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.
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.
OMC: You do that with Jim (DeYoung)?
DGF: Yes, and again because there are just so many exhibitions, we tend to share the workload between us and the conservation department. If it is something that is very complicated or a lot of works on paper, they will definitely look at it. It depends on also the condition of the work (and) if there is a staff person that comes with the exhibition. For example, "European Design," which was our just recent exhibition, Melissa worked on that a lot. You could talk about that, Melissa.
Melissa Hartley-Omholt: That was an exhibition that was organized by the Indianapolis Museum of Arts. Mel Buchanan was the curator for that. So since that registrar (at IMA) organized the exhibition, she kind of took care of a lot of those details, and when it came to us, their registrar came, as well, for the exhibition and they also had someone else that came to assist. Then they had a conservator that came, and so I just arranged the schedule here.
OMC: You were sort of a liaison for them?
MHO: Exactly, and then I arranged to have everything unpacked with her and then Terri White, from our conservation department -- our objects conservator -- she helped, as well, and we did all the unpacking. Obviously with the crew and all the inspection. Then I oversaw the installation.
OMC: For the traveling shows, is it easier for you in that sense? Are you accepting one big loan as opposed to 200 little loans?
DGF: Exactly, yes. There is a loan contract and that particular institution is in charge of making sure that all of the individual loan contracts are signed and taken care of and are arranged for the insurance and, generally, the shipping. We work with them to receive the artwork and to fit the exhibition and installation schedule into our schedule, and to work together, but a lot of that paperwork is done.
MHO: Which is nice, but the challenge of that show (European Design) is it was such a big show -- it was over 100 crates -- and then it was a decorative arts show, which can be a little installation-heavy, as opposed to 2-D show, which can still be a little bit time-consuming. But 3-D shows are generally more time-consuming.
OMC: Do those traveling shows usually arrive on semi trucks?
DGF: Generally on a semi-trailer depending on the size of the show. The European Design exhibition had I think six truckloads and the smaller shows can have as little as one trailer. That's part of our job, coordinating with the art preparators and our space down here; the day that we can receive it, depending on other activity going on in the work area. Other shows may be being shipped out or shipped in at the same time.
OMC: You are in charge of coordinating all that, too?
DGF: Yes, we have a specific calendar -- shipping in and shipping out -- because we have a lot of activity, (shows) are concentrated at certain times of the year. A lot of the installation schedules tend to run together. Some of the shows open around the same time. Along with that we just had two traveling exhibitions that closed.
So, as Melissa described how the Indianapolis Museum coordinated everything, because we organized those two shows, they were coordinated by me here in Milwaukee once they closed. The Warhol show went to three additional museums and the Rohlfs show went to four additional museums.
OMC: So once they close here they don't end for you?
DGF: No, they don't end for me. They do end for the museum staff. We tend to be the point person and if it's a question that we cannot answer -- if its marketing or a curatorial question or an installation question -- we direct it toward the particular department. We do all the coordinating, getting all the crates to that next exhibition. If there are couriers that are required to accompany exhibitions to the next institution, we arrange travel.
MHO: And then we generally put a whole book together of installation instructions, packing instructions, condition reports, and that travels with the show. So it's quite a lot of work that we have to do.
DGF: And basically we are accountable for the safekeeping of the art, until its returned back to the owner.
Many times depending on the exhibition will determine whether a museum staff person should accompany the installation. For instance for Warhol and for Charles Rohlfs we had a museum staff person there for the installation and the de-installation. Because there are so many specific details, quite a few couriers and a lot of logistics, being familiar with that type of exhibition it made it a lot easier for each venue.
But in some cases we don't have to do that. We are organizing a small (Warrington) Colescott exhibition based on the larger one that we just had here at the museum, and because it's a works on paper exhibition everything needs to be framed, and we worked with the institutions. We may not need to send somebody, but we definitely do all the legwork to get it ready to package it up and send it out.
OMC: You guys manage the vaults and collections as well as storage, too?
