Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Making an Exhibition Happen

By: Christine Olsen, Registrar

Have you ever wondered how a piece of artwork gets from a lending institution across the country onto a gallery wall at FAM? A lot of the work is done before the artwork even arrives at the museum and it takes months of planning for an exhibition and its accompanying loans to come together. Everyone on the Curatorial staff at FAM has a different role to play; my job as museum registrar is to orchestrate the legal and logistical details of loans and to make sure that the requirements of the lending institutions are met. I work closely with lenders for months leading up to an exhibition to make sure loan agreements are signed, insurance coverage is in place, necessary conservation work is done, and the artwork is crated and shipped safely.
Exhibitions may have a just few lenders or they have many, with lenders as close as the next town over or as far away as across country. For example, the current exhibition America’s Rome: Artists in the Eternal City consists of 24 lenders and 134 works from lenders near and far, including Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Toledo Museum of Art and Brooklyn Museum of Art. In contrast, the exhibit Walker Evans: Carbon and Silver has 84 works from one exhibition organizer based in New England. From start to finish, however, both exhibits required the same amount of attention to detail and planning on the part of the registrar and other staff at FAM.
When appropriate, specific requirements of the lender must be followed during the life of the loan; for example, some lenders require a courier be sent to oversee installation and de-installation, some require particular security measures to be taken while the artwork is on exhibit, and others have condition issues that must be periodically evaluated. In other words, the work doesn’t end when the exhibition opens!
Let’s follow the path of a typical incoming exhibition loan at FAM: As soon as a shipping crate comes off the fine art shippers’ truck at our loading dock, it comes to the registrar’s office for safe keeping and to acclimate to the environment of the museum. All crates and the artwork they contain must continuously be in temperature and humidity controlled environments, and because of very slight changes during transport, it usually takes 24 hours for a safe transition from the environment of the truck to that of the museum. The crate is then moved to the exhibition gallery in which it will be unpacked. The empty crate is later stored in a holding area by the registrar’s office that has security, pest and environmental controls. During a busy exhibition season this holding area is lined to the ceiling with stacked crates and boxes! The artwork itself is thoroughly examined by the registrar for condition changes and has detailed pictures taken; each piece of artwork is given a temporary number and is entered along with all of its descriptive information into the museum’s collection database. Finally, the artwork is installed on the gallery wall along with a descriptive label. Of course, the entire process is done in reverse when it is time for the loan to go back to the lending institution.
The next time you visit an exhibition at FAM, keep in mind how much time and effort went into getting each and every piece of artwork here. It really is an amazing process. We certainly feel that it is well worth it…we hope that you agree!

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