Archive for the 'Behind the scenes' Category

The Art of Being a Curator: Details Matter!

I feel so lucky to be a collections and curatorial summer intern at the Gibbes Museum of Art! I have learned a lot about both curatorial and collections management work every day. I even got a chance to organize the Artist Spotlight exhibitions in Gallery H, which is located on the first floor next to the stairwell. I used to be a curatorial assistant in my undergraduate university’s museum, but this was my first time to actually curate an exhibition all by myself!

Molly hanging object labels.

Molly installs object labels in the gallery, making sure they are hung at the correct height and spacing.

I started my work by researching the themes of the exhibition. Later on, I used PastPerfect, which is a powerful collections management software, to help me manage the exhibition details. I needed to consider a series of questions for preparation, such as the size of the art works, their condition, whether the works were framed, and if I would need exhibition furniture for display. I also needed to prepare all of the text materials for the exhibition. The logic and order of artworks are also of great importance. In other words, this time I was no longer an assistant, but a real “curator!” It was so exciting to have this chance!!

Measuring a display case.

Measuring a display case.

As a student from architecture school, I also practiced what I had learned in my studio class when designing the exhibition. Google SketchUp is a very basic and easy-to-use software for architectural design. Architects never use it for professional drawings, but I found it perfect for curatorial work! It helped me measure and organize the works in the space quickly, and also provided me with a multi-perspective preview of the exhibition. I felt excited to put my school knowledge to good use!

Google Sketch-Up drawing.

A Google SketchUp drawing for the Art of the Print exhibition.

Google Sketch-Up Image

A schematic drawing of an exhibition of works by Edward Middleton Manigault.

By working on the two exhibitions in Gallery H for the coming fall, I realized the importance of details in curatorial work. For example, one thing to remember when writing for a museum text panel is many of my readers will be first-time visitors. Therefore, text materials should be clear, readable, and interesting. Another important method I learned was how to arrange multiple profile portraits. Visitors feel more comfortable when seeing two portraits facing one another rather than hanging back to back. In addition, it’s better to have a figure in a portrait staring at another image rather than staring at a corner or a wall. These types of details are carefully considered by a curator—hopefully the visitor won’t even think about it—and the impact on a whole exhibition can be huge. That is why sometimes we feel comfortable when visiting an exhibition, while other times we feel weird or unsettled. Art is to a gallery like notes are to a symphony—they are following harmony rhythms and melodies, and the “symphony” of a museum is carefully composed by its curators.

A current installation of works by George Biddle in the H-Gallery.

A current installation of works by George Biddle (1885–1973) in the H-Gallery.

I hope you will enjoy the upcoming Spotlight exhibitions about Edward Middleton Manigault and Gibbes’ outstanding collection of prints! Come and visit Gibbes Museum this fall!

Molly Huang, collections and curatorial summer intern and guest blogger

In Union there is Strength: Events at the Gibbes

Gibbes Museum Garden Gallery

Society 1858’s Habanero Rhythm event packed the house.

When I began working at the Gibbes Museum of Art in October 2012, I quickly realized that as an employee, a lot of different hats are to be worn. We are a non-profit after all! Currently, I am the events and rental coordinator for the museum, and I assist in coordinating in-house events and all outside rentals. The Gibbes is such a popular venue with requests ranging from small, intimate gatherings such as cocktail parties, dinners, and business meetings to large wedding receptions, ceremonies, and corporate events. For more than a century, the Gibbes Museum of Art has been a beacon for the visual arts in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina.

The Gibbes consists of a small staff of approximately 20 full- and part-time employees, and at one point or another, they have all assisted in planning a rental. Between our curatorial staff, development team, marketing group, facility manager, and security staff, rentals planned at the Gibbes would not be perfectly executed without the help of my colleagues. We rely on each other to make sure each client is pleased with their Gibbes experience, not only as a museum, but also as a venue.

‘Tis the Season to get Married
Working at the Gibbes has given me an abundant amount of first-hand experiences when planning the bride’s big day. One of my favorite rentals that took place at the Gibbes was Catlin and Chris Whiteside’s wedding reception. Caitlin, an event planner at Calder Clark, was, as you can imagine, highly organized and knew exactly what she wanted. Her husband Chris, aka Whitey, was a joy to be around and brought laughter to every conversation.

Wedding Ceremony in Gibbes Rotunda

A gorgeous wedding ceremony in the Gibbes Museum Rotunda gallery.

Caitlin and Chris hold special memories of the Gibbes as their first date took place in the Gibbes Courtyard, so where better a place to have their reception. The months of planning for their special day came together on Saturday, February 23. Every detail was just as Caitlin had planned, including the miniature putting green built under a side tent as a surprise for Chris. The bride and groom were happy to be married and celebrating with their closest friends and family, even with the torrential downpours that happened that evening.

