Friday, June 11, 2010

Registration and Conservation

You know you’re in the Registrar’s office when there are nomenclature books and #2 pencils everywhere you look.

The Registration department in the DIA was pretty boring. It looks much like the third floor—grey, with cubicles… but more filing cabinets. I’m sure they keep all of the really interesting stuff hidden.

Today, I worked mostly on the 125th Anniversary project. Michelle (a registration intern and part-time Public Programs staffer) and I took an extended tour of the museum, choosing and eliminating artworks to be reproduced and placed around the greater metro Detroit area. I’ve really enjoyed working on this project. Most of the businesses have been enthusiastic about participating—which is a good start—and it’s been fun to discuss the paintings and why they should go where. It’s also been interesting to be in on planning the assembly and installation (selecting the materials and installation hardware, etc.).  I don’t know much about that kind of thing, which I think is why it’s been so fascinating.

Michelle knows a lot more about art than I do (which isn’t difficult) so I enjoyed touring the galleries with her this afternoon and hearing her thoughts about which paintings are most important, which best represent our collection and why some paintings are better suited for certain areas than others. I can’t wait to audit Intro to Art History next semester… I’ve been faking my way though art museums for far too long.

Michelle also had some other keen insights for me, and answered a few questions I had about the museum. For example, some paintings are under glass, while others are not. I studied these paintings a while, and could not find a pattern. One Renoir is covered, while others are not, etc. Michelle says that this is handled by the Conservation department (not Registration, as I had guessed) and those paintings with glass over them are the paintings most likely to be touched (the Van Goghs!) and those needing extra protection (Degas’ pastels). I was satisfied with that answer for the most part—but I find it hard to believe that the Caravaggios don’t warrant a glass covering.

Yet all of this led me to another question: How many museums have a separate Conservation department?

I had previously thought that a lot of the conservation is handled by the registrar. I have to imagine that in a larger museum, like the DIA, that separate departments are more typical. But I am also wondering if it is more common for museums that have older collections. Perhaps a museum of contemporary art has less need for conservation tactics? Is it that a Caravaggio needs more upkeep and care than a Warhol (at least for the moment)?

I sent an email to University of Florida professor and past Registrar, Dixie Nielson for her opinion. She wrote the book on registration, so I’ll be interested to hear her insights.


Monday, June 7, 2010

The Grand Tour

Good Morning! My name is Jessica. I’m an intern at the Detroit Institute of Arts and I would like to drill some holes in the outside of your building.

This summer, some of my friends are working at museums that they have never visited. I, on the other hand, am working at a museum in which I practically grew up. I think I have the better deal—at least in terms of this project. The DIA’s 125th Anniversary Project (we don’t have a real name for it yet…) is a public art installation project based on London’s 2007 “Grand Tour”.

Essentially, we will be mounting the DIA’s most famous paintings in some of the Detroit area’s most surprising locations.

Places like this:
Michigan Central Station
Yes, really.

Michigan Central Station makes my guts hurt. It’s the visual representation of why people say awful things about Detroit.

It used to be beautiful and ornate and… functional.  Now it is quite simply in ruins.

Interior of the train station, covered in graffiti

For those unfamiliar with this location, Michigan Central Station used to be a large train station, with trains running frequently to major cities like Chicago. It was on par with the great train stations of New York City and had lots of offices (and a hotel, I think?) and other stuff in the large building above the station. Now, every single window is broken.

At first, I was shocked that the committee had chosen to include Michigan Central as a location for this project. Until I saw what painting they had chosen for it.

Syria by the Sea, Frederic Edwin Church (American 1826-1900)

It broke my heart in such a good way. It’s a painting of magnificent ruins.

Syria by the Sea is one of the DIA’s most famous and popular paintings. I have seen it many times, but I had never really considered it until now. It is so completely perfect for Michigan Central Station.

And as Larry (the head of this project committee) pointed out to me, the idea is to place these artworks in surprising locations around the city. Well, I can’t think of any place more surprising than one of the biggest abandoned buildings I have ever seen.

I am also told that people (tourists!) quite frequently visit Michigan Central. The old train station is across the street from an area that is quickly becoming a revitalized area of Detroit—popular and trendy. That strip is home to one of the coolest restaurants in the city, Slows Bar B Q. Interestingly, their logo is a train.

So anyway, I guess people going to that side of town to hit up Slow’s also stop by Michigan Central to take in the ruins. At first, I was kind of appalled by this. But then I remembered how many times I’ve visited the ruins in Rome or Pompeii. While this is not nearly as old… I think it holds some of the same appeal to visitors. So that’s how Michigan Central Station came to be a stop on Detroit’s Grand Tour.

Here's a few shots from London's Grand Tour to give you an idea of what it is:

The rest of the sites are somewhat less surprising. Trendy areas like Downtown Ann Arbor and The Nautical Mile of St. Clair Shores, and Detroit’s Eastern Market are all great locations for these paintings.

So after going through the list of locations and paintings, I began “cold calling” some businesses and honestly, I felt a bit like Oprah.

Everyone in today’s studio audience gets a reproduction of a masterpiece from the DIA’s collection.

EVERYONE gets a painting! Yes, YOU get a painting! YOU get a painting! And YOU get a painting!

My job today was to call all of these locations and tell them that “YOU get a painting!”, or more accurately, “Your location has been scouted and selected by DIA staff as an appropriate site for one of our life-sized reproductions”. Either way, it was fun.

I was surprised by how enthusiastic some of these contacts were. The woman at the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority has been emailing me all afternoon with pictures she’s taken of various places where she wants us to put a painting. I love it!

There are 45 locations in all, and I have a lot more “cold calls” to do, but today’s results have been encouraging.

Now for the boring part—funding it.

We are making “fully submersible” reproductions of our most famous paintings—they can get rained on, exposed to extreme heat and cold, etc. The images of the paintings are going to be printed on a vinyl material (much like any outdoor banner you would see around town) and mounted on a Versatex sheet board. The frames will be made of an ultra-light material called Fypon, which will then be painted with a self-oxidizing gold paint (to make it look 200 years old in about 2 days).

The budget for all of these materials is $11,096. We have a very generous donor (I believe he owns the printing company and is thus printing our repros for the fabulous price of FREE) who has given $12,000 to the project. So he covers all of the production—with $904 left over for lunch.

All we need now is another $8000 for the labor and mounting hardware. Larry says he thinks that he can find a “little pot of money” somewhere in the museum to take care of this. But I really liked what our donor guy said during our meeting. He said, “The original budget ($12000) is all I'm prepared to commit to, but I'm not prepared to let this program not happen." Basically, he is saying that he is willing to use his business contacts to help us out, in addition to the $12,000 he is already giving.

Our donor is one hell of a good guy and I really like his attitude.

All in all, I'm really pleased to be a part of this project. It benefits my hometown, and I think my knowledge of the area is helpful (both to me and the project committee, as they don't have to explain where things are and the demographics of each location, etc,).

Tomorrow I am meeting with the rest of the 125th Anniversary Project committee and I'll be able to see the first sample reproduction!