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This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the August 8, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Art That Moves – Literally
It has been called "one of the most outstanding
and comprehensive collections of Chinese calligraphy ever assembled
outside Asia." From March 27 to June 27, 1999), "The Embodied
Image" was a major exhibition at The Art Museum, Princeton
(U.S. 1, April 14, 1999). Featuring 4th to 20th century Chinese
from the collection of John B. Elliott (1928-1997; Princeton Class
of 1951), the exhibition was accompanied by a scholarly catalog, a
symposium, and a range of related events. It dominated the museum’s
gallery space for both special exhibitions and the permanent
and attracted a significant number of visitors to the exhibition
and the related activities.
Calligraphy, the art most valued in China, occurred in this exhibition
not only brushed onto paper — in the form of albums, hand scrolls,
and hanging scrolls — but also engraved in stone, cast in bronze,
and painted on fabric. In all applications, it intimately reflected
the artist who created it, while relating overall to Chinese culture.
This area’s diverse communities — scholars, sophisticated
with international interests, artists, and art appreciators —
evidenced readiness and enthusiasm for the art, the history, and yes,
the mystique of calligraphy. Although supplemented by some loans,
the exhibition was drawn largely from the Elliott collection, a
loan that was already on site and that at Elliott’s death became a
bequest to the university.
From Princeton, the exhibition moved to New York’s Metropolitan Museum
of Art for nearly four months, September, 2000, to January, 2001.
It was then returned here to be readied for transport to its third
exhibition venue, the Seattle Asian Art Museum (March 1 to May 27).
Finally, in mid-June, "The Embodied Image" arrived back in
So far, the narration has dealt only with the public side of "The
Embodied Image" exhibition — the only side most art museum
patrons are familiar with. For all practical purposes, and virtually
all visitors as well, the exhibition simply appeared in place in the
university museum, then the Metropolitan Museum, and then the Seattle
Asian Art Museum, much as Athena sprang fully armed from the brow
of Zeus. But, no. For of course, that’s not at all how it happened.
The public side of "The Embodied Image" was just the tip of
the iceberg. As an iceberg’s submerged base is vastly bigger than
the part above the water’s surface, so too is the
of an art exhibition. It’s the unseen parts of the show that make
it happen, protect and support it, and allow it to be seen as widely
Most people are familiar with the jobs called "painter,"
"printmaker," and even "artist." They’re much less
likely to nod knowingly at "preparator,"
"conservator," or even "museum registrar." These
names denote the comparatively exotic professions of the
people who make art exhibitions happen. Their expertise assures that
necessary steps like the few that follow are taken care of:
designing the exhibition
assembling art objects and materials
packing, crating, and transporting art shows from one place
securing insurance for art objects during travel
contracting with individuals, companies, and institutions
continuously monitoring the condition of the art
University and then to New York and Seattle and back again was the
work of many years and countless people. Ultimately and as might be
expected, much of the preparatory and behind the scenes work had to
do with effectively displaying the calligraphy, although its care
and security — both at home and in transit — was also a
concern. Even something that might seem routine, photographing the
work for the catalog, took much more time than usual. Reason, in this
case? Some of the objects were 30 to 40 feet long, besides being in
Chinese. That uncommon combination called for a Chinese speaker who
could read and identify what was being said and where the logical
Initially, museum curators and/or historians come up with the idea
for an exhibition. Drawing on their specialized knowledge and
they arrange for loans of materials to enrich the projected show,
and cast about for other venues where it might also appear. At some
point, of course, the institution’s director has approved the concept,
and it is scheduled in the museum’s calendar.