As Caitlin and Chris were getting ready for their send off, soaking wet shoes and all, they kindly requested a pizza be ordered and sent to their room at Charleston Place Hotel. I got an obvious laugh out of this request, but I was more than happy to make the call to Domino’s. I mean who wouldn’t want to end their wedding night with a hot pizza delivery to your suite?

A Hard Days Night
Being able to connect with different businesses through various Gibbes’ rentals has provided me a large professional and social network. Different companies throughout the nation utilize the Gibbes as a venue for dinners, holiday parties, receptions, etc. Some of these corporate rentals have brought the Gibbes new members. Recently, we were fortunate to host Carriage Properties, a longtime supporter of the Gibbes. They held a large party attended by more than 300 people that included clients and friends.

Gibbes Courtyard Family Circle Cup event

A sponsor event during the Family Circle Cup, featuring the Lee Brothers, in the Gibbes Courtyard.

The doors could not have opened any sooner as guests waited patiently to enter the Gibbes. Carriage Properties and Gibbes’ guests filed in for the mix and mingle. New homeowners to Charleston were pleased to have an opportunity to visit the museum and learn about its many programs and events. And, many people, longtime Charlestonians had not visited the museum in a while and enjoyed their return.

A Historic Venue
The Gibbes Museum of Art is the Lowcountry’s leading cultural institution, the premier collection of art focusing on the American South, a dynamic resource for visual learning, and one of Charleston’s most beloved and distinguished landmarks. The exceptional education programs at the Gibbes preserves and promotes the art of Charleston and the American South. Between art lectures, performances, and fundraisers, the Gibbes calendar has a busy event schedule. Along with the Gibbes events are the booming rentals which bring in an additional 700 guests per month and serve as an additional revenue source.

Gibbes Museum Courtyard, Art of Design event

The Art of Design luncheon and lecture in the Gibbes Courtyard.

I hope you will consider the Gibbes Museum as a rental for your next event. I am always available to assist in your planning needs. Please feel free to contact me at jclem@gibbesmuseum.org.

Jena Clem, Events & Rental Coordinator, Gibbes Museum of Art

Download a PDF of our Rentals brochure for more information about making the Gibbes Museum of Art the location of your next great event!

A Commitment to Conservation: Alice Smith’s Rice Plantation Series

When you walk into the galleries of the Gibbes, you expect exquisite works of art beautifully framed, lit, installed, and interpreted for your visual and intellectual pleasure. And while this experience is what draws most people to the museum, sometimes the story of how these works arrived to the gallery walls is equally compelling. Such is the case with Alice Ravenel Huger Smith’s series of thirty watercolor paintings known as the Rice Plantation Series, currently on view at the museum.

Ever since Smith donated the Rice Plantation Series to the Gibbes in 1937, the watercolors have been among the most popular works owned by the museum. Unfortunately, the delicate works on paper were slowly deteriorating. The culprit: acidic boards mounted to the back of each painting. The acid was capable of discoloring the works and depositing brown spots known as foxing; and with many of the watercolors, the damage was well under way. Fortunately for the Gibbes, donors Ralph Blakely and the late Wilmer Welsh recognized the need to intervene, reverse the damage, and prevent future damage through professional conservation of Smith’s entire series of watercolors. To accomplish this, they established the Welsh-Blakely Fund, a substantial financial commitment that funded the five-year conservation project.

To complete the project, the Gibbes turned to the Straus Center for Conservation at the Harvard University Art Museums. The paintings were shipped to Boston in groups of five, with each painting requiring several weeks for treatment. Led by the late Craigen Bowen, the Straus Center’s talented team of conservators developed a treatment plan specifically for this group of paintings and undertook the highly technical task of removing the acidic mounting boards. Once the majority of the board was removed, conservators used an ethanol solution and various tools, including spatulas, bookbinders’ knives, scalpels, and tweezers, to remove extraneous paper backing and adhesive materials. Once all traces of the backing were removed, the reverse of each painting was cleaned with warm water. Following cleaning, each painting was housed in a humidity chamber to relax the paper fibers, and then sandwiched between blotters and secured with weights for one to three weeks to eliminate any buckling of the paper. The results are truly remarkable. Each painting returned to the Gibbes in pristine condition with more vibrant colors—Alice Smith herself surely would be thrilled with the results.

Completing the conservation of all thirty paintings was a monumental task of which the museum is very proud. Not only was damage reversed, the paintings were stabilized to prevent future deterioration. Such preventative conservation measures are key in the museum’s commitment to preserving the artistic heritage of the South. The current installation on the first floor of the museum is a rare opportunity to view the series as a whole and a great tribute to the many individuals who made this project happen.

Pam Wall, Curator of Exhibitions, Gibbes Museum of Art

The Rice Plantation Series will be on view at the Gibbes Museum through July 2013.

