What does it take to put together an original exhibition? In 2013, the MOA will spotlight feature interviews with key players in the process. In January, we spoke with Seth Baldridge, curatorial assistant to Contemporary Art Curator Jeff Lambson, about the making of We Could Be Heroes.
This month we chatted with museum Head of Fabrication, John Adams, about the physical preparation for displaying exhibitions.
MOA: After the last interview we ran, we heard a comment from one of our readers who wanted to know about the logistics behind setting up an exhibition. I’m here to find out your part in getting an exhibition installed.
JA: Basically, we build and install whatever is necessary to get the show up. It all starts with working out the gallery plans. I meet with the designer and curator (and sometimes the artist) to work out details that fit into the space and budget.
After receiving plans for the gallery, we go to town building. Different shows require different types of building. For most of our wall building, we use our theatrical wall flats. They allow us to put up temporary walls quickly. On occasion we will stick frame (like a home is built) walls that need to be taller or to create a curved surface.
MOA: How much weight do you have to hang off some of these walls?
JA: One of the largest objects we have is the Carl Bloch “Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda.” The frame alone is pushing about 500 pounds. The entire work, frame and painting, is 600-plus pounds. The weights of objects hanging off our walls varies anywhere from a few pounds to hundreds of pounds.
MOA: After years of putting up, taking down, do you have to do a lot of repairs on the museum’s walls?
JA: We are always doing repairs. Part of my job is trying to minimize the damage to the space and to work through the future demolition as we are building, while making sure the build is structurally sound. There are occasions that we will cut large holes into walls, and this always presents issues with making the wall sound again. It’s a bit of a dance.
After we build the walls I schedule BYU’s paint shop to patch and paint the gallery for us. I really don’t have the time to prep and paint the space. If you think about it, our walls have hundreds of layers of paint and thousands of holes after 20 years of exhibits. So the space really needs a professional touch to keep it looking so good. The paint shop does a beautiful job for us and makes our work look great.
MOA: How many people are on your crew?
JA: My current staff consists of my assistant manager, Tracy Allred; student supervisor Canyon Prusso; and three student staff members. At the moment I am running with five plus myself. This is my normal staff, and it will vary depending on the demands of the current shows.
MOA: What else do you do beside building walls and hanging paintings?
JA: This shop produces the casework, pedestals, mounts, and furniture. There’s a bench in the Southwest exhibition that we built for a religious show several years ago. It was supposed to look like it came from the time of Christ, so it is quite primitive in its construction. We distressed and beat it up to show wear and tear from hundreds of years of use and abuse.
Another job we do here is picture framing. Most museums don’t have in-house framers. Years ago we were preparing for a Maynard Dixon exhibition when the associate director came and asked if fabrication might be able to build frames. With my boss’s (Gene Riggs) experience in art and a bit of gold leafing, and my custom furniture and molding background, we thought about it and said, “Well, let’s give it a shot.” By no means were we experts, but within a year we learned how to build and finish water-gilded picture frames. We ended up building over a hundred frames and saving the museum $300,000.
MOA: Speaking of framing, one of the things that fascinated me was how the Teichert paintings were mounted. What can you tell me about that?
JA: That was an interesting process because the paintings themselves are murals and Minerva liked to put borders around a lot of her paintings. They were never really intended to have a traditional frame placed around them.
When framing a painting you want to try to frame the work the way the artist would have. So the argument was “These were never intended to be framed, but we’ve got to clean up the edges as they look bad. We want to make things look presentable and museum quality.” Finally, after a lot of discussing and philosophizing, we came up with a framing solution that would satisfy artist intent and the museum.
MOA: Now we’re ramping up on Shaping America. What are doing for that?
JA: Currently, I’m in the middle of finishing up the gallery space and picture framing. I have several moldings in the shop being milled and prepped for gilding. Several of the frames will have compo ornaments applied to them. The process of compo ornaments has been around from the early part of the 1700s. They are made of materials that when steamed become sticky and pliable. So we mill the moldings, assemble the molding, spray gesso onto it, then steam and apply the ornaments. Some frames have hand-carved ornamentation.
MOA: How long is it taking you to prepare for this exhibition?
JA: I usually have 5-6 weeks from the end of one show to the opening of another. For Shaping America, I’ve had a bit longer time period. Because it will be a permanent show, we will put more into it and tighten up the craftsmanship. We have been working pretty steady for about the last eight weeks.
MOA: What sort of things are you looking forward to still learning in your job?
JA: Oh, all of it! My old boss Gene Riggs used to say a quote from the unknown craftsman, “Life’s so short but the craft, so long to learn.” You can never learn it all, and we don’t really specialize in any one thing here. There is always another challenge and problem to solve, but I’m really looking forward to spending more time studying picture framing.