Here today, gone tomorrow (or over six months): How we moved out of the Gibbes!
The Gibbes Museum of Art closed its doors in August in preparation for a major renovation and expansion. Given the nature of the construction project, it was necessary to empty the building of all its contents….people, office equipment, artwork, exhibition furniture, museum store inventory; everything that was not part of the building structure had to go. Museum staff was tasked with moving over 10,000 pieces of artwork and over 100 years of accumulated “stuff” out of the building over a six-month period. Our small, efficient, energetic staff has proven time and again that we can rise to a challenge and accomplish tasks, but this move project gave us all a moment of pause….and then we got over it and went to work! We accomplished our goal and today the Gibbes is an empty shell ready to be restored to its former glory, but how did we do it??? While I have been known to hold audiences captive for a long time talking about this move project, I realize this is a blog, and will try to convey our process in manageable sections (Part I and part II) rather than looking at the whole elephant!
Planning for the collection move began several years ago and involved the coordination of art handling crews, fine art transit companies, and multiple storage locations. As the Director of Collections Administration, my first task was to find over 3,000 square feet of museum-quality space to store the entire art collection. Unfortunately, that does not exist in South Carolina. The closest commercial fine art storage with that amount of available, climate-controlled, secure space is in Orlando, Florida, which we decided was too far away. Instead, I pursued partnerships with our friends, The Charleston Museum, The South Carolina State Museum, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta to store portions of our permanent collection during construction. We are pleased to be working with colleagues and strengthening relationships. Transport Consultants International assisted with the complicated logistics of this move.
In order to keep the museum open as long as possible, removal of the art collection occurred in four phases. We started the process of packing and moving the collection in April 2014. During the first phase a crew of professional contract art handlers wrapped the museum’s collection of 4000+ works-on-paper and approximately 100 pieces of sculpture. All packing activities took place behind-the-scenes and the museum remained open to the public with little disruption. The images below do very little to convey the volume of material that was wrapped, nor the tight quarters in which the project took place, but you get a general sense of how it was done. The excellent art handling crew that worked with Gibbes staff knocked out this first phase of packing in just ten short (actually really LONG) days. These collections were shipped to The South Carolina State Museum in Columbia in May and are currently enjoying secure, climate-controlled storage under the supervision of the professional staff at the State Museum.
Looking back at the whirlwind that was June 2014, it’s hard to believe how much activity took place and that we made it through those 30 days positive and still speaking to one another! The month began with the dreaded office move as museum staff changed operations from 135 Meeting Street to our temporary home in the Franke Building at 171 Church Street. As with any move there was the stress of packing boxes, uprooting comfortable work spaces, considering relocation of files and file cabinets, working out technology issues, planning for the logistics of the actual move, unpacking the boxes, getting used to new offices and work space, and the unsettling feeling of being disconnected from the collection and exhibits. It was a tough few weeks, but we persevered and learned to adjust to the new normal of working in an office building. Well most of us adjusted; I think those of us in collections and curatorial still find it particularly difficult to be away from the art. Meanwhile, back at the museum (which was still open to the public) I was moving forward with phase 2 of packing the collection. Just one week after the office move, the art handling crew returned to pack over 500 paintings and several large sculptures over another two-week period. The Garden and Balcony galleries were closed and set up as packing stations to provide the ample space required. Museum visitors were able to observe the packing process while still enjoying exhibitions in the Main and Rotunda galleries. I definitely lived a double life in June running (literally) between the new offices at 171 Church Street and the art packing project at 135 Meeting.
With July came a small respite. Packed paintings were shipped to their temporary home at the High Museum of Art Collections Storage Facility in Atlanta, Georgia. Greg Jenkins and I made the trek to Atlanta (the first of many) to assist with movement of our collections off the trucks and into the storage facility. The capable staff at the High was wonderful to work with and our paintings are stored alongside many treasures from the High’s permanent collection. The remainder of July was spent preparing for the next phase of packing and final closure of the Museum. We also received word that the Gibbes was awarded a Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections Grant in the amount of $250,000 to improve storage conditions for the museum’s collections. Grant funds will be used to purchase high-quality storage furniture for the renovated collections suite. This exciting news was a great boost for Gibbes staff after a grueling summer of moving.
On to August. Time for an end of summer vacation perhaps?? Forget about it! August was crunch time for Gibbes collection staff as the third, and most multifaceted phase of collection packing got under way. The art handling team (with the addition of a crating specialist) returned once again to pack oversize paintings and all objects on view in The Charleston Story. This process took place over a three-week period. Crews worked behind-the-scenes to crate oversize paintings in storage until the Museum finally closed to the public. Once the doors were shut we spread out into the galleries to pack artworks on view for long-term storage. Many of these paintings were large and required sturdy travel crates; the Museum had over 70 high-quality crates constructed by US Art Company to protect our finest works during transit and storage. In the end, four tractor-trailers loaded with all remaining artwork were sent to the High storage facility in early September. Our hallowed halls were finally empty….almost.
Stay tuned for Part II next week!
—Zinnia Willits, Director of Collections Administration