Uncovering the History of the Gibbes Rotunda Dome

In late August, I met with Gibbes staff members Zinnia Willits and Greg Jenkins, and Chris Botti from Botti Studio of Architectural Arts, Inc. to discuss the dome in the Rotunda Gallery on the second floor. Botti has worked on many ornate Beaux Art ceilings including the Tiffany Domes at the Chicago Cultural Center and at the Driehaus Museum in Chicago. First, we sat in the conference room to just talk about the 107-year history of the dome and the issues that we thought needed to be addressed. Then we walked out to the gallery and studied the ceiling, noting the various repairs that have occurred over the years. We discussed the very elaborate ceiling decorations, and imagined their earlier grandeur and ornate finishes, long since painted white.

Chris Botti on the scissor lift

Then it was time to climb the ladder from the second floor up to the old attic space. Getting into the area around the dome is like navigating a labyrinth in the stifling Charleston heat. We crawled through the very small hatch into the attic area above the second floor Main gallery. We walked across the ceiling, holding on to the steel pipes and cabling while we navigated from one steel support beam to the next to protect the very delicate and fragile plaster below. Finally, we squeezed through the last doorway into the Rotunda light attic. The light attic is a large space that is engineered to catch as much light as possible and focus it onto the surface of the dome—almost like a giant tanning parlor.

The glare-guard above the dome.

When we got up to the dome we walked around it balancing on the large steel beams that the dome rests upon. As we skirted the perimeter, Chris began to talk about how the dome was made and installed, and pointed out some of the areas in need of conservation. The arched steel “T” shaped beams that formed the bones of the dome were all stamped “Carnegie” which identified them as being made by the famous company in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania that supplied most of America’s steel at the beginning of the twentieth century. We have not found markings on the dome as of yet that identify it as being designed and manufactured by the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848 – 1933), but the Carnegie Foundation has kept very good records so we anticipate that we might be able to find out if the steel was ordered by Tiffany’s company. Chris said that we may find one of Tiffany’s famous lead tags stamped “Tiffany,” or the Tiffany name etched somewhere in the bottom right corner of one of the large triangular leaded glass panels.

Carnegie stamped the steel ribs used to support the stained-glass panels of the dome.

To create the dome, each piece of stained glass was hand cut in the studio. Then, they were assembled into leaded glass panels resting on a large table and soldered into place. At that point, the panels were shipped to the museum. Upon arrival, the panels were laid into triangular spaces between the steel beam supports and secured with solder or wooden shims. Lead cross bars were wired onto the back of each of the panels to prevent the heavy pieces from collapsing due to gravity. Installers carefully aligned the bars, so that the bracings would then line up when viewed from the floor level below.

A view above the dome shows the ribs and cross bars that support the glass panels.

As we reviewed each of the panels we identified cracks and points of minor damage that had occurred during installation and over the years. Overall, Chris was not worried about the security of the dome, and suggested that it should stay in place rather than being taken down for repairs. We concluded that one of the most important safety repairs we could make would be to install safety railings and walkways around the entire dome area.

A detail of the intricate patern of cut stained glass.

The final prognosis for the entire dome was that it simply needed a complete cleaning and certification that the leading and bracings were all secure. The glass is covered with a thick layer of dust, but one section which we wiped clean with damp cloths showed just how much crisper and brighter the stained glass will be once it has been professionally cleaned. Special solutions will be used that are specifically made for cleaning stained glass without harming the glass or leaving any film residue. As a funny aside, Chris said that some people actually clean the stained glass with horse shampoo because it has the right consistency and delicacy for gently getting the grime off the stained glass windows!

A section of the glass dome that has been cleaned.

Once the entire dome has been cleaned we will all look very carefully for any signature or a lead stamp to certify that the dome was made by the Tiffany studios. We will continue to do further research with the Carnegie archives and consult with Tiffany scholars for additional clues. Our hope is that before we re-open the renovated museum to the public, our investigation will reveal the undeniable proof of Tiffany’s craftsmanship. But regardless of its provenance, the Rotunda Dome will remain a major showpiece for the museum that will sparkle much brighter with a little TLC.

Jeff Daly, museum designer and guest blogger

Hurricane Who? The Gibbes is ready!

“Mariner’s Poem on Hurricanes”
June too soon.
July stand by.
August look out you must.
September remember.
October all over.

-Published in Weather Lore by R. Inwards in 1898

Although not completely accurate (hurricanes can and do occur in June, July, and November) this mariner’s poem reminds us that August and September are the prime months for tropical storms and hurricanes. How do you prepare for hurricane season? Hopefully you have given some thought to this question since the North Atlantic Hurricane Season kicked off June 1, 2012. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has predicted the formation of 9 to 15 named storms, 4 to 8 hurricanes, and between 1 and 3 major hurricanes this year. Though the forecast number of storms is less than in previous years, even relatively slow hurricane years can leave a lasting impact. Thus far none of the tropical activity has pointed itself at Charleston (I am looking for wood to knock on) but we still have a few nervous months to go as the hurricane season does not end until November 30, 2012. For those of us whose job it is to oversee the care of museum art collections, that date seems a very long time away!

