By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 05, 2011 at 9:04 AM

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.

For this first installment, chief curator Brady Roberts gave me an overview and behind the scenes tour of the museum. In coming weeks, you'll also hear from the museum's registrars, preparators, designers, conservators and more about the important work they do.

We begin in the design area, where staff members create posters, brochures and more. But where exhibitions are also plotted -- in miniature, but to scale -- using models of the museum's spaces.

"This is actually a really critical part of the museum for all of the curators. This is where the models live. This is Baumgartner Gallery. You can see, this is a scale model of the last show. Until very recently, this was Frank Lloyd Wright. We cleared the decks for our next show, 'The Summer of China: Treasures from the Forbidden City.' We can move walls around. This is a great tool, and we spend months at this model, so when we're bringing the art up, it goes right into place. We make a few alterations on the spot, but 90 percent of it happens here."

Roberts tells me that the galleries' pre-fab moveable walls are actually stored in the galleries at all time. You just can't see them.

"We have a number of these walls that we move around and extras that get moved around. Sometimes they're up against the back of the wall, but it's a nice system and it cuts down on the expense of destruction and rebuilding of every show. It gives us huge flexibility. "

On the day I visit, the tiny while walls of the model of the Baker/Rowland Galleries are bare. So, I ask Roberts where they stand in terms of designing the China exhibition, which opens in June.

"Nowhere," he says. "It's not scaled properly. We're always a bit behind. It gives you that anxious edge," he adds with a laugh.

"We have five exhibitions opening this summer, and they're all starting within two to three weeks of each other. It's much more than any of us are used to. Normally, they're scattered and staggered throughout the year, but to have five exhibitions, and this one is such a huge one to begin with, and then to add four more on top of it.

"We're kind of in show business, and one play ends and the next one begins."

And we're off to see one of the main vaults, and the museum's Kristin Settle reminds me I'm not allowed to tell you where it's located. But I can tell you it looks nothing like you'd expect to see in a bank or a 1960s jewelry heist film. It looks like a run of the mill storage area with vertical metal grates hang from the ceiling and reach to the floor. They are on tracks allowing them to be pulled out so the artworks, mostly paintings in the one I visit, can be accessed.

The vaults bare, almost industrial look is in stark contrast to the Matisses and other works hanging on the grates.

In the middle of the room, two members of the conservation staff are cleaning a stunning chair that greeted visitors at the entrance to the Euro Design show earlier in the year.

"This work is so fabulous," Roberts enthuses. "It looks so different in every different kind of light, and as you move around it, it totally changes. It's just a really stunning object, and we're really excited to bring it in to the collection. We were in the process of acquiring it (during the show).

"We brought the show in and realized that this was one of the key objects, and we do have a great 20th century decorative arts furniture collection, so Mel Buchanan, who is a curator of 20th century decorative arts, identified this as an acquisition. MoMA has one; it's an edition piece, so it's in a couple of other major museums."

The conservators are dusting between the many horizontal layers of metal in anticipation of the chair being photographed in detail.

"The conservators are looking at the environment museum-wide," says Roberts. "Anywhere there's art in galleries or in storage areas, we're monitoring. There's a hydrothermograph in here, and it monitors temperature and relative humidity. Steady temperature; steady humidity."

After a quick chat with the conservators about the focus and attention to detail required for such work, we continue on.

"There are a number of storage areas," says Roberts. "This is the main vault, and this is a very standard way for museums to store paintings on these racks that can be pulled out. The locations are on the database that the registrars maintain, so if something goes out on loan, if something comes from a gallery back down to storage, there's a location change. So, we're tracking the registrar's register for every work of art. They're doing this every day.

I'm curious to know how the museum stores its works, expecting that it's carefully sorted according to date or artist or genre or medium. But, that's not really an issue. Seemingly related works can be scattered throughout different storage areas, of depending on size. But it doesn't really matter because the registrar's office keeps very close tabs on where every work is at every moment.

"Our registrars do that juggling act, and we have an issue that we're getting pretty full. We're a dynamic institution, in that it's growing all the time, but one of the things we're working on is a major re-installation plan for the collections museum-wide, and we'll be addressing storage issues as part of that."

So, it depends in part on the availability of space?

"Space and the quality of space and flow throughout the building," Roberts continues. "There are access issues. There are things in my world, the world of contemporary art that can be out-sized. The Thomas Struth we just acquired is 12 feet tall. There are certain passageways where it won't fit. It weighs 800 pounds because it's backed on aluminum, so it's a big, thin, wobbly heavy ...

