In advance of today’s press media preview and the grand opening festival for the public coming up at the end of April, I sat down last week with Tom Lopez, an art handler at the North Carolina Museum of Art to ask him a few questions so that I might learn more about one of the monumental tasks of the new museum expansion: reinstalling the collection in the new expansion’s gallery spaces. I figured this was one of the most mysterious tasks associated with the entire museum project since we the public don’t usually ever get to see the work being installed. I also didn’t want it to be something that the general public takes for granted (i.e. out of sight, out of mind as to how it all happened) and to be honest, simply thought it would be fun to learn how all that work made the trek into the new galleries. I think the interview below is quite insightful for the perspective it provides from the art handlers’ point of view and also for the light it sheds on the enormous cooperation required by the various museum teams to get the artwork moved, in place, and ready to go.
Dave Delcambre: Thanks Tom for taking the time to meet with me today.
Tom Lopez: Sure, we just finished an install out there so we’re good right now.
DD: I thought it would be interesting to get your perspective on the new museum expansion, a sort of insider’s view. I know there will be so much attention focused on the museum on press preview / media day coming up next week and also the gala opening weekend at the end of April, that I thought some insights into the logistics regarding the reinstallation of the collection would be a nice discussion. I’m sure it was just a huge undertaking.
TL: It was. And you know all of the main, very important departments in the museum all played a part in that: the Conservation Department with organization, cataloging, restoration and repair of much of the work that was coming in. The Exhibit Design Department did all the design layout along with the Curators and Registration who worked out all the logistics of what went where and when and how The art handlers are under the Department of Registration which is the way it is in a lot of museums. All those Departments played a big role in doing this [reinstallation].
There are three of us art handlers on staff. The museum, when it gets to any certain amount of size with their collection, they dedicate people to just the handling, the packing the moving, the hands-on work with the collection. They stay in tune with all that, focused on it, and these people learn about and become very familiar with the collection and [are the ones who] get to move it and install it.
DD: I’m curious if you had any input or involvement with the actual design and planning phase of the new expansion.
TL: No, no. We are the actual handling of the art: getting it from point A to point B and getting it on the wall. I mainly worked out along with the other two art handlers, all the engineering and technical aspects of installing everything from those giant Jaume Plensa sculptures that hang from the ceiling, (Jerusalem I, II, and III) to designing a grid for Patrick Dougherty to do all his stick weaving, to moving all the heavy sculpture and large paintings – they leave that all up to us. We do refer to the conservators on anything and everything that we need help on, doublechecking information, or something about the nature of the work itself that they can give us additional information. It’s a very interesting role. The handlers are completely immersed in the art and in that world, with the art and thinking about it. It’s very intense and focused.
DD: It must be really amazing all of a sudden having a huge new space that you can work with to install the art. I know I’ve heard about certain paintings from the old space that in fact couldn’t be moved like the Anselm Kiefer (Untitled) or the Alex Katz (Six Women)?
TL: Right, it didn’t fit in the very large freight elevator so I designed a cart that would them to travel over from the old building and it’s documented on the museum web site and there are photos on there. It took a lot of people to do that. (note: 22 according to the museum’s site to move both the large Frank Stella painting “Raqqa II” and the Katz painting)
DD: Was that one of the more challenging moves?
TL: It was. You know the large pieces are challenging just to get them where they are. But then there are very small pieces that took real finesse and careful work to move them or come up with a mounting system
DD: I’m also wondering what some of the biggest challenges were or which were some of the more difficult things to install?
TL: Installing the Joel Shapiro, where we had to bore down through the hardwood floor. That was a challenge with support rods drilled down into the concrete which is 3 inches below the wood. That was a lot of work. We had forklifts and all kinds of equipment to lift that. [At this point we began walking down toward the contemporary gallery] The Patrick Dougherty piece, he did that in a couple of weeks. There’s a large cable grid under there that he just completely tied everything up to.
