My feet are killing me. I’m tired. I subjected Art Handler Alex to various podcasts and audiobooks. And I’m running out of black leggings to wear. But I love it. Exhibition change-out is my favorite time of year and the past four weeks have been particularly exciting.
Artist Jamie Wyeth generously allowed us to enjoy Phyllis Mills Wyeth: A Celebration a little longer, which meant it closed a week before the March 21 closing date for Thrill of the ‘Chace: Steeplechase in Art. In the midst of this was the arrival of artwork from the National Museum of Wildlife Art for Tucker Smith: A Celebration of Nature. Of over 80 works of art.
Monday, March 15
The month-long extravaganza is officially underway. Alex and I began packing the 31 Wyeth paintings (plus one trophy). For those that remember how large Connemara Four is, you can imagine how careful we were. It called for a few extra hands.
The deinstallation was bittersweet for a couple reasons. First, this exhibition was a wonderful celebration of the life of our local friend, Mrs. Wyeth. Over the past year, I met many lovely people who either knew her or knew of her. I heard stories of her sense of adventure and her humor, her zeal for life. Listening to these provided such poignant context to the paintings. Second, the exhibition opened pre-COVID, only a few weeks before NSLM closed for four months. I thought back to installation when five of us were crowded in a gallery without worrying about masks or social distancing yet. It is hard to believe it has only been a year, rather it seems like a lifetime ago. So much has happened in the world. But our museum has not only survived, but thrived thanks to our loyal members, visitors, and friends. To the sound of Joe Friday and Dragnet, Alex and I dutifully packed up the exhibition and said goodbye to the Wyeths.
Monday, March 21
Next on our To-Do list was to tackle Steeplechase. We dove in according to the shipping schedule, which meant that as the work from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was going to be the first to be picked up the following Monday, it was first to come off the walls. This was different from Wyeth because this exhibition had 16 private lenders, as well as several public institutions. The transportation logistics can always be hairy as it is multiple schedules we are working around. This appeals to my Virgo nature though – spreadsheets and color coding.
The individual lenders decide how they want to pack artwork: sometimes paintings arrive in wooden crates, other times in cardboard softpack. There are multiple layers of bubble wrap, plastic, and/or foam core. Everything is saved – how it arrives is how it is returned. Sometimes if a lender is local, they may just transport the painting in the back seat of their car, which is perfectly fine. However, we’ll pack it up safely for its return trip home. We give it the same care as if it were being returned to a place like Yale or VMFA.
Wednesday, March 25
Halfway through the week and halfway through packing, the shipment of Tucker Smith paintings from the NMWA arrived. Our receiving area was soon flooded with crates. I started laughing that hysterical laughter one does when the abstract becomes reality. I knew this was a large exhibition and I knew how many crates would be arriving but seeing it made my eyes bulge.
Also, because of all the packing and shipments, I was still technically two exhibitions behind the rest of the staff. So whilst Claudia, Valerie, and Cynthia Kurtz, our new Marketing Manager (and previous NSLM intern!), were firmly in the world of Tucker Smith, I was still knee-deep in Wyeth and Steeplechase. When Cynthia referred to The Refuge, the massive 45 ¼ x 129 ½ painting by Smith that had just arrived, I was racking my brain for a painting of the same name in one of the previous exhibitions.
We never open art upon arrival. It needs to acclimate. This was fine since we still had to finish with Steeplechase. Thank goodness for comfy sneakers. By the end of the week, Alex and I finished not only the packing of the exhibition, but an entire season of the Criminal Broads podcast.
Monday, March 29
And so the start of return shipments and local deliveries. We tend to use a few different companies because of where they can make deliveries. The interesting part of shipping logistics is to ensure that there is not a double booking for the trucks, but we can only plan so much because, just like the cable company, they provide a window of time rather than a specific one.
Always keeping myself on my toes, we had several pickups that morning, as well as a local delivery. Everyone was on the earlier side of the window which normally is perfect, but because of scheduling for the local transport, I had to pull Claudia away from her mountain of work to handle the pickup. Thankfully, it all went off without a hitch.
And now I could finally devote my attention to Tucker Smith and his beautiful oeuvre. I have never been to the West. I am the stereotypical East Coaster – there’s the west coast, the east coast, and everything else in the middle. A terrible attitude and it (rightfully) rankles my Minnesota friends and family. This exhibition, though, has me wanting to visit Wyoming right now. Alex spent nine years in his previous life as a cowboy near where Smith painted many of the works we were unpacking.
In between Poirot’s Finest Cases on audiobook, I enjoyed listening to Alex’s stories of being out west. In Rabbit Brush, Lupine, and Sage which features an entire foreground of sagebrush, he told me of the beautiful scent released as he rode through it. He confirmed that the expansive blue sky that goes on forever in the aptly titled Big Sky is just as wonderous as Smith depicts it. As Alex looked at The Branding, I learned more about castration than I needed to know. I also learned how to not frighten moose and that “butte” is pronounced “beau-t.”
The exhibition was not even officially open yet and something I had already noticed was how evocative the paintings are. People see them and immediately launch into their own stories about muleys, rams, and bears. Claudia told us about a childhood family trip out west. A board member who happened to be at the museum told us of the moose he saw on his visits to Yellowstone. These paintings with their rich colors and unique perspectives bring those memories alive for the viewer in a way I have not experienced at the NSLM before.
An unofficial element of the NSLM mission is the conservation and preservation of our natural landscapes and this exhibition really underlines that. It shows the importance of preserved spaces for both the land and the animals. Many of the human figures Smith includes in his landscapes show us how small we truly are, but also how big our responsibility is to be capable stewards of such magnificent places.
Friday, April 9
Tucker Smith: A Celebration of Nature is officially open! Be sure to see this stunning retrospective before it closes on August 22. Reserve your tickets online.
Having not ventured to the West beyond a handful of trips to Arizona, it made me want to rent an RV and soak up the landscape. Consider this my two weeks notice, boss. I’m off to ride into that big Wyoming sky.
Lauren Kraut is the Collections Manager at the National Sporting Library & Museum. Her primary focus is to maintain and preserve the works of art in the collection and on loan. Email her at lkraut@NationalSporting.org