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Art Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes with the Museum’s Art Preparators

Just how does Robert Indiana’s The American LOVE sculpture make its way from the truck bed to become a fixture on the lakefront? What does the back of a Robert Henri painting look like? How does a three-dimensional sculpture get packed for safe travel to Spain?

Milwaukee Art Museum Members often express curiosity about the work of the Museum’s art preparators, the usually unseen and, some might say, unsung team responsible for handling the complex requirements of receiving, moving, and installing artworks; mounting exhibitions and gallery rotations at the Museum; and shipping works of art all over the globe. 

The job of art preparator attracts individuals with a deep appreciation for art, and often these roles are held by people who create or have studied art themselves. “Artwork is nourishing; it creates fodder for seeing and experiencing the world around us in new ways. Speaking for myself, proximity and access to the art is what draws you in to becoming a preparator,” said Neil Gasparka.

When asked what the exposure to the artworks through his role has meant to him, Paul Mitchell, lead preparator, replied, “I have the privilege to view a tremendous number of works in a manner that few people are ever able to experience them. I also am routinely exposed to works of art that I may have had little interest in had I not been able to work with them through my occupation. This has given me a greater appreciation for the vast array of artwork that exists.”

If you’ve been to the Museum, you’ve no doubt enjoyed the results of the art preparator team’s hard work, whether in the collection galleries or the current exhibitions. The following images offer a behind-the-scenes look at some of the team’s recent projects. Each is paired with insights from team members.

“As chief art preparator, my job is to coordinate and organize all gallery installations, but also the preparation of the gallery before the exhibition can be installed. That involves the destruction and movement of our moveable wall system, and rebuilding, refinishing, and construction of different design elements to make the gallery unique for each exhibition. Here is a snapshot of entry walls and archways in the middle of the construction phase.” —Arthur Mohagen III

“This is a view of the team trying to move our movable wall system. Each wall measures twelve feet high and can be different lengths of eight, ten, and twelve feet. They are extremely heavy and require the use of hydraulic ‘roll-a-lifts’ to pick them up a few inches off the ground and wheel them around the gallery before being placed in their new position.” —Arthur Mohagen III

Artwork: H. C. Westermann, A Rope Tree, 1963. Douglas fir, marine plywood, pine, and ink, 62 3/4 × 29 3/4 × 22 1/8 in. Centennial Gift of Hope and Abraham Melamed M1987.61.

“The Westermann Rope Tree crate is being packed to ship to an exhibition in Spain. This crate was built to ship the sculpture and its custom pedestal in two crates. The top section can be seen here, housed in the crate with the lid off. The crate creates a sealed environment to maintain temperature and humidity during transport, and to keep the work from being damaged by shock, vibration, or abrasion with soft, shock-absorbing padding. The crate will be sealed with bolt closures and a gasketed lid before being shipped off with a certified art handling and shipping carrier, and it will be accompanied by a courier.” —Paul Mitchell (Crate construction and design by Paul Mitchell)

“For our annual Layton Art Collection Focus Exhibition Byrdcliffe: Creativity and Creation, we needed to construct this rather complicated riser to highlight and protect the many three-dimensional objects that were planned for the installation.” —Arthur Mohagen III

“Pictured are the final stages of construction for a custom platform and pedestal configuration in the Byrdcliffe exhibition. It was constructed in a modular fashion to allow for it to be deconstructed, moved up to the gallery, and reconstructed, before finally being painted. After the paint cured, the artwork was installed. A vitrine was added to house smaller works, and mounts were constructed to secure particular objects.” —Paul Mitchell

Artwork: Robert Henri, The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison), 1906
Oil on canvas, 77 1/4 × 38 1/2 in. Purchase, M1965.34.

“The back of this painting displays its provenance, exhibition history, and Milwaukee Art Museum label. The label contains the artist’s name, the artwork’s title, medium, date of execution, and the acquisition number given to the piece when it came into the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection.” —Paul Mitchell

Artwork: Robert Indiana, The American LOVE, 1966–99. Polychrome aluminum, 96 × 96 × 48 in. Gift of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation M2018.271. © Morgan Art Foundation / Artist Rights Society (ARS), NY

“The rigging of a monumental sculpture such as this requires collaborative work between the Museum staff, including the preparators, conservators, and registrars, and the exhibition designer and curator, as well as outside contractors that are certified structural engineers, riggers, and crane operators. This entire team works in unison to install and safeguard the sculpture.” —Paul Mitchell

Elisabeth Gasparka is the Development Officer for Membership within the Development Department at the Museum. She crafts Member communications, plans and oversees Member events, manages the Neighborhood Discount program, and more. Outside of the Museum, Elisabeth is a songwriter, singer, and musician. She enjoys art and design, as well as spending time hiking, canoeing, and exploring nature with her husband, friends, and family.

1 reply on “Behind the Scenes with the Museum’s Art Preparators”

Thank you! I do enjoy what happens behind the scenes, although it would have been fun to actually see the picture that we saw the back of! I watch works of art being restored on You Tube. (Baumgartner’s Restoration) There is something so satisfying about it. Thanks again!

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