This is part one of a two-part series featuring art museum registrars and the special challenges they face in working with site-specific and large-scale contemporary art pieces.
Andrea Phillips is the Chief Registrar and Collections Manager at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Below she talks about how she came to be an art museum registrar, what happens when your travel crate is built too small, and why Kemper Museum is moving their entire permanent collection.
Exhibitions on the Cusp (EOC): How long have you worked at Kemper Museum?
Andrea Phillips (AP): I started working at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in May 2011 as the Assistant Registrar. I have been in my role as the Chief Registrar and Collections Manager since 2016.
EOC: How did you get interested in being a registrar?
AP: Prior to my undergraduate program I had no idea museum registrars existed. Growing up I had a strong interest in art and knew my future would include it. I was an active museum visitor. I went to as many museums as I could, but I never learned about the different roles that make up a museum other than the curator, director, or a conservator. I think this is very common. Most positions at museums are behind the scenes to the public. People are familiar with curators, directors and conservators since they tend to be the individuals who interact with the public and represent the face of the museum. When you step into a museum few individuals think about the advertisement that told them about the museum, who painted the walls, or how a massive object arrived. The focus is on the objects.
My very supportive parents did not panic when I told them I wanted to pursue a career in the arts. I attended Ringling College of Art and Design, a private four-year liberal arts school. During my undergraduate program all students were required to take a professional practice course, which included information about how museums and commercial galleries operated. The course introduced me to art registrars and other job opportunities at museums. After graduation I was able to apply my Bachelors of Fine Arts degree for a number of years but I was not fulfilled. My heart kept going back to my love with art museums. I knew I wanted to pursue a master’s degree in Art History and work at a museum, but I was still unclear as the exact role.
Early on in my master’s program I did several internships, without pay, in the arts to determine where I wanted to focus my studies. One was with a corporate art collection. The curator was also the collections manager. Many of my assigned duties were focused on registration and collections care. I really enjoyed the work and intimate interaction with the collection. As a result I sought out other internships focused on museum registration. After graduation I was able to secure a job at the corporate collection, but still knowing my goal was to work at an art museum. It was a great experience and established the foundation for my next position.
EOC: What are some of the special challenges in caring for contemporary art, particularly large-scale pieces?
AP: My main concern with contemporary art objects is the long-term care of the object. Contemporary works in our collection range in materials and size. It is my job to insure the objects in our collection will be here for future generations. When our institution is considering new acquisitions I try to remind the parties in the decision making process about the long-term considerations of the work, will it fit though our dock doors, can it fit on our truck or do we need to hire one, will it require special maintenance, how much space is needed to store the object, what type of ideal environment can it be stored in. All of these questions factor into the care and costs of the object after it enters the collection.
We also try to educate potential donors on cost associated with the care of an object after donation in hopes they include a monetary gift to support the object. Unfortunately object care is not very sexy. Individuals would much rather have their monetary gifts attached to galleries or exhibitions that are visible to the public. Realizing this, museums have to be creative on generating collection care support. Many institutions have started adopt an artwork funds, where individuals or groups can support the care of specific objects. When that particular work goes up on display, those donors can be included on the wall tag.
EOC: What about exhibitions that include site-specific works, performance art, multi-media installations, other “non-traditional” media? How does Kemper Museum handle cataloguing those works and how does the process differ from more “traditional” media?
AP: Kemper Museum’s collection contains a few non-traditional new media installations. These type of objects are always a challenge and lead to many discussions on how to catalogue the objects once acquired. Because time-base media objects tend to evolve with technology we have to determine what is best for cataloging on a case by case basis. This seems to be fairly typical with most institutions.
Our team will meet and discuss the best way to catalogue and care for the object. The question of should we acquire hardware that is dedicated for this object always comes up.
The answer is usually, “No”, unless the piece requires a specific technology that might not be readily available in the future and the aesthetic of the object depends on that. For example an artist might use a 1960s tube TV to show a video as part of an installation. In this case we would make sure to buy a few extra tube TVs and store them so the work is always displayed in this manner.
