Big changes are on tap at Milwaukee Art Museum, where the collections galleries are off-view while the permanent collection is re-installed and an expansion project is under construction.
In addition to $10 million in repairs to the museum’s 1957 Eero Saarinen (War Memorial) building and the 1975 David Kahler-designed addition, a new lakeside entrance is being constructed as part of a more than $25 million project.
That new space will allow the museum to rethink how its collections are displayed and in preparation, the works in the shuttered galleries are currently being de-installed. Milwaukee Art Museum is home to more than 30,000 works of art.
While that work takes place the Quadracci Pavilion -- you likely call it "The Calatrava" -- remains open and guests can visit the Museum Store, Cafe Calatrava and re-located Kohl’s Art Generation Studio, as well as view the ongoing "Of Heaven and Earth" exhibition of Italian paintings on loan from museums in Glasgow, Scotland.
But all the while, MAM’s conservation czar Jim DeYoung and his team will be working furiously, first to take down the artwork, then to store it properly and do necessary work on paintings, sculptures and other artworks, and, later, to put it all back up again.
The first step, says DeYoung -- who has been a member of the MAM team for 39 years -- is to attend to the works that he expects might require a little extra TLC. He calls these works, "the rocks in the stream."
"If we didn’t have an advance kind of picking things out, setting them aside, that might grind the entire project to a halt while we just moved it," he tells me over coffee one morning in the museum’s coffee shop. "So over the summer and the fall, we’ve been selectively de-installing, stabilizing, moving things out of the path."
After nearly 40 years working with the museum’s collection, DeYoung didn’t expect many surprises. He’s got a steel-trap of a memory for this stuff and he’s a self-described pack rat. These traits have served him -- and the MAM collection -- well.
"Having done (a re-installation) once before, although it’s a little more challenging this time because with the Calatrava, even though we renovated the galleries, we did it in phases and it wasn’t nearly as comprehensive as what we’re doing now with the permanent collection area."
This time, he says, the work is more challenging. Moving basically everything requires a more organized approach, in part because it demands a considerably larger space to store everything.
"We do a lot of what I call choreographing, which helps," says DeYoung, who chuckles when it’s suggested that because he’s something of a master of coming up with unusual and unexpected -- but successful -- solutions to complex problems, he’s the museum’s own MacGyver. "One of my majors was in radio, television and film and back then I did storyboarding. I’m finding that I do storyboarding with these types of problems.
"One of the No. 1 rules of art handling is that you know exactly where it’s going, the place where it’s going is prepared, they’re holding it while somebody is clearing the space, you know, things like that. We usually try to design it so that we can rewind if we need to. ‘OK, let’s set the reset button and go back to square one and let’s try this,’ because we do run into unexpected things."
As he details some of the challenges his team faces in moving unwieldy or fragile artworks, DeYoung describes a number of techniques he created over the years as solutions. His memories -- and sometimes equipment -- from those experiences are proving very beneficial now.
In addition to a stockpile of memories, DeYoung has thick files he keeps for specific works, in addition to the files kept by the museum’s registrar. Here, he can find details of the scaffolding with free-floating guidewires he created to transport a fragile work when it was loaned to another museum. Here he can also find the method his used to remove an oversized Julian Schnabel work. And here he can find his notes on the hammock he used to move an extremely heavy work.
"E-mails have been a godsend and Internet blogs for professional groups," he says. "You used to just scratch your head and say, ‘I wonder if anyone’s ever done this.’ You’d have to mail out something in a letter. Now you can just throw it out on a website and someone from Australia could say, ‘Oh, yeah. I had that problem last year. This is what I did.’ So we’re a lot less alone."
In the museum’s basement, on the other hand, he can find the travel cases the museum had constructed years ago to transport an exhibit to other museums. These cases were built specifically to nest a group of fragile works. Though he was razzed by colleagues for squirreling these away, having kept them now saves the DeYoung and his crews valuable time and the museum the expense of building new cases.
DeYoung has also hired a couple part-timers to help with the project, including one whose task is to put together archival boxes to store works and this is done to tight specifications and detail. Later, down in the museum’s conservation lab, DeYoung shows me a box that safely and efficiently holds a variety of precious scrolls.
Also down there we can see the variety of challenges faced by his team, from cleaning a gorgeous glass tile fireplace surround rescued from a Milwaukee mansion to preserving a clay model created decades ago by an artist as an ephemeral preparatory study for a painting to stabilizing a folk art sculpture made of chicken bones rescued from a KFC dumpster.
"I would say that the contemporary art and the folk art or outsider art are by far the most challenging," De Young says. "There’s some workmanship issues but the materials (are difficult)."
Though he says he doesn’t wake up in a cold sweat at night thinking about the prospective pitfalls of this work, DeYoung says he does sometimes awaken with an idea, which he jots on a pad he keeps next to his bed. Some mornings, though, he admits, he’s not exactly sure what he was thinking based on what’s written down.
But his approach to the work is, as you might expect, very methodical and it starts each week with a Monday morning meeting.
"We meet every Monday morning, but often now almost every morning, and our registrar and I work hand in glove with the art handlers and we meet lay out the week’s agenda and it shifts. It changes," he says. "We have a good sense of what we’re going to be doing, where we’re going to be doing it, which teams are splitting up. That’s all determined at the beginning of each week."
The first rock that DeYoung wanted to pull from the stream, was among the weightiest.
"One of the first things we did was one of the heaviest pieces, which was ‘The Last Spartan,’ which weighs over two tons," he says.
To move the statue -- made by Florentine sculptor Gaetano Trentanove for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago -- DeYoung called up Hennes Services, which specializes in moving heavy equipment and has long been called up to move heavy works for MAM.
"They’ve worked with us longer than I’ve been here," says DeYoung. "In fact, they moved ‘The Last Spartan’ (here) from the courthouse, in the '80s, where it had been after the Layton Art Gallery was destroyed."
This is the first time the sculpture has been moved without its heavy marble base. Because it will move to a new location in the museum -- one that cannot support the weight of the base -- when the galleries re-open, "The Last of the Spartans" will not be lying with his sword and shield atop the base. Of course, the museum will keep the base.
"So we had to get it off the base, which as far as we know has never been off," says DeYoung. "I found a couple of pennies from ’01."
DeYoung is currently researching whether or not the sculpture and base we’re created together, in Italy. He has his doubts.
"It’s not implausible at all that the base was made here," he says. "I can’t see them shipping a base like that overseas."
At the moment, the white marble spartan is lazing in the museum’s conservation lab. That rock is no longer in the stream, and DeYoung and his team are moving forward, with an eye on the calendar and on the bottom line, but never one taking their eyes off the most important thing: the artwork.
"It’s really a juggle to find ways to expedite, cut corners and at the same time, not do it so much that you’re jeopardizing the artworks," he says. "At times I’ve stepped in with somebody and said, ‘Umm, don’t take this the wrong way but this is taking too long and we’ve got to find another way to do this. So set it aside, I’ll think of something, and we’ll come back to it.’ And we streamline the process, come up with different materials and approach.
"Having been here for 39 years, people say, ‘Well, doesn’t it get a little boring?’ It never does because every day there’s a different problem that needs solving, issues that have to be dealt with, and, yes, you can have some formulaic approaches, but there’s a surprising amount of individual issues that have to be treated in a custom manner and again, the challenge to do it efficiently and on budget. I’m a real stickler."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.