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Museum Careers: A Day in the Life of a Museum Preparator

Did you know that Crystal Bridges employs more than 200 people?  It may surprise some folks to learn all the many jobs required to make a museum run. And they’re not just art-historians: Crystal Bridges employs engineers, designers, chefs, fundraisers, educators, artists, marketers, writers, groundskeepers, housekeepers, accountants, purchasers… the list goes on and on.

Preparators bringing in Jeff Koons's "Hanging Heart Gold/Magenta" for installation.

Preparators bringing in Jeff Koons’s “Hanging Heart Gold/Magenta” for installation.

As the first in a series of Museum Careers posts, today I’ll highlight one of the most important and, perhaps, mysterious of the museum staff members:  the Preparators. Preparators are sort of the Oompa-Loompas of the Museum world: working behind the scenes or during non-public hours to make artworks seem to magically appear, disappear, or move around. The Prep Team, is a tribe of multi-talented skilled workers–distinguished by their unofficial uniform of denim, plaid flannel shirts, and steel-toed boots–who bustle about the Museum with work gloves hanging from their back pockets and blue painters tape (used to mark walls for art placement) clinging to their clothes… sometimes shepherding artworks, sometimes operating machinery or ferrying ladders and work benches from gallery to gallery. But always, always in motion. Their work is never done.

Hanging twoThe Collections Management Preparations team includes 7 full-time and 2 part-time preparators whose job it is to carry out all physical movement of artwork and care for the collection. They install and de-install works in the permanent galleries and on the Museum grounds, as well as temporary exhibitions. They frame or unframe works as needed for conservation, and are in charge of the packing and crating of artworks going out on loan, and the unpacking of incoming work. They also build mounts or pedestals for artwork as needed.

8 a.m. Daily Rounds

The Prep team arrives at 8 a.m. and begins the morning rounds. They walk through all the galleries, cleaning frames, sculptures, and pedestals, inspecting the artwork, and checking lights. Preparators are the only people who may dust the artworks in the Museum’s collection.

Art moving9 a.m. Moving Artwork

Works in the galleries are regularly rotated off exhibition so something new can go out on view. In addition, works that are light sensitive, such as works on paper, can be exhibited for a limited amount of time before they must be returned to the vault. Limiting the works’ exposure to light helps to preserve the work and ensure that, when they are on view, the colors remain as close to their original state as possible. The rotation schedule for light-sensitive works is carefully maintained by the Museum’s Collections Management department.

The easiest time to move and install artwork is while the Museum is closed to the public, so most major art movement happens between 8 a.m. and 10 or 11 a.m. A team of two or more preparators take down each artwork and moves it to the vault. Then they bring the new works out and hang them on the wall. (Sometimes this requires filling holes and touching up paint on the gallery walls.) The prep team also affixes artwork labels to the wall and adjusts the gallery lighting to best suit the artwork that is on view.

A full-scale mockup of Luis Jimenez's "Vaquero" was used to select the site for the work.

A full-scale mockup of Luis Jimenez’s “Vaquero” was used to select the site for the work.

11:30 a.m. Site Selection for Sculpture

Before any large-scale sculpture is installed, preparators and curators work together to choose a site for it. First, preparators build a three-dimensional scale model of the work in cardboard so curators can get an accurate idea of how the sculpture will look in place. The cardboard model is much easier and safer to move around than a sculpture that could weigh thousands of pounds!

Preparators installing Robert Indiana's "LOVE" on the Museum grounds.

Preparators installing Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” on the Museum grounds.

When the curator and preparators have decided on a site, preparators mark the exact location for later installation of the work. This may require pouring of a concrete base, installing steel anchors, bringing in a crane to lower the work into place, and/or assembling the sculpture onsite: perhaps welding pieces that had been cut apart for transport. Depending on the size and complexity of the work, the installation may require anywhere from two or three preparators (like Robert Indiana’s LOVE on the South Lawn), or an entire crew, plus facilities and grounds staff, crane operators, welders, and more (as were needed for the complicated installation of Louise Bourgeois’s Maman in the Museum’s courtyard).

3:00 p.m. Receiving New Artwork

Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection is always growing. In 2015, the Museum acquired 511 new artworks, including prints on paper, paintings, mixed media works, and sculpture.

UncratingWhen the Museum receives new acquisitions or loaned objects for exhibition, their arrival is pre-scheduled through the Collections Department and the Receiving Officer at the loading dock. Upon the arrival of any truck carrying artwork, the dock area is closed to all staff except security, the preparators, and the Museum Registrar. Preparators unload the artwork in its crate and transport it to the vault where it will rest and acclimate for 24 hours before it is uncrated and inspected by the Registrar, who prepares a full condition report on every new artwork.

After the inspection, and before installation in the galleries, Preparators hang incoming paintings on large racks in the vault. Sculptures may remain in their crates to protect them until they are installed.

4:00 p.m. Reframing Works

Sometimes artworks in the collection are removed from their frames and placed in new ones: perhaps because the new frame is more attractive, suits the time period and style of the work better, or because the original frame needs conservation. Artworks are also removed from frames in order to be photographed by a professional photographer. One or more preparators gently remove an artwork from its old frame and reframe it in the new one, or hang the work up in the vault to await conservation or photography.

And More!  Temporary Exhibition Installation

Crated artwork for a traveling temporary exhibition.

Crated artwork for a traveling temporary exhibition.

When a temporary exhibition comes in, it’s “all hands on deck” for preparators, who work with the Museum registrars, curators, and exhibition designers, as well as with visiting preparators from the museum organizing the exhibition. Together they unpack, inspect, arrange, install, and label the works in the exhibition. This is a process that takes several long days, and during this time, access to the temporary exhibition gallery is restricted to only those individuals who are handling the work or directly involved with the exhibition.

Chuck Flook, Crystal Bridges Lead Preparator

Chuck Flook, Crystal Bridges Lead Preparator

Want to see the preparators at work?  On Monday, April 25, our Lead Preparator, Chuck Flook, will be taking over Crystal Bridges’ Snapchat!  Follow along as Chuck and his team begin installation of new artworks on the Museum grounds!


Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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