From the Figge Front: Bringing it Back

“Here, smell this,” I say to the art conservator while leaning over an African textile. “Good?”

“Good,” she confirms.

“Excellent. Next textile.”

And with that, another of the 12,000 artworks from the UIMA’s collection is considered "checked in" at the Figge Museum. Or is it? If only it were that simple. What’s involved with the check-in process, exactly? Glad you asked...

But first, the players:
  • Team UIMA: Jeff Martin (Registrar), Kathy Edwards (Chief Curator), Steve Erickson (Preparator), Whitney Day (Registrarial assistant), Nathan Popp (Curatorial assistant), Melissa Hueting (Curatorial assistant, Assistant extraordinaire)
  • Team Terry Dowd (art handlers/movers): An assortment of young men, all of whom are artists in their own right. Word on the street is that in order to be hired by Terry Dowd, you have to present your portfolio with your application. A very pleasant, hard-working group. It’s not uncommon to find traces of googly-eye stickers on backpacks/purses and cell phones wherever the TD boys have been. And donuts. They are always accompanied by donuts.
  • Team O’Connell International Arts, Inc.: A crew from Chicago who help handle the art and document any damages we discover.
A day in the life...
Team UIMA begins the one-hour trek to Davenport by 8:00 am, car-pooling whenever possible. Steve, Jeff, Whitney and I have grown accustomed to riding together. We meet at Steve’s house and, if you get there early enough, Steve’s son Adam will give you a tour of his latest artworks and offer you some of his breakfast. What’s usually on the menu at the Erickson household? Coffee (for the adults) and pancakes or naan. Worth arriving early! And Adam’s latest artistic creation: a handmade kite kit—very cool!

After the hour ride, during which we generally listen to a comedian or book on CD, we arrive at the Figge and sign in with security. Next, we pile into the over-sized elevator (the same that was able to fit the huge Sam Gilliam painting in it—see photo below) and are swiped up to the secured fourth floor, which is where we prepare to receive the art.
Art movers fit Sam Gilliam's Red April (1970) into the Figge's giant elevator. The painting is more than 9 feet tall and more than 13 feet wide.

The whole fourth floor is ours. We set up work stations in the main space. These stations include two table groupings: one for examining works on paper and the other for objects. Kathy and Nathan sit at the works on paper table, waiting for the art to arrive. Whitney and I are stationed at the objects table, waiting as well.

Kathy and Nathan checking in works on paper.

African art sits on the fourth-floor object work table.

A truck arrives from Chicago, laden with art and art movers. They check in each box with Jeff Martin as they bring them from the truck to the fourth floor. Then the boxes enter the main space of the fourth floor. Some of the art movers continue to bring art from the truck to the fourth floor, while others start unpacking the art for us, one box at a time. For example, a box might have three African masks in it. The art movers will bring the box to the objects station and Whitney and I document the Terry Dowd shipping number, the Chicago Conservation Center number, and the UIMA number, all of which are written on the box’s exterior. Next, each of the three pieces within the box has a UIMA accession number and a CCC number, which need to be recorded. When the three objects are placed on the padded table, we examine each piece for new damage (i.e., cracks in wood from humidity, breaks from being bumped during transit).

Steve (right) helps unpack an African work.

After that, we look through the box and all of the packing material, in order to confirm that nothing remains in the box (artworks or fragments having been broken off). Once we’ve finished this box, we’re ready for the next. The art movers place the three African masks on a cart that is bound for the downstairs storage (one of three storage locations that we’re utilizing at the Figge). Steve Erickson receives the cart and, with assistance, locates the objects. Locating an object entails documenting the accession number and assigning the object to a numbered shelf. When the African masks are finally placed on the shelf, they are considered officially checked in.

So, back to the textiles: I have discovered that the easiest way to evaluate a textile’s condition is to smell it for mildew. Not having been trained as a connoisseur of mildews, I studied up before beginning to work with these objects. Additionally, one of the girls from O’Connell is an object conservator who spent time in the South after Hurricane Gustav. Her advice: “When it’s mildewed, you’ll know. Trust me, you’ll know.” So far, the collection is looking (and smelling) good!

--Melissa Hueting, UIMA Assistant to the Director for Special Programs and Curatorial Assistant

1 comment:

Teresa Kelly said...

I've been at the Figge with some docents and have an eye-witness account of how hard all of you are working. Thanks so much for putting the story and pictures on the blog.
And thanks to all the UIMA staff that are working so hard.