A satellite image of Hurricane Hugo, September 21, 1989.

Hurricane Hugo approaches the South Carolina coast in this satellite photo taken on September 21, 1989. (Photo credit: NOAA)

Thankfully, the Gibbes staff has hurricane preparation down to a science. The building was put to the test in 1989 when the powerful Category 4 Hurricane Hugo barreled into Charleston. While the Museum suffered power loss and minor flooding, the artwork was unaffected due in part to a fledgling disaster plan and the efforts of a dedicated staff. Over the past twenty-three years, the Gibbes Museum of Art Disaster Plan for Collections has been revised, added to, tested, revised again, tweaked, practiced, tightened, and updated with such regularity that all those involved are confident the Museum could once again weather a strong hurricane. Major hurricanes such as Andrew (1992) and Katrina (2005) have strengthened the national museum community’s commitment to disaster planning and placed great importance on preparedness, communication, and salvage techniques. Museums are now required to have a comprehensive disaster plan to achieve accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums.

So how do we prepare for a hurricane at the Gibbes? The Museum has a hurricane plan that goes into effect the moment a storm is predicted to hit the Charleston area. This plan exists in written form, and the details are reviewed with the entire staff at the beginning of each hurricane season. The plan contains general information about different types of disasters and how to respond as well as information specific to the collection including object inventories, emergency contacts (conservators, art shippers, storage facilities, archival suppliers), insurance policies, and art salvage techniques. The plan also details pre-storm activity which involves securing artwork on exhibit, moving objects away from all windows (we still have a few!) and covering storage racks and archival containers with plastic sheeting; much of the plastic is in place year round and simply needs to be pulled down and secured. One of the greatest hurricane threats besides wind is potential flooding and loss from a storm surge. To prepare for this possibility, we make certain all artwork is stored at least 6 feet off the floor, the recommended industry standard. Advance planning will always be a necessary component of protecting the museum; staff will work to secure the museum until it’s time to evacuate.

A major concern museums face after a hurricane is loss of power which affects climate control elements and can cause rapid fluctuation in temperature and humidity. Abrupt changes in relative humidity (RH) can result in dimensional alteration to hygroscopic materials (wood, ivory, etc.) resulting in warping and splitting of many sensitive materials that comprise the art collection. High RH (above 65%) can also cause mold growth and metal corrosion in as little as 48 hours! In order to mitigate the risk involved with loss of climate control and rising humidity, the Gibbes maintains powerful fans that can circulate air (and run via a generator if necessary) in the event of HVAC loss. Museum staff stock other necessary supplies including flashlights, batteries, blotting paper for drying wet art, cameras, pencils and inventory sheets for recording damage, brooms, mops, shovels, a weather radio, paper towels, boxes and cartons, first aid kits and more. These supplies are stored on a special disaster cart; a complete inventory of the disaster cart is conducted at the start of each season to make certain all supplies are present and accounted for!

The disaster supply cart is on wheels for easy movement.

The disaster supply cart is on wheels for easy movement.

Fans are available to circulate air if the building loses climate control.

Fans are available to circulate air if the building loses climate control.

In addition to in-house disaster review, Gibbes staff also attends periodic disaster training workshops run through professional museum organizations. For example, in 2008 the South Carolina Federation of Museums (SCFM) staged a mock water disaster (with mock collection items) at Middleton Place Foundation for the workshop, Disaster Recovery for Museum Collections. Workshop participants spent the day learning how to respond to a water disaster and salvage and recovery techniques for paintings, furniture, textiles and a variety of objects. The workshop was led by Sharon Bennett, a veteran of Hurricane Hugo, who has taught numerous disaster preparedness workshops throughout the Southeast. A past-president of the Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC), Sharon has served as the chair of the American Institute for Conservation Emergency Planning and Response Committee.

Workshop participants encountered this mock water disaster at a disaster-training workshop organized by the South Carolina Federation of Museums.

Workshop participants encountered this mock water disaster at a disaster-training workshop organized by the South Carolina Federation of Museums.

When participants arrived at the workshop they were greeted by three shelving units filled with wet art (framed prints and paintings), textiles, metal objects, ceramics, books, papers, and glass items. These objects were not just wet; they were thoroughly soaked (thanks to a very effective sprinkler and Mother Nature who added a little rain of her own). The water relocated some objects from their original shelf location to the ground and many were buried under a layer of Charleston’s sandy soil. It was a true disaster designed to mimic what an institution might face after a hurricane, flood, or man-made water catastrophe. After a long, wet, hectic day—sometimes frustrating, often satisfying, and overall informational and beneficial—participants left with a better understanding of how to create or update their own disaster recovery plan. By handling the various types of damaged collection items they gained experience in all aspects of a wet salvage and recovery efforts and left the workshop better prepared to write realistic and comprehensive response sections for their individual disaster plans.