MHO: Right, I saw Brady (Roberts, chief curator) took you into the vault. We have several vaults, but only 10 percent of the collection is on display generally, so everything else is in storage. It's our job to manage those spaces and track the artwork and everything. There is a print vault on the mezzanine level and (collections manager of works on paper) Brooke Mulvaney manages that. She is in charge of the works on paper in that area, but we do the inventory and track the artwork and the storage spaces.
OMC: So what does that mean for you on a day-to-day basis, what kind of things do you deal with, is it dealing with things as they go into storage and come out of storage, and once they're in there, they just sort of sitting there?
DGF: Well, in every storage space we have a log, so an art preparator or conservator or registrar who has access is responsible for logging something in and out, and at the end of the day Melissa is responsible for entering all that information into our database so we have as current information as possible.
OMC: So that at any given time you know exactly where everything is?
DGF: Exactly. And then we try annually to do a comprehensive inventory just to reconcile all of our records, just to check and see if someone didn't make a record. We don't have problems with theft. But we really need to be accountable in the event that there is a disaster. You need to prepare a schedule for an insurance company, and you really need to know where everything is at any given time. For works coming in and out of the museum we generate a receipt also and that is something that comes out of our office. We just did the accounts, we just did about a thousand things that came in last year in 2010.
OMC: In terms of acquisitions?
DGF: No anything: an exhibition, a loan or something that may have come in for study purposes (or for) an acquisition; things come in to be approved for an acquisition. So everything is tracked and if it comes in, it generates a receipt, and then we just distribute that. If it stays here permanently and if its acquired, then that's fine, but we still have to generate receipts. We have to track everything in the event that we lose anything along the way.
OMC: So pre-computers, this office would have been stacked to the ceiling with paperwork?
DGF: Well, actually, we are still pretty paperwork heavy because we have to generate a hard copy for receiving. We may get a call from a gallery that said, "We lent you a work there three years ago and we are doing an inventory and we can't locate it." We have to go back to our receipts that we archive, find that here and show them proof.
It doesn't happen often but it does happen. We recently organized a small exhibition for some Japanese prints and at the last minute the loan was canceled. Apparently, it was so last minute they had the work packed and ready to go in their vault. They were conducting an inventory of their entire collection this past year and their director called our director and said, "We have a record of this work going out to you and we cannot locate it."
I pulled our exhibition files and here we had all of the e-mails printed out saying that this loan was canceled. So, I sent them that information and lo and behold they found it packed in their vault. It was an extremely valuable screen print.
OMC: Well, it goes to show you -- even at a considerably smaller art museum -- how things can still fall through the cracks.
DGF: Exactly, and that's why we need to be accountable for everything, and that's why we are always making sure that reports are generated and received, condition reports are done. Often, we photograph something if it comes into the museum just to make sure that we have a record of it. Because we are all so busy and things may get dispersed quickly. If it's a work on paper, or photograph it will get moved up into the prints and drawings vaults or if it has a conservation issue it will go right into the conservation department.
We have procedures in place, (so) everything here moves pretty smoothly.
OMC: How long have you been here?
DGF: I think it's been about 20 years now.
MHO: I have been here about six years. Jane has been here for about 15 years and Stephanie has been here for about three years, I think. Stephanie Hansen is our database administrator and our rights and reproduction person. She also manages the copyright for the works in the museum collection.
DGF: Another role that we have is that we are a resource for the director's office; for the new curators that come in. We house all the object files for each object in the collection, and they can come down here and look at our deeds of gifts. They can look at provenance information, what the work was originally purchased for. All of those records are kept here in this office, because that stuff is valuable, too. We are contributing to the institutional memory.
OMC: And do you have the stuff from the Layton Art Gallery; do the records go back that far?
DGF: Yes, well we have, I guess not the original ledgers from 1888, but I think back in the '50s they were re-cataloged.
MHO: But Heather (Winter, in the museum library) has those ledgers, doesn't she? I believe she does.
OMC: So you guys really are the institutional memory, also.
DGF: We try to keep important documents down here, like annual reports, dating back to when the museum started producing annual reports. ... We like to keep that on hand because it's a good source. Catalogs of the museum we keep down here. We keep all the permanent collection photography; all the original photography in the files. So if there is a condition issue that we are not sure of, whether there has been damage, how it was maybe displayed at one time, that photography is a real major resource to the curator and the conservators and to us.