"We have some pretty heavy-duty equipment that we use, more often than people probably guess. You also consider that things come often very seriously packed in crates. More area, more weight. All of our works of paper are stored in a separate place. We've got a huge vault that just works on paper. They're flat files. Numerically, it's the largest part of the collection with a very small footprint. That's one efficient area. I'm in the inefficient zone. One acquisition throws everything off."

So, though you might think the works in storage are often being moved around to make room for new acquisitions, it doesn't work like that.

"No, this doesn't get juggled around a lot," says Roberts. When something new comes in, he says, "we find a place for it, but like I said, it's getting increasingly more difficult, because we continue to grow.
The registrar's office has paper object files, but we're all digital now, like most museums. Also like most museums, the registrars don't want to give up the paper document, so we have some redundancy, but it's better to have that than to have your hard drive die, and whoops. Where'd everything go?"

We walk out of the vault, down a corridor past the registrar's office and into something that looks more like a carpentry shop than an art museum. In one space, a preparator is painting cases that will be used in the "Art in Bloom" exhibit and will likely also be useful in the upcoming China exhibitions.

Roberts stops next to a giant, white, wooden shipping crate, laying flat, with its top removed. Inside, is heavy duty foam and the construction of the box is multi-layered.

"Look at these crates," says Roberts. "This is a rubber gasket to seal (the crate shut). This is a moisture barrier. This is custom foam, and if you feel the foam, it's got a little give, but it's got a solidness to it. It'll absorb any shock and protect the inner crate from moving around. Crate technology is pretty amazing. This looks like a German crate. This is (for a work by) Jan Lievens. It's European (construction)."

Yes, Roberts can even provenance a crate at 10 yards, it seems.

"I've seen a lot of German crates come in," he says. "I've paid a lot for German crates that come in with my exhibition budget."

"So," I suggest, "the Germans are master crate makers?"

"Yes. And you pay the bill for it."

But, the museum's staff of preparators: painters, lighting designers, carpenters, etc., do a lot of work right here in the recesses of the building ... or rather the complex of three buildings that comprise the Milwaukee Art Museum.

"In our shop, we build pedestals, crates, whatever needs to be built," says Roberts. "We farm out some stuff if it's really big and really complicated; if there's tonnage involved, there are a couple of places we go to. We do a whole bunch of stuff in-house. All sorts of things will come up with the China show that will need to make."

In another space in this area is a wood shop with samples of framing options on the wall and some frames being created and restored resting on work tables, awaiting the return of the museum's passionate framing master, Mark Dombek.

"We have some beautiful original frames on some works of art and we have some good reproduction period frames, and then we get these honkers that come in that are really inappropriate -- wrong period, bad frame that is killing the work of art," says Roberts. "So we sit down and do the research about what should be the appropriate frame and Mark makes it."

The museum generally makes frames for acquired works and often when showing works borrowed from private collectors. In general, works on loan from other museums are properly framed. says Roberts.

"Sometimes if you're doing a show, like this Frank Lloyd Wright show, it's mostly from the (Wright) Foundation (and) we had everything framed consistently, but I got one group of works where the drawings came from a private collector, and they were unframed or in bad frames, and we re-framed all of them.

Dombek will sometimes collaborate with a machine shop to make router blades to create or recreate special moldings and sometimes a shop will also do the routing work. Like many who work in the museum, I will soon learn, Mark Dombek is not only passionate, but arguably obsessive about his work.

"He does a lot of research himself, but it's always a dialogue with the curator. The thing we're working on now, some German Expressionist painting frames. Mary Chapin Weaver, who is curator of those prints and drawings, has done a lot of re-framing, so she's knowledgeable. I've spent a lot of time studying that work, and so has Mark, so the three of us kind of meet on those things. Jim DeYoung, the head of conservation, is also very knowledgeable. So, kind of having an abundance of opinions. It's not a very controversial thing, though."

The museum also has a sub-basement -- which Roberts says is "a special, special tour. It's like a little scene from a nightmare" -- that houses a collection of frames.

We stroll past the loading dock and the space is full of the bright white cases for "Art in Bloom."

And as we head back toward design, Roberts tells me that when the museum is closed -- on Mondays -- and in off-hours on other days -- the galleries are full of action. Just because the sign on the door says "Closed," the museum isn't necessarily asleep.

