Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dispatch from Underground Indianapolis

The Indianapolis Museum of Art with sculpture by Robert Indiana
Courtesy the Indianapolos Museum of Art
The Indianapolis Museum of Art has so much  to recommend it to potential members—stunning building, great collection, excellent programming, historic gardens, and its new 100 Acres of contemporary outdoor sculpture. If all that weren't enough, though, this would be the clincher: an annual, members-only vault tour. Jesse Speight, Supervisor of Storage and Packing, leads members through the underground sanctum where the vast majority of the Museum's collection resides.

When I took Speight's (rhymes with "eight") tour recently, it was the realization of a dream I'd conceived over twenty years ago when I lived in Boston. Then I was a regular visitor to Harvard's Fogg Museum. The nineteenth century building has a modern wing, but I always loved the old part best. One reason for my preference was that the route to the basement ladies' room led past the metal cage that forbade entrance, but permitted unimpeded view into an area of the vault. It wasn't that there was anything in particular to see ("Oh my god! Tintoretto in a tin!") but that the concrete corridor into the shelving units led where this Alice would have been easily, if insanely, led by curiosity.

And in 2000, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, mounted a fascinating show entirely from storage. "Unlocking the Hidden Museum: Riches From the Storerooms" was a show about the history of taste and, implicitly, why museum storerooms are full. They showed work that interested people a hundred years earlier, implying that one never knows what the next generation's taste will be.

A Review written at the time in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/31/arts/in-the-attic-up-above-the-galleries-misfits-await-their-turn.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm) points out the aspect of wonderful surprise: "A piece eagerly acquired in one century may leave a curator puzzled in the next. That leaves room for discovery, even in the museum's own storage rooms. A recent survey of the museum's Japanese metalwork found a treasure that was hidden in plain sight: a copper bell by Unno Moritoshi, an important metal worker of the late 19th century. Such Meiji-era metalwork is enjoying a revival. For nearly 80 years, 'It was just sitting in a corner and no one had realized its importance,' said Joe Earle, chairman of the Art of Asia, Africa and Oceania department. 'It was not an area of Japanese art anyone was interested in.'''

The review in The Daily Beast (http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/1990/07/22/secrets-from-the-storeroom.html) mentioned the other way that tastes change. "And then there are 'Matters of Taste.' Spanish painter Ignacio Zuloaga was hailed as a successor to Velazquez and Goya when the MFA purchased My Uncle Daniel and His Family in 1917; now, as one curator puts it, 'many people feel it's too ugly to even look at.' But the museum is aware of the cyclical nature of art fashion. It seldom gives things away."  

Jesse Speight leads a group into IMA storage
The IMA press office arranged for me to speak with Speight before the IMA tour began, which was fortunate, for it allowed him to dispel my assumptions that it turned out few other guests would share. For reasons related to the reviews above, I had thought it institutionally daring to open up storage at all. It struck me that a museum administration would have legitimate policy reasons to keep the public out. By permitting visitors, they might end up opening doors they'd prefer to leave shut: "Why are you storing that stuff; why not get rid of it?" "That painting's too important to be in storage!" "My mother-in-law donated this and I can't believe all you do is leave it in storage!" I thought that people would become involved in questions of taste, legacy, and the area where private and institutional interests conflict.

That was just me, it seems. Speight told me that visitors tend to be interested in the safety of the collection and in the preservation of its monetary value. They want to know how breakage and burglary are prevented, and what happens if the power goes off. If people look for anything in particular as they browse the shelving, it used to be that folks wanted to see Robert Indiana's "LOVE" painting, which Speight would occasionally set out in advance, so used he became to the request. Finally, Speight reported its enduring popularity to the curators who put it back on permanent display.

Underground at the IMA
Our 6:00 pm tour began in the Museum's lobby, which was quivering with crowds and cameras, booms and buzz as Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez arrived for some occasion that I never quite figured out. From that super-charged atmosphere the fifteen or so of us boarded a padded freight elevator that seemed big enough to carry a single-person aircraft with room to spare. It lowered us hushedly to a very deep subterranean level and opened into a hall 13 feet high, with concrete walls painted white. It was just the sort of antiseptic, spare, functional environment I remember from the basement  cadaver labs I once worked in at a medical school. The atmosphere was decidedly industrial and workmanly. Had we reversed our steps, we'd have entered the lift and been very surprised to have its doors open at the other end into an art museum.

As we locked up our purses and backpacks in the Registrar's office, Speight explained that we wouldn't visit the vault itself. The vault is a room in the Registrar's department into which any acquired or visiting item enters the museum for cataloguing. Here the item will be given its condition report, an initial description in minute detail of any irregularities. The registrar assigns the item a number that remains with it. If any insects are discovered during the inspection, the work goes into isolation for freezing, fumigation, or whatever process will kill the intruders. The bug remains have then to be removed so that they themselves don't become a source of contamination.