The exhibition catalog is one variable that can affect timing because
realistically, it has much greater longevity than the exhibition
ever can. Marked by extensive scholarship and reproduction of works
of art, a catalog of this scope is a very ambitious project.
design, a little-known career, gives the lie to any notion that
just pull out of storage everything in the permanent collection having
to do with the show’s subject, and poof! — there it is. This
includes designing display furniture, choosing wall colors, creating
visual effects for introductory and continuity purposes, and making
floor plans — with wiggle room built in — for the actual
One fascinating example of a job to be done — this one by a
the exhibition included a silk, kimono-like robe filled with
calligraphy and called "An Examination Garment." The question
was, how best to display this object. And the answer included a
form made of inert Plexiglas, with sheet metal embedded in it. Tiny
magnets that were painted with inert acrylics to match the robe and
were invisible in effect, would effectively hold the garment to the
sheet metal, and thus in place on the form.
Way before this point, a key museum staff member known
to few outsiders is already on the team. The museum registrar’s
with an art exhibition starts well before it opens and continues long
after its run. Why? Briefly, as one reference book states, because
"the registrar oversees and controls all object movement, both
within the museum and without, and is responsible for the surrounding
functions of risk management, storage, packing, object handling, and
The registrar of the Princeton University Museum, Maureen McCormick,
describes herself as a "gatekeeper." Describing herself and
her office, she says "we’re the place information filters through,
but we’re always talking with curators, preparators,
Museum registrar since 1988, McCormick is quick, precise, personable
— and, perfect for her job, she’s a self-described minutiae
Unexpected bonus, she is also a spellbinding raconteur on the perils,
and the fun, of mounting a major art exhibition. "The Embodied
Image," for instance.
With an exhibition green light, curators consider where else the show
might be seen after its initial run. In the case of "The Embodied
Image," geographical spread was one aspect to consider. And too,
some of the loans came from the Met. McCormick’s office gets into
the mix early by providing to prospective venues the "display
requirements" such as the space needed for an exhibition and the
costs likely to be involved, and assuring all agreements come back
But first, a more telling determination must be made: is a prospective
venue safe and appropriate for the exhibition? That institution’s
"facility report" — a form devised by a museum registrars
group and used nationally — yields the answer, based on such data
as museum staff size and training; wall material; window treatments
and quality of light; and even size of loading dock, as well as recent
losses, if any. A question about proximity to earthquake zones took
on special resonance with "The Embodied Image:" shortly after
it was installed in Seattle, the area did in fact experience an
— but the show emerged unscathed.
Since the activities of securing art loans for a show and finding
other venues for it proceed concurrently, there’s a "kind of Catch
22," she says. "Your potential lenders want to know where
the show will go; prospective sites want to know what will be in the
show." However, she adds, "this one wasn’t so hard to sell
because the core of it was known."
Besides loan agreements, arranging for crating and shipping of loaned
material also falls to the registrar. "Most of this show was
here," McCormick says, "so it was a piece of cake compared
with the alumni collection exhibition, with over 400 works of art
from 165 lenders, many with more than one home."
So the wish for an exhibition is not father to the sport — but,
more likely, to years of effort. True, it’s basically happy effort,
since it’s all for a worthy and elevating cause. But the goal involves
innumerable steps, many of them long, laborious, costly — or all
of those. And, the steps to ready one show will not be the same as
for another, so the museum staff can’t count on a generic list of
"to-do’s," or on simply changing the dates on an all-purpose
Gantt or Pert chart. They must instead think outside the box —
each time. Even then, McCormick admits, there are a lot of those
up at two o’clock in the morning and say, `oh, my God, I forgot to
. . . !’ experiences, and it’s not unusual on the night before an
opening to still be hanging labels, washing Plexiglas, and setting
Condition report books — though little-known, a crucial part of
the registrar’s detail-oriented role — just may be the best
of the painstaking and on-going scrutiny and documentation necessary
to protect works of art. For "The Embodied Image," it takes
four volumes, each a thick binder, to contain the pages with
of every inch of the show; just think how many pages a hand scroll
takes. Using codes for the kind of damage possible on paper, fabric,
and stone, the pages of black and white photos are marked in red at
the site of the actual physical damage. For instance, if an edge of
a scroll is torn, that fact is coded on the page with the photo of
that particular scroll section.