The triage area at the SCFM disaster-training workshop.

The triage area at the SCFM disaster-training workshop.

Emergencies can come in many forms from treacherous weather to mechanical breakdown not to mention potential hazards such as fire, water, mold, and even insects. Museums need to be prepared before a disaster happens. Disaster planning events such as the SCFM workshop provide the resources and time to take on this important task.

So as you keep a watchful eye on the tropics over the next several months, rest assured that Gibbes staff are doing the same and will continue to do their very best to protect and preserve Charleston’s stellar collection of art of the American South.

Zinnia Willits, Director of Collections Administration, Gibbes Museum of Art

My Social Media Summer @GibbesArt

This summer I had the great opportunity to be involved with PR and marketing at the Gibbes Museum of Art. I’ve known for time that my interest in art would lead me to the art management realm. However, up until I started this internship, this was based more on theory than experience. I had no idea what was involved in the promotion, preservation, and upkeep of an art collection and a museum. As a student of art history with no formal studies in management, it is easy to focus solely on the interpretation and understanding of art and somewhat forget about the homes in which these objects are housed. And that is what the Gibbes feels like for the Charleston and Lowcountry area—a home for art that celebrates, preserves, and cultivates an understanding in the artistic identity of the south. The Gibbes’ Beaux-Arts building is a work of art itself, and it was fascinating to learn about the roles of the people who are responsible for the smooth operation of this museum.

Gibbes Museum of Art Twitter page

Gibbes Museum of Art Twitter feed.

During the summer, one of my main duties included managing and creating some of the social outreach efforts—namely on Facebook and Twitter. These sites are excellent tools to get information out to the public in a quick and provocative way. I researched and developed short posts to connect the art or history of the Gibbes to current events or interests. Through this process I have become very familiar with the museum and its collection in a multidimensional way—not only is a post about highlighting information about a work of art or an event, it is also about creating conversations around Charleston’s cultural community, past and present. It’s always great to see responses to these posts and know that there are others out there who find these connections just as intriguing as I do!

B.B. King, Newport, 1968, by Dick Waterman

B.B. King, Newport, 1968, by Dick Waterman (b. 1935), pigment print on watercolor paper, © Dick Waterman.

Another large project that I had this summer was the creation of promotional ideas for social media for the upcoming fall exhibits, Sound and Vision: Monumental Rock and Roll Photography and Willard Hirsch: Charleston’s Sculptor. For Sound and Vision, I researched not only the famous musicians who are featured in the pictures, but also the photographers who captured the unforgettable images of these stars. In many cases, these photographers were partly responsible for the artist’s fame. Dick Waterman (b. 1935)—who photographed Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, and B.B. King—also worked to revitalize the blues movement by seeking these artists out, recording them, and becoming a lifelong friend. Other times, photographers were hired for a shoot or two and ultimately captured the iconic photo that immediately comes to mind when thinking of a musician. Who can think of The Doors and Jim Morrison without picturing the black and white image by Joel Brodsky (1939–2007) of Morrison with arms outstretched, staring out at the viewer? Interestingly, some of the photographers describe these as dumb-luck shots, and were surprised by the monumental responses to them.

Though learning about the musicians featured in the photos was interesting, I was more fascinated with the accounts of the photographers. We usually don’t hear the stories from behind the camera when looking at portraiture. Gered Mankowitz (b. 1946), who photographed Jimi Hendrix in 1967, describes the relationship between photographer and musician as one that relies heavily on trust. These photographers were tasked not only with the capturing the likeness of their subjects, but also with conveying a sense of the musician’s personality and persona. I can’t wait to see the photographs in person and I’m sure it will be an incredibly impressive exhibition! Make sure to keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter for fun facts about the works of art on view this fall, and the related programs and events. Please join in the conversation!

Alice Van Arsdale, museum relations intern and guest blogger

Same Eyes but a Different View

Working as an intern at the Gibbes has been an incredible experience for me. It has given me a whole new appreciation for art and the people who are behind-the-scenes making this museum a success. Although my internship is only six weeks, I have the amazing opportunity to spend each week with a different department head. Being the first high school intern to work at the Gibbes I had no idea what to expect, my only hope was to find the department that interested me the most so that I could further my studies in it when I go off to college next fall.

I spent my first week working with Rebecca Sailor, associate curator of education, helping with the Gibbes Summer Art Camp. I came here as a camper at age four and now I’m back fourteen years later with the same eyes but a different view. I didn’t know the challenge that came with teaching a class of four year olds, but I loved getting to know each of the kids and seeing them improve on their drawings and ideas every day. Helping with this class made me realize that even though I was in the position of a teacher, I would always be a student of art, learning new things about famous paintings I had seen multiple times before.