TL: The two Plensas (Jerusalem I, II) are fiberglass, built basically like a boat. This is a pyramid by Levinsky, a Czech artist, that weighs maybe a ton, well just the middle section weights 600 and something pounds. Handling the glass on that one is the tricky thing and we had a guy that worked with his gallery that also came and helped out with the install. And the Kiefer, that one has 700 pounds of boulders hanging off of it. So it all had to be engineered…
DD: And that one [the Kiefer] hadn’t been moved in awhile right?
TL: Yeah, since about 16 years ago or something like that when it was last installed.
[About this point in the interview we started a walk through of the galleries with Lopez pointing out individual works to me and commenting on them, as he noted, from an art handler’s – not curator’s -point of view.]
TL: The African Gallery there, now that, there’s just so much fit and finish to all that work. [Museum conservator] Stacy Kirby just did a great job with all the textiles and work with the costumes.
The Ledell Moe piece back there (Congregation) on the back wall, she came and installed all those tiny heads- well they’re not little, they’re actually grapefruit-size. She placed each one of those how she wanted them. She had that in our other building and it had a somewhat different effect- more of a cloud form.
And that’s [pointing to the outside courtyard] the Ronald Bladen Three Elements piece, the black monolithic forms, we just installed that. It was installed on the grounds [in front of old building’s main entrance] before the new expansion.
DD: Did you have to install certain departments first so they wouldn’t step on each other’s toes?
TL: Yes, we had a great team that figured that all out. We can walk through a few of the galleries and I can tell you about them.
This is the altar gallery. It was a lot of work to move all those. The [Bernardino] Lanino panel is probably the heaviest panel on the wall, basically about 300 pounds. It was just so big and heavy, we have mechanical lifts we can use to place some of those.
DD: But the Kiefer is the heaviest painting?
TL: Yeah but it’s the bulky portion and not the actual canvas part.
DD: It must have some special reinforcing to hold the boulders?
TL: Yeah, it does. Now this portion of the galleries [pointing towards the new Rodin collection gallery floor] had the hardwood so it was different than the other gallery [when we were installing] a little trickier to work on this surface than with than just carpet on concrete.
TL: The outdoor courtyard, [pointing towards a portion to the west of the new building housing the Rodin sculptures] now that was a lot of fun, putting all those Rodins there outside. We couldn’t roll any heavy construction equipment or cranes into that space to do the install or put cranes on the landscape would put holes, basically destroy the landscape. To put a crane on the roadway, it would have been a monstrous crane that would have taken way too much time and money to set up so we actually just rolled them out there on special plywood covered runways and then used a chainfall on a gantry. We just sort of lifted them up and placed them on there and that worked out well. That courtyard has a special surface that’s got a stabilizer that acts like a glue underneath the first couple of inches of gravel. That allows it to stay pretty firm so it won’t get kicked up into footprints and pathways through it. When you walk on it you can feel it as your feet can’t really push down into it.
TL: But basically they had a wonderful 3-dimensional model made of the galleries with alot of scale replicas of the image which is sort of old style but really the best way to place things all out. The typical thing then is the models are laid out but then we bring the paintings in and place them on blocks and spread them all out so then some adjustments can be made. Once we get them in here, then it often becomes ‘well we can put this one here and that one there’ so we can work all that out, then we come out with what’s called the centerline (a horizontal line representing an ideal viewing height for the pictures on the wall) These are based on 60” high centerlines – 60” across the center of all of them. Then in other galleries the height of the paintings change and that affects the centerline.
Now we have just one painting left. It’s supposed to come in on Monday. With this collection there are several at all times that are out on loan to museums for other exhibitions and things.
DD: Well that’s pretty good then, only one left?
TL: Yeah. Unless something major happens and a gallery gets rethought.
DD: I know you mentioned weight before as with the Kiefer, but is there something else that’s the most challenging aspect of the reinstall?
TL: There’s nothing that we haven’t done before. [Lopez began explaining one of the gallery walls] Basically it’s called a museum wall in this country. Which means these new walls are reinforced with heavy ¾” plywood behind the drywall with good tight construction on that plywood so it will hold this work. There’s nothing that we were in too much trouble about. It’s mostly been a matter of finding the right speed to run at and not go too fast. We had to move a lot of art and just work with what was happening. Move it down or move things up…
Here’s a painting by Raeburn; here they had to come and do the graphics that identify the gallery patron and donor so we had to move the work down or move it up, things like that but we expect it.