To find disrepair or damage, registrar’s staff members minutely
every inch of the art work, recording all they see. And this is done
not just once, but every time the exhibition is packed or unpacked.
"The most important condition check is that initial one —
the one all the others are compared with," McCormick says. "At
that point, we’re looking for changes," she says. "You might
say, ‘Oh, there’s a tear’ — but then you see it was there to begin
with." Such efforts are insurance-driven, of course, although
these records can also help in decisions about whether something
travel, for works of art can become too fragile to be loaned.
"When you do condition reports, you don’t see the object, you
see the defects," McCormick says. "Sometimes I step back after
an hour with my nose two inches from the canvas, and I’ll say, `That’s
a really nice painting!’"
"Usually an exhibition with 65 to 70 objects would mean a lot
of crates that would fill a tractor trailer. What’s hilarious about
this show is that everything’s skinny or rolls up into tubes. For
instance, that little hand scroll that rolls up into something smaller
than a roll of paper towels requires a display case that might be
18 feet long! What did take up an entire tractor trailer was all the
exhibition furniture that went out to Seattle," McCormick says
of still another unique aspect of "The Embodied Image"
The Met had chosen to use its own furniture and Seattle was the third
venue. The Met also opted to re-matte the show materials to harmonize
with its own color scheme, so before moving the works of art to New
York, Princeton staff removed the mattings — but kept them for
re-use after the Met show. Then, its mattings were removed so the
original matting could be replaced before the exhibition moved on
After the show’s four-month stay at the Met, McCormick had to decide
the best way to get "The Embodied Image" from Princeton to
Seattle. The whole world of fine art packing and shipping is just
that, really: a whole world. Depending on the objects — value,
vulnerability, and destination, not to mention the timing involved
— and beginning with insurance, since it is vital to protect even
the irreplaceable, transporting art is itself an art form. And if
art packers and craters are specialists, so too are fine-art shippers,
of which there may be just a dozen in the country, McCormick says.
Well aware of the different levels of service available, she opted
to transport "The Embodied Image" in two shipments, split
by value. Most would go by truck — and not just any truck, but
exclusive-use, air drive, climate control, and non-stop with dual
drivers. "That way, the drivers aren’t crashing at Motel 8;
taking turns sleeping in the van so they’ll get to Seattle in two
days," McCormick said, some time before the actual trip. She could
not have foreseen the snowstorm that kept the truck on a Montana
for about two days, delaying its arrival in Seattle and shortening
the time for its cargo to rest in a climate-controlled environment.
Ironically or poetically, however you view it, McCormick practically
flew over the stalled truck on her own way to Seattle, where she spent
some days checking and facilitating. She arrived the same day the
truck was unloaded.
A small part of the show reached Seattle via courier.
Just say that much, McCormick cautions. "People know art doesn’t
travel by ox cart any more these days, and they can assume trucks
and planes are involved." (But there’s more to that, of course.
Security in transporting art can involve satellite monitoring and
"guys with guns" — it depends on the work being moved.)
Modern transportation modes notwithstanding, there’s a good chance
that at some time, parts of this show really may have traveled by
ox cart, she laughs.
When a courier is also a registrar, as happened with "The Embodied
Image" and Seattle, that person can lend practical advice besides
delivering the goods. Having worked with the packers and made lists,
McCormick knew what was in each crate, and where. That information
helped determine the sequence of installation tasks — for
first hang the album leaves, then position the hand scrolls in the
furniture. The same furniture had been painted well before that so
it could "cure" before possible contact with art objects.
And, on a very basic level, because she knew Princeton’s and the Met’s
handling of the stone pillar, or stele, incised with calligraphy,
"I could give them some advice," she recalls, "like,
Located on the ground floor of the art museum’s newest wing, the
office is conveniently near the loading dock and a large work area
where art can be prepared for exhibition or crated for shipping. It’s
easy for McCormick to talk with whoever might be taking photographs,
condition-checking a painting just back from loan, or packing art
for transport. And yes, there are rigorous standards for even the
crates that hold the art: use just enough, but not too much inert
packing material, because too much would lessen shock-absorption;
paint the outsides white for a clean, professional look that
careful handling, but leave the inside unpainted to take advantage
of the hygroscopic nature of wood. " If a crate’s been in a museum
environment for awhile, it absorbs the moisture. So when you close
the crate, you’ve created sort of a micro-environment. It won’t last
forever, but it serves as a kind of buffer," McCormick explains.