"People are out in the galleries right now. What happens is a sort of migration, you know, people are working intensely someplace, and sometimes you come down here and there are people all over the place, building and doing things.

"Mondays, we're closed to the public (so) it's a good day to catch up, and before 10 o'clock (when the museum opens on other days) we try to get a lot of things done in the galleries. We've not only got the changing exhibitions, but we do acquire a fair amount and we're moving things in and out of collection galleries."

Just before Roberts shows me the office of the "wingmeister," where the controls to open and close the famous Calatrava wings are located, we run into Mary Weaver Chapin, whom I've had the pleasure to meet on numerous previous occasions. When I tell her we were talking about framing, she's off and running.

"You know, (Mark and I) had this overlapping interest and we thought what can we do to make sure we're moving in the right direction, and it turns out that one of the experts on German Expressionist frames is a framer for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Richard Ford, and ironically, they don't have a great German Expressionist collection, but he just has a passion for it. So on every courier trip, he sneaks -- because, you know you can't take pictures in the galleries -- in and takes corner profile pictures (of frames), so you never see the picture except for like two inches of the corner, and he developed a really rich library of German Expressionist frames, and we brought him in to consult with us.

"One of the leaders in that area has been the Art Institute of Chicago in terms of framing," she continues. "It's really exciting. If you can get people excited about frames, then once they're hooked, they're hooked. Some people just see right past. The problem is when you start seeing frames; all you see are bad frames.

While we're talking museum director Dan Keegan, director of exhibitions Laurie Winters and exhibition designer John Irion arrive and huddle for a chat around the Baker/Rowland Galleries model. But Weaver Chapin barely notices and we keep talking frames.

"One thing that's really exciting about frames is when you can try to find original frames. So what we've been doing is making reproduction frames based on original artist designs, but there are original frames out there that are increasingly expensive. They can cost almost, well not as much, as the paintings, but you could easily spend $1,500-$2,000 on frames.

"Sometimes you find them and they come up at auction. A lot of times they're with dealers, but one of our most successful framings has been an Emil Nolde frame upstairs, because Nolde was good enough to leave designs of frames in his notebook, like profiles, how wide they should be, colors ... and Nolde happened to be a cabinet maker before he became a painter, but most artists we don't know, so we have to look at installation photographs."

I ask, "Did Nolde make those frames himself?"

"He did. He hated the gold frames that were used on impressionist and sort of pompier paintings, so his were always black, and flat. So yeah, it's good stuff. A handful of other artists, you know, Degas, Edgar Degas, was very specific about what frames, and he left drawings. On the other ones you have to extrapolate information. You look at the installation photographs, and even as far back as the impressionists, maybe before, dealers were trying to up sell paintings by putting them in fancy frames."

"I think a lot of people are shocked to learn that Impressionists liked their work to be shown in flat white frames, which looks bad. In fact, I have a funny story. When I was at the Art Institute of Chicago, I was giving a gallery talk and we had just reframed a Van Gogh painting in a white frame, and people were talking and were outraged. They said, 'You've ruined the painting,' 'this is awful,' and I explained that no this is based on a Vincent Van Gogh design, there's an excerpt from a letter Vincent wrote to his brother Theo telling them exactly how he wanted it framed, and they would have nothing of it ... they couldn't get past that. They were writing to the director, they wanted to know my name.

"I think for us we've gotten so accustomed to it that when you change it, it looks wrong to people. It was just so funny, though. There was nothing you could say to them. They just wouldn't hear it. Bringing me up on charges -- crimes against art."

Weaver Chapin says the museum has some artist-designed frames in its collection but, she says diplomatically, the frame collection needs a "little guardian angel." That is, a donor.

"Sometimes you can find someone who matches the right interests with the need. Most of the time, people want to buy the art, which you can understand, or support the programming. What's tough about it is that we're all interested in frames now, which is driving the prices up. So, I'm not sure that we'll necessarily be able to get original frames for the German frames or maybe the French, but Mark does a wonderful job."

I suggest that while it's easy to find people who collect cars, vintage tire collectors might be a rarer breed.

"One day I will find that person," she says. "I mention it every gallery talk. One day that person is going to walk forth and say 'I am here to help you.'"

Weaver Chapin has to go and so does Roberts, so I head over to the conservation gallery to talk to senior conservator Jim DeYoung, who has been at the museum for 35 years. But that's a story for next week.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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.