Through March 20, viewers of the Alchemy of the Soul exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, can see “Warrior Reservoir,” a 2011 piece by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons comprised of three large panels. Beside it hangs an identifying label with the words “Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Collection” in prominent view. How it got there is the result of a process most viewers know little about.
While works from Vanderbilt’s Fine Arts Collection are primarily exhibited and studied by academics and students on campus, art often is loaned at the request of museums and galleries for exhibits in Nashville and far beyond.
“We’ve always lent art objects to exhibits,” says Joseph Mella, director of the Fine Arts Gallery. “As our collection has become more well-known, loans have increased, and with digitization it’s easier for those putting together exhibits to find our collection.”
From initial request to installation in a museum, the journey of an artwork from the Vanderbilt collection can be quite involved depending on its age, size, medium, and whether it is traveling within the United States or abroad. Among the contracts and agreements, plans for shipping—costs for which are typically borne by the requesting institution—are among the most important to be formulated. In 2011, Mella received a request from the Guggenheim Museum in New York City for “Maz,” a 1960 sculpture of welded and painted steel by John Chamberlain. The roughly 4-by-3-foot piece, acquired by Peabody College in 1965, posed logistical difficulties because of its size and the configuration of the Guggenheim.
“It’s hard to get large works of art in and out of the building because of its Frank Lloyd Wright design,” Mella says. “There was some concern on the part of the exhibit preparers at the Guggenheim as to how the crate holding the sculpture would make the turn from the elevators, so they made a CAD drawing of the crate and superimposed it on the building plan.” Like nearly every pedestal at the Guggenheim, the one for “Maz” had to be custom-made.
Besides having a plan for how the work is to be moved, crated, shipped and installed, a detailed condition report is completed to document how items are attached in sculptures and assemblages, as well as any tears or surface scratches and dings or nicks in the framing. Essentially, any mark on the piece that was not put there initially by the artist is documented at four points: before crating, when uncrating the work for exhibit, after the exhibit closes, and when the piece returns to Vanderbilt.
Other complicating details can involve customs forms for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, such as the one required to confirm that a 15th-century Flemish ivory pax (a tablet decorated with the figure of Christ) was indeed an antique and not recently made from elephant tusks. It had been requested for a major 2001 exhibit about Hieronymus Bosch at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam.
While shipping and logistics companies such as Masterpiece International usually crate and transport the objects, Mella often accompanies the works to ensure their safe delivery.
“Eyes are on the object at all times when it’s moving,” Mella says. “And it’s helpful to have someone from the logistics company with you so that if you have to leave for any reason, even for a few minutes, there’s always someone there.”
The loan of the Campos-Pons piece required the design of one large crate, 98 inches long by 63 inches wide by 27 inches high, to house the three stacked panels that would ship flat in a climate-controlled truck. Crating the piece had to be done in the lobby of Cohen Hall, and the crate itself had only 2 inches of clearance on either side of the doors. Designed to be moved using a pallet jack and a four-wheel dolly to remove it from the building and into the truck, it was successfully loaded on a windy day with no problems. Mella joined the work to oversee its unpacking, condition reporting and installation at the Peabody Essex Museum in December.
“It can be complicated,” Mella says, “but it gets the Vanderbilt name out there and helps to make others aware of the amazing items we have in our collection.”
The “Maz” installation at the Guggenheim
The loan of “Maz” by American sculptor John Chamberlain to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City was one of the most complicated loans to date. The piece is part of the Peabody College Collection and was included in the groundbreaking exhibit “The Art of Assemblage” at the Museum of Modern Art in the early 1960s prior to its purchase in 1965. Gallery Director Joseph Mella worked with crating designers to design a crate that would keep the large, free-form sculpture safe during its journey to the Guggenheim, then plans had to be made to move the large crate from the elevator to the exhibition space by placing a CAD drawing of the crate over the architectural drawing of the building. Photos by Joseph Mella.
The crating of “Warrior Reservoir” at the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery
“Warrior Reservoir,” a three-panel artwork by Cuban-born artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, had to be packed in the lobby of Cohen, because the shipping crate would not fit in the room where it is stored, nor would the piece fit on a pallet jack in the hall due to the low overhangs. The lobby was cleared, the piece was hand carried to the lobby by Joseph Mella and workers from the U.S. Art shipping company and then stacked within the crate, which measured 98 x 63 X 27 inches. The crate was designed to fit below the push bars on the doors of Cohen. The crate itself had but two inches of clearance on either side of the doors. Photos by Margaret Walker.