Mary Whyte Tour at the Gibbes Museum

Artist Mary Whyte leads a tour of her watercolor exhibition, Working South, on view at the Gibbes through September 9, 2012.

I spent my next weeks working with curator, Sara Arnold and the director of collections administration, Zinnia Willits. I had the unique opportunity of working at the Gibbes during the Mary Whyte: Working South exhibition. I loved learning about the process in which the exhibit was shipped and installed in the Main Gallery by only a few members of the small staff here. To me, the most fascinating aspect of this exhibit was that the Gibbes is offering a series of tours to museum visitors led by Mary Whyte herself. Working with the curatorial team, I was also able to assist with the upcoming exhibit Willard Hirsch: Charleston’s Sculptor. I was not only involved with researching and learning about the sculptures, I was able to test out a walking tour of public sculptures by Hirsch, and take photographs of each of his incredible sculptures. I enjoyed seeing the connections between the Gibbes Museum and the locations where these sculptures are installed.

Do-Si-Do, 1981, by Willard Hirsch

Do-Si-Do, 1981, by Willard Hirsch (American, 1905–1982). Bronze. Washington Square Park, Charleston, S.C. Photo by Douglas M. Pinkerton

This has been an unforgettable experience for me and I look forward to the upcoming weeks where I will assist Executive Director Angela Mack and work in the Museum Store. I have learned more about the inner workings of an art museum than I ever imagined I would. The amount of thought and work that the staff puts into each idea is truly admirable and I hope to one day pursue a career in the museum world.

Lexie Meyer, Porter-Gaud High School Intern and guest blogger

2012 is the first year of a partnership between Porter-Gaud School and the Gibbes Museum of Art. Made possible by the generous support of past Porter-Gaud parents Mr. and Mrs. Charlie Wendell, this internship is designed to enrich a student’s knowledge of art history and the museum profession.

Make way for Minis: My Summer with the Miniature Portrait Collection

James Butler Campbell, Jr., 1845, by Charles Fraser    Eliza Huger Dunkin (Mrs. Percy Gamble Kammerer), 1923, by Leila Waring    Nathaniel Russel, 1818, by Charles Fraser
As this summer’s curatorial and collections intern I could not believe my luck when I found out I would be spending part of the summer getting acquainted with the Gibbes’ miniature portrait collection—the highly esteemed collection is the third largest in the country and I was getting the opportunity to see every single piece. I knew that part of my summer internship would be focused on collections inventory and, for some, the prospect of inventory may seem dull, but I found myself excited by the prospect of spending time in painting storage, surrounded by so much art, methodically inspecting miniature after miniature. I loved looking at the individual details of each portrait, getting to study the different historical outfits and hairstyles while imagining the personality of the subjects. Like looking through an album of old photographs, these small faces gave me a glimpse into another time, a time before digital cameras or Facebook albums—if someone wanted a portable image of their mother, father, spouse, child, or even themselves, these portraits were it!

Intern Allison Murphy examines miniatures from the Gibbes collection.

Intern Allison Murphy examines miniatures from the Gibbes collection.

The sizes of the works were captivating. Some of the portraits are small enough to have been worn as jewelry, a fact that gives the works an additional layer of allure: I couldn’t help but think “who wore these” and “for what occasion?” Handling the portraits also gave me an opportunity to see the backs of each one where intricately braided locks of hair are sometimes framed.

With the upcoming renovations and expansions to the Gibbes Museum, a large portion of the miniature portrait collection is going to be moving out of storage and into the public eye, so viewers will be able to experience, in greater volume, the charm of these small works. Especially built open storage cases are going to be designed for each work in the collection—a fact that has given me even more face time with these little guys. It has been part of my job this summer to re-measure certain portraits in the collection—ones with larger frames or cases so those measurements can be updated in our records. I have been entrusted with the handling of these works—taking them out of storage and to our prep area where I re-measure and photograph each one.

Once the Museum renovations are complete, visitors will be able to spend more time getting to know the miniatures, so they, too, can discover what I have this summer—that the Gibbes’ smallest works have some of the biggest personalities!

Allison Murphy, curatorial intern and guest blogger

What’s that you say? Acoustic Design at the Gibbes

The Gibbes Memorial Art Gallery, 1906.

The Gibbes Memorial Art Gallery, 1906.

The Gibbes Museum was built in the grand style of the Gilded Age in America when architects were designing buildings that heralded America’s status onto the world stage. As we see today with many museums designed by famous architects, the buildings are intended to be as much a work of art as the collections contained within. My June visit was full of exciting progress on the renovation plans, but I was particularly intrigued by the discussions surrounding the acoustics of the building. We are faced with a noise-reduction challenge that grand galleries in most museum spaces have to adjust to in modern times. The Gibbes Museum is no exception these days.

The stained-glass dome above the Rotunda gallery.

