Interviewed by Christopher Moreland
In our collections based professions we always meet a wide variety of talented people. PACCIN is our community where those can combine ideas, practices, and connect to promote the awareness and importance of cultural preservation. Our members are in the field, as individuals that can share each other’s experiences and foster growth. We are PACCIN and I would like to share those stories for the community to honor these professionals.
C.M. Can you tell us a little bit about your current professional endeavors?
E.M. I have been a freelance art installer for 26 years in the Pacific Northwest operating under my buisness, Art Installation, LLC. Three museums in the area have contracted me long term for large scale exhibitions and rotations. Also, many corporate art consultants hire me for installations within hotels, hospitals, and assisted living facilities. Many private collectors need professional installation and collection specialties and I am regularly working within people’s homes.
C.M. How did you get into this line of work, and what is your background leading to being an independent contract preparator?
E.M. I have been an artist since 8 years old, creating elaborate meals for Barbie out of colored paper. After attending school at UC Santa Cruz, I realized early on not wanting to have the pressure of making art for a living. Out of this indecisiveness I applied for museum internships across the country and ended up at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts working with their exhibition designer. Realizing how much creativity and effort is needed to design layouts for installations and exhibitions made me aware of different work within institutions. The Seattle Art Museum was preparing a big move across town, I figured they would need lots of help, so I moved to Seattle. Starting small in the gift shop, I would approach the exhibition designer every few months to work with the installation crew. Cleaning vitrines on Mondays voluntarily, leading to being included helping in exhibition rotations. As a new person on the crew, I spent a lot of time putting lamps in light fixtures, but once on the exhibit crew my dream to be an exhibition designer, grew into my now career of freelance art installer. During which I helped to organize an International Women’s Caucus for the Arts Conference where I met the director of a large Bank and developed over the next 7 years with the care and installation of a 1,000 object corporate collection.
C.M. Are there any similarities or differences in the corporate collection care field vs. institutional or museum work?
E.M. Working with corporate collections are generally more “lucrative” for an art installer, but I find there is less opportunity for creativity. There is however is a satisfaction in brightening an otherwise drab hallway or buildings wall and seeing how art really does make a difference. On the other end of the spectrum, working with a variety of museums allows me to install a range of mediums which is engaging and makes me eager to tackle the next challenge. One museum I would be wiring a fleet of glass canoes, then over to another institution to install a full locker room made of knitted yarn (complete with urinals and shower drains), and rounding out the week by transporting a juice pitcher full of live leeches to another venue.
C.M. What are some of the favorite aspects of your work? Also, what would be the toughest?
E.M. I love the intimacy I develop with each artwork I install. It is a rare opportunity and I am honored to be that special person who gets to touch the art. I love employing my technical skills for mitigating gravity, runaway toddlers, earthquakes, and it is fun to geek out on best practices. Stretching my creativity to problem solve difficult installs and brainstorming with colleagues. The major challenge at all museums is space. There is never enough space to store art, build pedestals, unpack or pack, etc. Far too often we destroy pedestals and platforms after an exhibition is over only to build new ones.
C.M. Have you had any influential or important relationships that have helped motivate you and mold your career?
E.M. Having trained at 8 museums, under 15 different exhibit designers, I have had many influential relationships over the years. There are 3 however who particularly stand out. Roxy Ballard introduced me into the museum world and was a powerful role model as a kick ass woman in a man’s world. She insured that I worked with every department to see how everyone fit into the museum universe and I still use the tape measure she gave me at the end of my internship 26 years ago. Greg Bell at Tacoma Art Museum, I would say gave me the foundation of my installation practices. Also David Anderson at the Frye Art Museum, under his direction I rounded out my knowledge and developed a deeper understanding of the professionalism of museum installation.
C.M. Have there been any changes in your professional field or in the field of preparation that you have seen through your career?
E.M. Many of my museum clients have strayed away from curating exhibits and are relying on traveling exhibitions that are pre packaged. These “canned” exhibits often come with prefabricated casework that requires tedious assembly and offer less opportunity for creative collaboration during installations.
C.M. Could you give us a memorable moment, or artist you worked with? An exhibit that stands out and how did this experience change your views?
E.M. In 1995, the Tacoma Art Museum had an exhibit of Rodin sculptures. One crate was too large to fit through the door of the building, which used to be a bank. Of course, on the day we took the exhibit down,it was pouring rain. We used little metal rods to roll the huge sculpture out the front door while the security guard held an umbrella over the art. I was amazed that we did not need any fancy equipment. instead we relied on ancient, tried and true method employed by the Egyptians. After some wrangling we finally got the sculpture into the crate, and being the smallest person on the crew, I was voted to squeeze inside to dry off the sculpture. I found myself (much to the delight of onlookers) with my face in the groin of this manly object to reach drying off the backside.
C.M. Finally, do you have any advice for someone beginning a career in the field and how has PACCIN helped you?
E.M. My advice is to get your foot in the door by volunteering at a local gallery or museum. A museology degree cannot provide the valuable hands on experience needed to be an art installer. PACCIN has helped me validate my part time, low paying job as a valid career. At the 3rd PACCIN conference in Mt.Carroll, Illinois I was inspired by Kevin Marshall’s opening address. He pointed out that preparators have the honor of preserving irreplaceable artwork for future generations. That had never occurred to me before, it is an awesome responsibility and one that I do not take lightly.
Elizabeth Mauro is an independent Preparator based in Seattle, WA.