The majority of our time-based media works do not require special components. They are on CD, DVD, or flash drives. We have a stock of technology equipment that we use when the piece is displayed. When we acquire the piece we try keep the original copy in storage never to be used. With the approval of the artists, if they don’t provide one, we make an exhibition copy that is used for display. When the time comes that the exhibition copy is depleted we can go back to the original and make a new exhibition copy. Using non-dedicated technology allows the museum to reduce storage space for time-based objects. Imagine if an institution owned 100 DVD single channel videos with sound and there was dedicated equipment assigned to each object. There would be pile of equipment. Not to mention how quickly technology changes. The idea of dedicated equipment is just not feasible for most institutions.
I recently attended a session at the Association of Registrations and Collections Specialist conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, presented by Meredith Reiss of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her presentation focused on best practices for documenting, storing, and preserving digital acquisitions. Reiss stressed the importance of effective communication with the artist and/or vendor during the pre-acquisition phase, and how to plan for future migration and storage of these challenging objects. The presentation was very informative and made me feel at ease with how the Kemper is currently dealing with non-traditional media works. It gives me comfort knowing that even large institutions, such as the Met, are dealing with similar issues and information sharing among colleagues will be key in establishing time-based media standards in the future.
EOC: Can you talk about a recent exhibition where you worked on coordinating the travel of artwork or materials? Were there any specific shipping challenges due to the type of medium?
AP: Every few years Kemper Museum organizes a traveling exhibition. The exhibition originates at our museum then travels to additional venues. Currently we are traveling Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction from 1960s to Today. The exhibition is currently at National Museum of Women of the Arts in Washington D.C and will next travel to Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida.
The exhibition features the work of more than twenty exceptional artists in conversation with one another for the first time. Works range in media, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and drawing so you can expect there are some challenges. There is a wonderful work in the exhibition by Abigail DeVille, titled Harlem Flag (2014). The work is made of sheetrock, door, American flag, wax, encaustic paint, charcoal dust, wallpaper scrap, fabric, staples, and glass.
The team had quite the challenge figuring out how to pack and ship a work made of these materials. We could not attach oz-clips to the work to secure it in the crate due to the fragility of the drywall. We opted to have the panels of the object stacked in flat trays with bracing. The flag and charcoal rubbings were removed and shipped separate. Other works in the show were easily shipped in crates or soft packed with bubble and slipcases.
The difficult part of this exhibition was the collection of the objects. We had a large number of objects coming from various parts of the country most of them required crating. I had to determine the best regional locations to consolidate the works and have them crated. Art shuttles were hired to consolidate the works. After crating was completed, works were collected by an exclusive semi and brought to Kansas City in one truck.
Again developing a good schedule is key. I had to determine when the works were available for collection from the owners, when the craters could accept them, how long the crating would take, when the final truck was needed in Kansas City and anticipate any setbacks.
One minor set back that occurred happened during collection of the Sylvia Snowden painting June 12. Due to the size of the painting, 120 5/8 x 72 1/4 inches, the craters had to build a travel frame offsite and bring it to the artist’s home for safe travel. Most times we like for the craters to soft pack the object for transit to their facility then build the crate while the work is at craters. This allows for very exact measurements and fitting of the work in the crate. The large size of this work would not allow us to do that.
When the craters arrived at the artist’s home the painting was at the back of a room with about 100 other paintings in front of it. The art handlers had to move all the other objects to reach the painting. Once the painting was brought out they discover it was a foot and a half larger than the measurements indicated. The travel frame was built too small. The painting could not travel safely wrapped so they had to go back to the shop, rebuild the travel frame and come back another day. It was a stressful day for all but things like this happen. I just have to make sure time is built into the schedule if surprises occur.
EOC: At collecting institutions it seems there’s only ever a small fraction of the collection on display at one time. Is that the case with Kemper Museum? If so, what work is done to maintain the permanent collection when not on display?
AP: Yes, that is the case here at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. We have over 1,400 objects in our Permanent Collection. Due to our active exhibition schedule we tend to have 20-23% of our Permanent Collection objects on display at a time. When compared to large encyclopedic institutions (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example), our number is quite high. Typically encyclopedic institutions only display 3-7% of their collections.