The stained-glass dome above the Rotunda gallery, ca. 2009. Photo by Julia Lynn.

The Gibbes Rotunda was designed as a focal point of the Beaux Arts building—a spectacular space with tessera tile floors in a pattern that echoes the ceiling design with its stained-glass dome. The current Rotunda space and side galleries have carpet covering the tile and parquet floors, and shades in the windows, which help absorb some sound. Once the carpet is gone and the shades get taken away, we will have to deal with noises bouncing off of the hard surfaces—so we consulted with acoustics design companies about the potential sound conditions of the future gallery spaces. Our consultants spent a great deal of time with us talking and walking through the galleries. We wanted to find acoustic baffles that would not take away from the beautiful architectural detail of the Rotunda. One proposal was to fit stretched fabric into the curved recesses of the ceiling. Another option was to add sound-reducing panels to the four corners of the room to reduce the echo problems even more. We realized that we would also have to add some acoustic dampeners to the Rotunda side galleries in order to create calm spaces for viewing smaller works of art.

A view of the Rotunda gallery ca. 1976.

A view of the Rotunda gallery, ca. 1976. A carpet with a roundel pattern covered the tessera tile floor.

Whereas the Rotunda acoustic scenarios must be speculated, the big-box shaped Main Gallery is currently an echo chamber. When we snapped our fingers, the sound crackled throughout the room. Fortunately, this space will be transformed into a series of vignettes displaying the collections of early paintings. We are hoping that with the addition of many walls and platforms, the smaller chambers will deflect the echo and reduce the reverberations. It was concluded that the planned modifications to this space would probably be an improvement to the present layout.

The roundel pattern in the tessera tile floor of the Rotunda gallery.

A view of the original roundel pattern in the tessera tile floor of the Rotunda gallery, ca 1974.

I guess the main point to be made here is that in the beginning of the twentieth century, when the Gibbes Museum of Art was being built, hard-surfaced materials such as marble, plaster, and mahogany were en vogue. Today, with the benefit of sound technology, we know more about how to incorporate sound-absorbing materials that we hope will improve our visitors’ experiences, without sacrificing aesthetics. When we reopen, we hope the galleries will be full of visitors exploring the works on view and conversing with friends about what they see. We anticipate more school groups and guided tours in the galleries, and more collaborations with performance-art groups. All of these increased activities will only amplify the noise, so we had better consider a solution now before the renewed galleries reopen. With our great team in place, we definitely feel up to the challenge!!

Jeff Daly, museum designer and guest blogger

Career Day

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to my son’s second grade class at Blessed Sacrament School as part of their 2012 Career Day. I love talking about what I do and enjoy watching people of all ages consider (often for the first time) what goes on behind the scenes in a museum. As Director of Collections Administration, one of my primary responsibilities is care of the art collection. Whether art objects are on the walls, in storage, moving throughout the museum or traveling nationally or internationally, it is my job to make sure they are safe and cared for properly. It is a great job and I was excited to share my experiences with a lively group of 7 and 8 year olds. I decided to present a modified version of the Behind-the-Scenes Program that Greg Jenkins, Operations Director and Preparator, and I have been offering at the museum for several years. My collections road show included several examples of archival storage containers which prompted discussion on how we preserve (a new word for second graders) art work in a museum. I also brought several small, easily transportable works from the collection to review the proper way to handle art. Miniature portraits were a big hit with this group; the children were amazed by the extraordinary details miniature portraitists produced using water color paint (a medium familiar to second graders).

Showing the class a 19th century miniature portrait painted with water color on ivory

Showing the class a 19th-century miniature portrait painted with water color on ivory.

As part of the program, I also had a selection of reproduction miniature portraits. Each child chose one of these pieces to examine more closely. I explained that all works in the collection have a computer record. These records contain information about the object including its identification number, title, the name of the artist who created it, the object’s location in the museum, a thorough description of the object and notes on its physical condition. The process of recording and describing an object is referred to as cataloging; references to its condition are the condition report. I asked each child to describe their miniature portrait (what the sitter was wearing, hair color, background) and also look for any condition problems (scratches to the frame, loose glass, etc.) Cataloging and creating condition reports are a daily part of my job; this exercise gave the class a basic idea of the process. With their observant eyes, the children provided detailed descriptions of their miniatures and alerted me to many flaws on the frames of our reproduction collection.

BSS second graders Leo Sparacino, Lauren Nadeau and Maria Alexander consider their miniature portraits.

BSS second graders Leo Sparacino, Lauren Nadeau, and Maria Alexander consider their miniature portraits.

Throughout the program I encouraged questions and was both amused and amazed by the variety of queries. Below are a few of my favorites from the Blessed Sacrament second grade.

Q: What would happen if you went to get a painting [from a borrowing institution] and took the wrong one home? (This question was in response to my description of outgoing loans and the fact that I occasionally travel with works from our collection when they are borrowed by other museums.)

