, armature, or tray—along with a total of 78 crates to ship them in. I had the privilege of going into the vaults where the team was working learn a bit about the process.

One of Vanessa German's sculptures safely ensconced in its traveling crate

One of Vanessa German’s sculptures safely ensconced in its traveling crate

Crate construction is like a cross between cabinetry, mount-making, engineering, and Tetris. These guys are not just knocking some wooden boxes together:  some of the crates look like small sheds, and the team draws on a range of skills, from carpentry to welding to electronics. Packaging, Bruce explained to me, is a whole science unto itself; one that has been perfected by consumer goods companies who have to ship their products safely all over the world. The skill is enough in demand that you can now, no kidding, get a degree in packaging from the University of Michigan.

Loading MiebachIf you think about it, this makes sense. There’s a lot more at stake in shipping an exhibition of one-of-a-kind artwork than there is a truckload of, say, Sony TVs. Each object is irreplaceable and unique. The crates have to be tough to protect the art from the rigors of interstate transportation; and yet the method of securing the works inside must be gentle enough to avoid damaging them (some of those in State of the Art are literally made of bone china). The crates themselves are solidly constructed of wood, which serves a dual function: not only is it tough, but wood also absorbs and releases moisture, which helps to regulate the humidity level inside crates that may be repeatedly moved into and out of varying conditions. The interior boxes and mounts—anything that touches the artwork—are made of sturdy, reusable archival materials that will not damage the works and can stand up to being repeatedly unpacked and repacked.

Nathalie Miebach, b. 1972 "Retiring Bob," 2013 Wood, paper, and weather data

Nathalie Miebach, b. 1972
“Retiring Bob,” 2013
Wood, paper, and weather data

In designing the crates, Bruce and his crew must take into consideration both the safety of the artworks and the needs of the preparators who will be unpacking and installing them at the various venues. Having packed, loaded, and installed hundreds of artworks and objects, Ely’s team is well versed in what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to traveling exhibitions.  Large crates are raised on feet, so they can be easily lifted with a pallet jack. This not only makes them easier to move, but eliminates the potential of a crate begin dropped or tipped over in the process of being loaded onto a dolly. Inside the crates, every single component of every artwork has its own little cubby:  a niche, box, or stand designed especially to fit that part.
A good example of this is Nathalie Miebach’s wall installation, Retiring Bob. This complex artwork is made up of no fewer than 127 individual pieces: mostly made of delicate woven cane and reed. Ely’s team designed a crate for it that houses six archival boxes and 12 interior trays in which each piece has its own custom-designed and labeled travel mount. Also inside the crate, a 14-page instruction manual shows photographs of how each component is to be installed. At each destination, it will take a preparator some 12 hours to fully install the work.

A view of one of 12 trays and six boxes used to pack up Nathalie Miebach's "Retiring Bob"

A view of one of 12 trays used to pack up Nathalie Miebach’s “Retiring Bob”

The lift crate holding Peter Glenn Oakley's "Sewing Machine"

The crate holding Peter Glenn Oakley’s “Sewing Machine” includes a built-in lift in the bottom.

Peter Glenn Oakley’s massive marble sculpture Sewing Machine has very different travel needs. The team was concerned about the potential risk to the work inherent in lifting such a heavy piece into place, so they built a lift system into the crate itself.  At the bottom of the crate, a compact lift is firmly installed and the sculpture is secured to a platform on the lift. When the work reaches its destination, the preparators need only move the crate into place with a pallet jack, remove the sides and top, and use the lift to elevate the work to the right height. Then the pieces securing the sculpture to its platform are removed and the work can be gently slid off of its platform and onto a pedestal. No lifting required.

Unpacking instructions for Vanessa German's artwork are affixed to the inside of the crate holding the sculpture.

Unpacking instructions for Vanessa German’s artwork are affixed to the inside of the crate holding the sculpture.

As the crew is packing up the artworks, every stage is photographed and the photos are affixed to the insides of the crates. This lets future installers can see how the packed crates come apart and, equally important, how they will go back together again when the works are re-crated to move to the next venue.

Each removable piece of a box or crate is keyed with some device to help future packers easily understand what goes where. Crate lids, for example, are marked with playing cards cut in half and affixed to the lid and the side of the crate:  match up the cards, and you know you have the right lid, installed the right direction.

Playing-card "keys" will help preparators get all the works packed up again correctly.

Playing-card “keys” will help preparators get all the works packed up again correctly.

Today the last of the artworks are being packed. The loaded and labeled crates stand crowded shoulder-to-shoulder in the vault like large, wooden people on an elevator, waiting for the trucks to come to take them away. If you are traveling to one of these cities in the year ahead, we hope you will stop in and visit State of the Art on the road.

Airways Freight Corp. is the official shipper of State of the Art.

A documentary film about State of the Art is currently in progress, to debut later this year. Get a sneak peek with the trailer below.

Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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