"Pack as simply as possible, and foolproof it for the least amount
of handling," she says. A standing operating procedure for art
packers is using strips of Ethafoam for borders inside a crate, and
simply setting the pieces into that. They might be arranged on a few
levels, or trays, or else "cavity packed" in a space hollowed
out for the size of the object. Another automatic act is hand-listing
the contents of each crate, specifying what goes in, in what order,
for those on the receiving end to check and verify.
This list is conveyed separately, rather than being affixed to the
outside of the crate, which would put its contents at risk by
them. And even though their configuration might suggest their mission,
art shipping trucks are also unmarked. When the Met transported
Embodied Image" back to Princeton, its own "anonymous"
vehicles were used, but no one knew it — the better to avoid a
message equivalent to "Steal this truck!"
Then there are all the behind-the-scenes insurance considerations.
Although "The Embodied Image" objects were covered under the
university’s blanket insurance policy for fine art, McCormick says,
a special policy was taken out just for the show, "so if there’s
a loss, that policy takes a hit. That way, you’re in good shape with
your basic insurer, and premiums don’t rise." Besides shipping
details, the insurance broker required specifics on the exhibition’s
exact contents, the appraised value of each object, and, though the
market could change, the total value (think millions).
But despite all these steps, "you don’t want the check," she
exclaims. "If there’s not another one of these things out there
to buy, it doesn’t matter!"
As risk manager for the exhibition, McCormick had to decide how to
spread the risk of damage or loss to the show while in transit.
underwriters talk about "per-conveyance limits," she explains,
though sometimes if the total value is a little more than the limit,
the premiums can be raised accordingly. And too, she has to think
about the collection — still another reason to ship in pieces,
separately. This called for a courier. Asked who and when and what,
McCormick had the perfect response, delivered with a faux-wicked grin:
"If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you."
Acquisitions" features 30 recent gifts and purchases spanning
two millennia. Works on view range from ancient Chinese Han dynasty
funerary figures, the 1968 collaborative Chinese painting
in Justice," pre-Columbian ceramic figures from the burial island
of Jaina, and George Segal’s "Wall Relief: Torso" (1972);
to September 16.
Also "A Tapestry by Karel van Mander" to August 12.
Double: Copies and Copying in the Arts of China," an exhibition
of Chinese art, to November 4. On extended view in the Bowen Gallery,
Richard Serra’s "Weight and Measure" etchings. The museum
is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 5
p.m. Free tours of the collection are every Saturday at 2 p.m.
609-921-0434. Exhibition of prints dating from the 1940s by Princeton
University’s Print Club. On view are prints by commissioned artists
John Taylor Arms, Charles Locke, Leonard Pytlak, John Menihan, and
George Jo Mess. Images include such campus sights as Clio Hall, Dillon
Gym, Stanhope Hall, and Lake Carnegie. Through August.
Nassau Street, 609-921-6748. "Today’s News, Tomorrow’s
a show celebrating 18,000 photographs taken by the Princeton Packet’s
photographers and donated to the Historical Society’s permanent
The collection documents more than 25 years of development, sprawl,
historic preservation, education, celebrations, and festival, with
images of Princeton’s Latino population, Asian Indians, Southeast
Asians, and Chinese Americans.