We have pretty good track of where everything is now, but maybe back in the '70s or the '80s it was a little looser, perhaps, and we really tightened up a lot of those procedures. So photography was a real help before we had everything online. Before we had a database we had catalog cards for every exhibition and object.
And then we also have ledgers that track by numerical order, so if we encounter an object in an inventory that we didn't know what it was then perhaps it did not have a tag on it that identified the artist or the title, but if it had a number on it and look up the ledger and the number and then we would have the information.
OMC: So, without this office this place couldn't run?
DGF: A little bit right, because every department has a very important role in making this museum run. We work on the collection details.
DGF: As we get closer to an exhibition, I will generate a installation schedule and I detail it day-by-day, even by hour sometimes: at what point does a courier come in, on what day is the shipment of crates coming in, what day does Kristin (Settle, museum public relations manager) have a press preview scheduled. So we can all know what's going on at any given point because if she is having a press preview, she does not want to have somebody pounding or the light lift driving through the gallery and interrupting the interview. But at the same time we need to keep the installation moving so we meet our deadlines. So we all work together.
DGF: And then we meet weeks prior to that, months prior to that, to begin putting together those kinds of general installation schedules: when we can receive the crates, when we can start, when the gallery will be ready. The gallery really needs to be pristine. No painting can be occurring, we can't have the cleaners in there cleaning the floor when we are unpacking the artwork. So all of those dates are laid out and so that we can schedule all the people that are involved.
OMC: Do you try for it not to be fluid?
DGF: We try not to be, (but) sometimes -- like (with) a courier -- you have to work with somebody else's schedule. We'll give them, early on, the general installation dates, and we ask them if they could try to be here at this date. So the Emperor's exhibition closes at the Metropolitan and we already know that the trucks are coming in on May 19 and May 20.
Those days are really important for us because we need to make sure that we have space down here to receive three truckloads of crates. And it has to be within what is known as a negotiation period; when we can receive the crates and when The Metropolitan is ready to send them to us. So it's a little bit of an organizational thing. We also have the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition closing, so we will have all those crates down here. It's really a shuffle.
OMC: And some of it is beyond your control, when the other museum gets its act together, and can the courier get here on time.
DGF: Yes, but we try to do as much advanced planning as possible so we don't have problems. We work with the curators, we work with the next institution. In this case, for instance, the China exhibition, we are the last venue, so it is going to be dispersed from here. So it will go back to China from Milwaukee. This is a different type of dispersal, because it's not going to one institution, it's going all over. In this case it's just going back to one place, so it's not so complicated.
OMC: But sometimes being the last stop is more complicated because of that? Now does that fall on you guys to do that, or the organizer of the show?
DGF: The organizer, but you know maybe the shipments could be staggered, and you might have couriers coming back from their institution because it's the end of the tour and they want to accompany the art back to their institution. So you may see more couriers coming in from other institutions. For instance Euro design, we were the last tour stop.
MHO: Right, so we were the last dispersal, as well. We had to set up the de-installation to coordinate with the trucks going out with the dispersal. It can be a little tricky, but it worked out well. I think there was about six or seven shipments going out, but it all worked out. With a massive amount of crates going out you just need to coordinate it extremely well (and) label everything properly. It is all about planning and the details.
OMC: Do you find that most institutions are as well organized as you? Obviously it is in everyone's interest to take it seriously.
DGF: I think so, if they're an institution that has a pretty heavy exhibition program and they travel, then they are going to have a registrar that mainly deals with the traveling exhibition. And, yes, we pretty much do all of the same things. If it's a smaller institution, maybe they're not quite so up on it, but for the most part I think registrars all pretty much take their jobs very seriously.
MHO: We are all kind of the same, really. I think you are pretty much just born a registrar, I think.
DGF: Well, you just know what happens if something is not there, or overlooked. It creates a lot of problems, and this ripple effect and you want it to go really smooth. You need to have the exhibition open on time.
MHO: Right, and it's like Dawn says, it generally comes back to us if there is a problem and we don't want that to happen.
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