A: Great question! If I took home the wrong painting I would probably be in big trouble because it would mean I was not paying attention. Every painting in the Gibbes collection has its own individual identification number called an accession number. The accession number can be found directly on each painting or work on paper. When retrieving a painting from a borrowing institution I have images of the painting as well as the accession number to make certain I take the correct work of art!

Q: Do you run the whole museum? Do you have any help or do you take care of all 10,000 works by yourself?

A: More good questions! I most certainly do not run the entire museum. We have thirteen full-time staff members at the Gibbes, several part-time employees and multitudes of dedicated volunteers and auxiliary groups. All of these individuals form “the Gibbes” and do everything from manage the staff to raise funds for museum operations, create exhibitions and educational programs, organize and manage museum events, keep the building and artwork secure, process museum memberships, oversee finances, lead group tours and much, much more! The Gibbes Museum is fortunate to have such a great team.

The short answer to the second question is yes, I do have help taking care of the art collection! While I oversee the details surrounding care and movement of the objects, there are other members of the curatorial, collections and security staff that help out. For example, Greg Jenkins, our long time museum preparator, hangs all the works in the galleries and makes sure that they are secure on the walls. Our curators contribute to the care of artwork by thoroughly researching the provenance of each piece and sharing that information with the public. They also choose what works will be hung in the exhibitions and decide how they will be arranged, keeping in mind the different sizes and types of objects and how they fit together. And of course our security team plays a huge role in helping me care for our collection. You can find the security crew in the galleries and behind-the-scenes keeping a watchful eye on the artwork.

Q: Do you take care of artwork like you take care of your children?

A: My answer to this is “not exactly.” However, there are similarities in caring for artwork and caring for children. As a parent, it is my responsibility to know where my children are and who is caring for them. Similarly, as Director of Collections Administration, I need to know where the artwork is (what gallery, what storage location, what other venue) and keep track of any location changes. As a parent I make sure that my children are always in a safe environment (at home, at school, with friends). Likewise, at work I constantly monitor the environment in which we exhibit and store the art collection. Museums maintain specific temperature, humidity and light levels to prolong the life of an object. Finally, when my children take a trip, I make sure they are prepared to travel, pack their suitcases and arrange details of how our family will get to our destination. Similarly, when artwork leaves the museum, I oversee all the details regarding packing and transportation to its destination. While I do not pack a suitcase for a painting going out on loan, I do make certain that it is clean, fit for travel, has an appropriate shipping container and is looking its best!

An example of a miniature portrait case which contains a lock of the sitter’s hair.

An example of a miniature portrait case, which contains a lock of the sitter’s hair.

Q: Have you ever seen a miniature portrait with pet hair in the back of the case?

A: This question arose after an extensive discussion of miniature portraits and the surprises that are often found on the backs of miniature cases. I brought a miniature from the museum’s collection that had a lock of the sitter’s hair in a special compartment on the back of the case. This sentimental nineteenth century tradition fascinated the children and generated much speculation as to why people did this. Regarding the question about pet hair, I have seen miniature portraits of animals (we have a lovely miniature by Leila Waring of her cat Dick) but have not come across one that contained a lock of the pet’s hair. I will keep an eye out!

Dick, 1910, by Leila Waring (American 1876–1964). 2008.005.0001

Dick, 1910, by Leila Waring (American 1876–1964). 2008.005.0001

Q: Why don’t you have enough space to show all the paintings in the collection?

A: I informed the second graders that at present, the Gibbes is only able to display about 2-4% of the permanent collection. The reason we cannot exhibit more works is that we are simply out of space. The existing museum building was constructed in 1905 when the art collection contained significantly fewer works. While more gallery space was added over the years the current layout can only accommodate a certain number of works. We rotate objects every six months to give the public a wider view of the depth and breadth of the permanent collection but long for more exhibition space. Thankfully, the Gibbes is headed for a major building renovation and expansion that will finally provide more room to exhibit and store the collection! We are excited to share a larger number of objects from the Gibbes collection once the renovation is complete. Stay tuned for future posts on this exciting project!

Q: Do you work on the weekends?

A: This question made me laugh but the class felt it was extremely important. No, I do not generally work on the weekends. However, there are occasions when a large exhibition installation with a tight schedule necessitates weekend hours to finish on time. There are also occasions where incoming art shipments must occur on a weekend due to the lenders schedule, the shipping route or the numbers and size of crated works. I am always front and center (along with Greg Jenkins) for those weekend deliveries.

Speaking at the Blessed Sacrament Career Day was a great experience. The children were genuinely interested in my job at the Gibbes and their enthusiasm was infectious. Describing your daily work to children and fielding their many questions is a great way to gain perspective on the importance of what we as museum professionals accomplish each day and why we do it. Many of the children told me I had the coolest job in the world. Without hesitation, I have to agree.

Zinnia Willits, Director of Collections Administration

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