We can move down through the Egyptian gallery and there I think was one of the biggest challenges for museum exhibition department and the conservation department, completely redoing the Egyptian collection and the mummies. This was all reconstructed from what we had before. The majority of the cases and pedestals were also built in house by the Exhibit Design Department. A lot of new things of course have also come in, new loans; new art for the new building that has been here for a period of time -maybe 3 years -waiting.
DD: Any particular pieces that took you much longer than you had thought to install? I’m wondering with maybe the Roxy Paine tree (“Askew”)… and I know he came here to install…
TL: Yeah we worked with Roxy Paine and Ursula von Rydingsvard for maybe a week solid with them – being on their crew and helping out. That was really nice working with them. Oh we didn’t go back into contemporary gallery… this is one of my favorite galleries with Kirkeby and Frankenthaler, David Park, Baselitz, Murray, and Richards. [We circle back and begin to walk through the contemporary art gallery.] It’s a great gallery in here – over there’s our Shapiro.
DD: In that case was it all something you had planned out as you knew about the installation details?
TL: Yeah I had made a cardboard model, which allowed the curators and exhibition designers to say exactly what they wanted so it worked out well. This was a fun gallery just because of the size of it. That’s probably Alex Katz’s largest canvas (Six Women) and there’s the Ellsworth Kelly and the Stella that’s always a lot of fun to move (Raqqa II). That’s one of the two that had to come in from when they took the front off the old building and all the glass. They took all the aluminum frame and glass out because they redid the lobby over there. That allowed us to come out through the 12’ opening.
DD: Is that another one that was not moved since the 80’s?
TL: Yes, it was put on the original wall then. We have all three Motherwells out now. There’s the Morris Louis which we’ve finally put back out because we didn’t have enough room in the old building to keep all the large ones out.
DD: Are there quite a few works out now that had been in conservation for quite awhile?
TL: There’s one there, the Sam Gillian (Last Chapter IV) and we now have the Giacometti back out.
DD: So the conservators started pretty far back ahead of the reinstallation?
TL: Oh they did, a few years back.
DD: This is another work by El Anatsui. (The Lines That Link Humanity) His work has all wired together caps from bottles and scraps of print stock. Our curator, Kinsey Katchka did a great job of working with the conservators and art handlers to develop a foam wall behind it to support it and stabilize it. it. The way we came up with for attaching it was to let it be crinkled in its shell like that and then support it.
DD: Was it built in sections?
TL: No it came just like that and we just rolled it out…Now this is one of our costumes that was just totally dressed in a lot of stuff… but they’re really amazing so…
DD: Are there any things, I’m wondering like with the costume that appears so fragile, are there certain works that are just a bear to move?
TL: Well, it’s hard to say… some works are way harder to work with than others. With this costume (Ugungun Masquerade Costume) for instance they [the conservators] spent so much time working with it, and we finally have it done right. We used makeshift stands for years and now, that is just the best I’ve ever seen it. Stacy did a great job doing that.
DD: So then I imagine there might be some things that you hope never move again?
TL: (Laughter) Yeah, I mean we have to though as an art handler, realize that things will move around. It’s one of those things also though that you have to treat all works equally. It’s no matter if you have the worst looking piece of art [as far as perceived condition goes], in pieces, trashy or whatever, all falling apart or the opposite: a pristine, classical work or a Monet, you have to treat them all the same, with the same amount of respect. You have to give your utmost undivided professional attention to both types of things.
When I stand back and look at everything we have up now though it’s like ‘Gosh, we did all this.” It’s really pretty amazing and I think we’re now pretty much there.
(My sincere thanks to Tom Lopez who was quite gracious with his time in speaking with me and also to the museum staff for the photo credits and also their assistance in assisting me with miscellaneous questions and clarifications and for their help in organizing this interview.)