The Art of Art

There’s a lot more to preparing exhibitions for the Yale Center for British Art than hanging canvases.

 

Ray Bendici

Three months before the exhibition Mrs. Delaney and her Circle is scheduled to open at the Yale Center for British Art [YCBA] in New Haven, museum preparator Greg Shea is miles away in a nondescript workshop on Dixwell Avenue in Hamden, feverishly constructing an intricate set of large, ornate wooden cabinets, a project he has been laboring on for weeks.

The cabinets will house a special installation, Promiscuous Assemblage, Friendship & The Order of Things, created by London-based artist Jane Wildgoose, which is modeled after an 18th-century collection of natural history specimens and curiosities, and will be displayed in conjunction with Mrs. Delaney and Her Circle. According to Shea, it’s one of the most ambitious projects he’s worked on during his 13 years at the museum, part of an exhibition that has been years in the making. “We usually start planning an exhibit five years out,” he says. “If you’re thinking about an exhibition of someone like J.M.W. Turner, for example, you have to make sure that The Tate isn’t doing one at the same time or you won’t be able to get his works.”

Shea says that plans for any show really start coalescing about three years in advance; in addition to procuring the art and conceiving how it will be displayed, other nuts-and-bolts factors also have to be coordinated, such as exhibition design, artwork transport, insurance, indemnity and the actual logistics of packing, unpacking and mounting the individual pieces. Then, once art arrives at the museum (many times at odd hours), there are care issues such as making sure pieces are properly climatized so that frames don’t warp or canvases go slack. And don’t forget about lighting—UV-filtered, of course, but if it’s too strong, works (especially on paper) can be damaged or fade. . . .

Art is in the details, right?

Speaking of details, the cabinets Shea has been building have to be not only aesthetically pleasing but strong enough to hold and protect museum pieces—including over 200 objects on loan from the Peabody Museum of Natural History—as well as modular, so they can be easily disassembled and trucked to New Haven, or potentially to other museums.

On this day, another of the museum’s preparators, Dylan Vitale, is assisting Shea in cutting lumber. An artist himself who worked in a similar capacity at the Yale School of Architecture part-time before moving across the street to YCBA, Vitale relishes his behind-the-scenes work. “I have no illusions about the chances of getting famous from my painting,” he says while he sprays black lacquer on pieces of trim in a specially vented painting room. “I may not be making art, but I get to work with it.”

To that extent, they spend long hours here in the workshop, a bright, organized warehouse-sized space outfitted with all manner of power tools. Plans lie across workbenches and are tacked to walls, instructions for crafting items like wooden mounts or specialty pieces like the stepped risers that will be part of an enormous “curtain of flowers,” also on display during the fall. Shea—one of six full-time preparators at the museum—does “a little of everything,” dividing hours between workshop and museum as needed. “I’ve never made a curtain of flowers,” he says, noting that each of the preparators has an extensive art background, but often find themselves employing other creative skills. “We’re all generalists, but we each have our own specialties: I’m the fabrication guy, Dylan is the lighting guy, etc.”

The artist for this installation is the aforementioned Wildgoose, and a few weeks before Promiscuous Assemblage’s opening, she is at YCBA, working with Shea, Vitale and the other preparators in bringing her vision to life by filling the cabinets with seashells and stony coral, alligator eggs and taxidermy specimens, leaf fossils and a penguin skeleton. “As each piece is put in place, you can see it coming together,” enthuses Wildgoose, who is exhibiting at YCBA for the first time. “It’s been all abstract designs up to this point, so finally being here putting it together is great. There’s nothing like seeing the objects for real, actually placing them together.”

It will take two weeks to finish this installation, which will fill only one bay on the museum’s second floor for about three months. Over the course of the year, YCBA will stage eight to ten exhibitions, each involving extensive preparation (albeit maybe not as much as this particular show), efforts that if done right will not be noticed by the general public.

“Most times the artist gets all the credit [for an exhibition],” acknowledges Wildgoose. “With this project, I am thrilled to share the credit with the whole team, from the exhibit designer to all the preparators. It’s a true group effort.”

Mrs. Delaney and Her Circle and Promiscuous Assemblage run through Jan. 10, 2010. For more info, visit ycba.yale.edu.

The Art of Art

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