One of our number asked about molds and fungus, and Speight pointed out that the Museum's controlled climate is supposed to prevent their growth. ("We once had a chair made of 'green' twigs. The twigs were still filled with moisture, and fighting mold for that piece was a real struggle!') But the ideal humidity and temperature for the collection are unvaryingly maintained. To insure this, there is a formidable system of back up generators in case of emergencies that might knock the power out. Furthermore, he told us, during last year's particularly harsh winter, the Museum brought in fuel  trucks and parked them on the grounds so they would be in place should they be needed to back up the generators. No one wanted to get caught needing them only to find conditions too icy for them to make it.

Speight ushered us down low-lit corridors lined with labeled wooden crates, to the massive double doors of storage which, like every threshold we crossed, was protected by electronic security. Behind the doors we found: the massive basement of your friendly but obsessive uncle; the super-clean garage of an automobile enthusiast—someone who keeps every conceivable specialized tool and every project neatly stored, and leaves not a spot of oil anywhere behind.

But that's the idea, isn't it? Whether an item be in a flat file or cabinet, on a shelf, or hung on a sliding rack, a registrar or curator can step up to it as if drawn there by a magnet. Each stored item has its acquisition number assigned by the Registrar, and it sits on a row in the room, on a shelf or rack, and in a position each identified numerically. Every item has a Tokyo-style address.
Painting storage

The numerical coding has several advantages. Insurance auditors regularly inspect storage, and they audit to be sure that the location codes work and that every piece is where it should be. In addition, because the Registrar can locate a work by grid numbers, lighting in the room can be controlled very specifically. As few lights as possible are turned on, and only where they are needed.  As Speight reminded us, light is destructive to art, so its use is vigilantly controlled. Works on paper and textiles, I was stunned to learn, spend three years in dark storage for every 9 months they spend on display, exposed to light.

So nice to come home to...
Looking into the storage cabinets was a little like looking at the newborns in the sanitary hospital nursery. The cabinets, Speight assured us, are made of enamel baked onto metal: There is nothing that could break down to produce gases that could affect the works stored inside. He's also careful not to "mix the chemistry" in the cabinets: No animal hides on the shelf below the silver. Even so, the cabinets are equipped with every precaution: charcoal filters, gaskets, and leveling systems: Nothing's too good for these babies.

Speight has made significant headway with a project of providing every object (dishes, masks, small sculptures, implements, jewelry, etc.) in the cabinets with its own, custom-designed box so that it will not simply sit on the shelf. The motivation for this is the fact that the New Madrid Fault that begins in Missouri runs toward central Indiana. In the event of an earthquake, individual boxes will stabilize the holdings,  preventing them from knocking into one another. The other reason to have boxes is that they cut down on the handling of the items. If curators need them, they can pick up the boxes without touching the art. It's another way to preserve the collection. "Preventive health," he calls such work, which allows him to get to know each piece more intimately and therefore to be better able to plan for its problem-free future.

The people in our group were fascinated by shipping crates. We thought we saw a lot, but Speight told us that there are rooms filled only with them. A crate is custom-made for each artwork in the collection, and is kept for the duration; whenever the work is shipped, it travels in its custom case. The condition of every case is carefully monitored, for it must protect the art work absolutely, under any circumstances. The case must not only cushion the art from breakage, but it must be waterproof.

Speight has conducted tests on crates he designed, measuring them against crates from a  New York gallery and a European museum. His two-part experiment, using packed-up watercolor paintings he made himself, first involved placing all three cases under running showers for a half-hour. Only the case he made remained complete dry inside; one took on so much water that the watercolor was deemed by the consulting conservator to be barely salvageable. The second phase of the test placed all three cased paintings under water for forty-five minutes. Again, Speight's case prevented any leakage at all, unlike the other two, which failed in degrees moderate and drastic. This has become an important professional credential upon which Speight justifiably piques himself.

I could have used another hour or two in the remarkable laboratory of storage. But in the hour we had, I learned a lot more than I thought I would when Speight told me that policy issues didn't often come up. To find the massive bottom of the iceberg to be so weighty and solid in scientific detail was stirring. The hallmark of love is often in the unromantic—in rational, organized, forward-thinking action—just what Storage and Packing does. I don't think I will ever again see a work on display in a museum without awareness of the miracle that it's been preserved at all; without being mindful of the active devotion and many levels of effort that have allowed it to appear at all for public study and pleasure.
Lights out.

Of the works themselves that I saw in storage? I have to admit that I was barely curious at all. They were like Christmas trees on the Boy Scouts' lot. We fuss about choosing the best, worrying that we'll get something awful. But even the tree we choose at random relaxes, unfolds, and turns out to be a beauty. How was it that we just happened to select the best after all? Sufficient space and the accident of our desire allowed the tree to become visible. What we can look at can attract us.

Until artworks are needed and chosen, storage seems like a room of slowly breathing cocoons. In one of those rests the exquisite, exotic luna moth. We'll never know it in the basement, though, because it's attracted to the light. Upstairs, one day, there it will be, as if it had been accustomed to the spotlight all along.
Above ground at the IMA. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

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