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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Demetra Copoulos and Melissa Hartley-Omholt uncrate Pablo Picasso's "Angry Owl," which is returning to the museum after a touring exhibition has ended. (PHOTO: Adam Horwitz)

In Arts & Entertainment

Art Museum registrar Dawn Gorman Frank and preparator Keith Nelson work on uncrating a recently arrived work. (PHOTO: Adam Horwitz)

Behind the scenes: Registrars keep tabs on Milwaukee's art treasures


Even folks who spend a lot of time at Milwaukee Art Museum might have only the vaguest idea of what it takes to run such an institution and the amount of sweat, energy and attention to detail that goes into staging exhibitions.

That's why OnMilwaukee.com went behind the scenes recently at Milwaukee Art Museum and met the people who toil long and hard -- getting every last detail right -- so that Brew City can have a world-class art museum.

This week we visited the windowless office of registrar Dawn Gorman Frank and assistant registrar Melissa Hartley-Omholt, whose wide-reaching department seems to be involved in just about everything that happens at Milwaukee Art Museum.

Their small office (also shared by registrar's assistant Demetra Copoulos and associate registrar Jane O'Meara) is loaded with filing cabinets of all shapes and sizes and I guess I shouldn't be surprised that despite the mountains of documents, Gorman Frank and Hartley-Omholt seem like some of the most organized people I've met. The fact is, there's no way they could do their jobs without that skill.

Dawn Gorman Frank: The registrar's office basically works with the curatorial department and the conservation department to coordinate all of the exhibitions, and we also work with the permanent collection. Melissa handles mainly the permanent collection, which involves photography of the collection, inventory of all of the objects within the museum, updating our collections database and works on small-organized exhibitions.

"And I mainly run the department. We also have three more registrars in this department. They don't work full-time but we have one registrar that manages all of our outgoing loans. We have about 50 loan requests to the museum that we lend to other institutions. She manages all of the logistics: shipping, insurance, loan contracts, coordinating the crating of the art objects and all of those are approved by the curatorial department.

OMC: Is she involved from the beginning; as soon as the requests come in? Or does she get involved once they're approved?

DGF: It depends. Usually the letter is a formal request that goes directly to our director Dan Keegan and then he knows to give us a copy, and then Jane gathers all the information. She distributes the initial request to the specific curator who oversees that particular piece of art. She copies the letter to me, (and to) our conservation department and we kind of see if there might be any red flags: condition issues, is the work slated to be on loan to another institution, is it going to be in an exhibition here at the art museum.

And then we may have an internal discussion and then we present it at the curatorial meeting for the entire department to weigh in on the request. If it's approved, which most (are) -- we work hard to approve and really be involved in other museums' projects -- then it's handled by the registrar's office and the conservation department. We manage the loan the moment it goes out until the moment it is returned. We monitor all those specifics in between.

OMC: So you guys are really doing the bulk of the work that is involved.

DGF: Right.

OMC: The conservation, too?

DGF: Exactly. We will prepare the condition report if they feel the object needs to be repaired. For a painting, for instance, it may need a backing to protect it more, or maybe they decide it needs to have a frame if it is unframed. If it's a work on paper then it usually needs to have a frame. Or if there needs to be some sort of special internal packing specifics, we may work with our crating department -- we have an in-house crating department -- and we kind of start that whole process.

We generate the work order to get the crate made. All international loans have a courier that accompanies our loans, so between the conservation department and the registrar's office we decide who the best person is (from the museum) to accompany that loan.

OMC: How do you get on the courier's list, by the way?

DGF: Well, it's generally someone from the conservation department or the registrars because we have the most experience dealing with any issues that arise.

OMC: It's more than just handcuffing it to your arm and getting on the plane, like in the movies?

DGF: Yes, I wish it was that easy, but there are a lot of -- especially with the new security regulations with airports and international loans, all cargo is screened -- steps that you have to follow to get something released without having (delays).

OMC: Has the job gotten more difficult in that aspect since 2001?

DGF: It didn't change at that point. What recently has developed is that the Transportation Security Administration implemented a program called Certified Security Screening Program and we are a participant in that program.

You may have seen in the news over the last couple of years where all cargo has to be screened, and because we ship overseas, we cannot have our cargo screened by an X-ray and have something red flagged, so we participate in a program where we screen here and then the work has a particular stamp on it, and it has particular banding. We go over all of the regulations and then it is released to our customs agent, and that part is just another program that we now have to participate in. But up to that point we had always worked with a customs agent, so that has not changed.

OMC: And do you guys have a specific customs agent that you work with and that knows what you guys do, and knows the museum?

DGF: We generally work with Masterpiece International. They're a customs and freight forwarding company based out of Chicago. All of our artwork is shipped in and out of Chicago because that is the biggest international hub that is closest to Milwaukee. So we all participate. Melissa has been on courier trips, Jane O'Meara coordinates all those details, and (chief conservator) Jim (DeYoung) and I always weigh in on those international loans.

OMC: So do you handle incoming loans, as well?

DGF: Yes, we do that. as well. The incoming loans are handled by the registrar's office, and we have our master exhibition schedule, and generally I work on the bigger exhibitions. It really kind of divides it out by gallery so we can see what we are looking at, toward the future for planning purposes. So, as you can see, in the big gallery we have the major exhibitions which involve the most of our work here and I work on a lot of the bigger exhibitions.

The other registrars, Melissa and Jane, they will also assist and work on some of the smaller exhibits in the museum. And if it's an exhibition that is organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum, for instance the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition, all of the lenders to the exhibition have a loan form. Those are the incoming loans. The loan is generated by the curator who wishes to borrow the work. Then once it has been approved, we take over.

We make sure that our insurance is in place, all of their restrictions are met, we read the contracts, we make sure the credit line is correct for the label, we do condition reports when the work comes in, we coordinate the shipping. Page 1 of 3 (view all on one page)

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