609-252-6275. "Off the Wall," an exhibition of works by 27
sculptors affiliated with Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts,
curated by Kate Somers. Works installed on the grounds, on the rooftop
garden, and in the gallery. Gallery hours are Monday to Friday, 9
a.m. to 5 p.m.; and weekends and holidays, 1 to 5 p.m. To September
John Goodyear, Geoffrey Hendricks, George Segal, Keith Sonnier, Herk
Van Tongeren, and Jackie Winsor. Also Bright Bimpong, Chakaia Booker,
Carson Fox, Harry Gordon, Julia Kunin, Todd Lambrix, and Patrick
732-524-6957. In the New Jersey Artist series, an exhibition of
works by Iris Kufert-Rivo that explore art historical icons and pop
culture images. A Jersey City resident, Kufert-Rivo has her MFA from
Bard College and works at P.S. 20 in New York. Free by appointment.
To August 21.
609-895-7386. "Art & Animals," a group show featuring the
work of Betsy Regan, Susan Hanna MacQueen, Leo Ward, Beatrice Bork,
Naomi Savage, and Lynn Sulpy. Gallery hours are Monday to Friday,
9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To September 7.
The gallery celebrates its 21st annual summer exhibition featuring
the paintings and drawings of National Academy artist Harry Leith-Ross
(1886-1973), an artist raised in England who settled near New Hope
in 1935. Also included in the summer show are gallery artists Joanne
Augustine, Gabrielle Baumgartner, Albert Bross, and Marge Chavooshian.
Gallery is open Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. To August 31.
609-397-7774. The eighth annual Discoveries Exhibition featuring 100
limited edition and individual jewelry pieces in gold, sterling, and
fine metals with precious and semi-precious stones and gems. Artists
include Sarah Graham, collaborators Steven Ford and David Forlano,
Elaine Unzicker, Nina Mann, Larry Seiger, and Debbie Tuch. The gallery
also features contemporary furniture by Jeffrey Greene. The gallery
is open Monday to Friday, noon to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11
a.m. to 6 p.m. To September 3.
"TAWA Invitational," the second of two summer shows featuring
five artists of the Trenton Artists’ Workshop Association. Museum
hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to
4 p.m. Gallery talks are presented each Sunday at 2 p.m.
609-292-6464. Featured show is "New Jersey, the Garden State,"
an interdisciplinary exhibition of historic tools, prints, and
created in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture’s Farming
Museum. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:45
p.m.; Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Website: www.njstatemuseum.org.
Also: "The Art of Giving," to August 26; "Aspects of
to August 26; "The Garden State: A History of Farming in New
to August 31. On extended view: "New Jersey’s Native Americans:
The Archaeological Record;" "Delaware Indians of New
"The Sisler Collection of North American Mammals;" and "Of
Rock and Fire."
Brunswick, 732-846-5777. "The Art of Baron Laszlo Mednyansky in
Context: Works from the Salgo Trust for Education." An exhibition
of works by the turn-of-the-century aristocratic artist who disguised
himself as a pauper to paint grim images of the underbelly of society.
Museum hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday,
1 to 4 p.m. Donation $5. To September 16.
215-340-9800. "George Nakashima and the Modernist Moment,"
a major exhibition that aims to recontextualize the work of George
Nakashima within the practice of European modernism. Long recognized
as a major force in the American craft movement, guest curator Steven
Beyer re-evaluates the designer from a European perspective, using
the works of Finn Juhl, Carlo Mollino, Alexandre Noll, and others,
to demonstrate that Nakashima is an important figure in international
modernism. Museum hours Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.;
& Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Wednesday evenings to 9 p.m.
$5 adults; $1.50 students. To September 16.
Brunswick, 732-932-7237. Continuing exhibitions include: Selected
artists from Mason Gross School of the Arts Graduate Program
curated by Lynne Allen, Judith K. Brodsky, and Jeffrey Wechsler, in
conjunction with SummerFest 2001. "The Uncommon Vision of Sergei
Konenkov (1874-1971)," to November 14. "A World of Story,"
to July 31. "Japonisme: Highlights and Themes from the
Regular museum hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.;
Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Call for summer hours. Admission
$3 adults; under 18 free; museum is open free to the public on the
first Sunday of every month.
Corrections or additions?
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