We take great care of our collection while on display and off. Works are stored in a secure climate controlled environment that is monitored 24/7 by our collections and facilities staff. The majority of our storage is shared for all types of artwork. Ideally we would like to have separate storage rooms for different types of mediums but this is not possible due to space limitations at the museum and at our other storage location. The collections and registration department groups similar type material objects together. We have specific flat files for works on paper, cabinets for metal and bronze sculpture, glass and mixed media. Paintings are stored on racks or crates if oversized. This allows us some flexibility in controlling the micro-environment around each group of objects. Each time an object is put on display or removed the registration department performs a condition report on the object to track any changes. Should we come across something of concern we reach out to our network of contract conservators to inspect the object and determine if any treatment is required. The Kemper strives for a proactive approach when caring for our collection.
EOC: Kemper Museum is currently moving their permanent collection to another storage facility. What’s the reason behind the move, and has there been anything specifically challenging about the move?
AP: Kemper Museum opened in 1994. Over the past 23 years we have acquired objects at a steady rate, as a result we outgrew our current storage. We are currently moving to a larger facility that will accommodate not only the current collection but future growth.
Moving a collection of over 1,400 works has been a challenge. First we had to develop a very detailed schedule relating to the move. This ensured the timing of not only the actual move, but all the work required leading up to the move. We had to consider things such as ordering supplies for the move, building crates and containers for objects, object inspections, packing, transportation, booking extra art handlers to assist, and insurance.
The move is being done in tandem with our ongoing exhibition schedule so it has been a balancing act. There has been a lot of starting and stopping relating to the move. We would work one week on the move than shift gears to de-install a gallery at the museum for two. We have had to be very nibble and not get caught up in the small things.
Our team also came up with some ways to make the move easier on ourselves. We created special tags for each object that include a thumbnail image, title, size and a barcode. The barcode allowed us to scan each object for quick and accurate tracking of the objects. A map was developed before the move so all the objects had a home location at the new site. Everyone is able to reference the map so there is no question to where the object should be placed. There will be some fine tuning of home locations once everything is in place at the new storage facility and we determine what is working and what is not.
EOC: How do the registration, curatorial, preparatory, and facilities departments work together in preparation for an exhibition? How does that differ from ongoing oversight of the permanent collection?
AP: Our curatorial, preparatory and registration departments function as the exhibition team. We have bi-weekly meetings to discuss upcoming exhibitions. Each department brings to the table questions, concerns and needs relating to each exhibition. We work as a group to develop each show and update each other throughout the process. If we have a question or need to change something I can call the curator or other staff member and usually receive an immediate answer.
In later meetings the education department and marketing are included to discuss items pertaining to their departments that may be included. Once it is time for the installation, registration and prep departments take over. Prep teams prepare the gallery, painting, building walls, installing exhibition furniture, unpacking, and hanging art work. Registration oversees the unpacking, documenting, condition reporting and hanging of objects. Our curator likes to check in daily to see the progress and let us know if she would like any adjustments. Once items are ready for layout, she works with our preparators to finalize the look of the exhibition. We do not hang anything until she signs off.
Prior to opening of the exhibition, I do a walkthrough with our security department to familiarize them with the exhibition and note any items of concern. While Kemper Museum has a chain of command, everyone respects each others opinions and are open to them. During our meetings, ideas and opinions are equal. I am very fortunate to work at an institution where the departments work so closely with one another and have constant communication. The team environment is what I love the most about the Kemper.
Permanent collection exhibitions follow the same pattern. Oversight and care of the collection resides with registration. As the collections manager, I monitor the collection and the environment it is in. I work closely with our facilities manager and preparatory staff to achieve optimal care. Should concerns or issues around storage, galleries, exterior grounds or particular objects, we meet as group to discuss the problem. If the problem requires additional funding, special approvals or conservation, the curator and executive director are informed. They can decide if it is something that needs to be taken to the board or trustees for their approval. Collection maintenance schedules are developed by me and performed by prep. Prep will update me on any changes they see in the collection during maintenance. Kemper Museum does not have conservation staff. We are very fortunate to have a number of conservators in our area. Should something require conservation I have a number of contacts that can be called in to consult and perform treatment. On rare occasions we will send works out to conservations labs. Most often treatment is done onsite.