Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Alexander Reid” hangs elegantly in the staged living room of the Weitzenhoffer Collection of French Impressionism Gallery in the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Cos Cob” adorns the Buckthal Gallery, and Luis Jiménez’s vibrant mustang statue “Mesteño” stands proudly in the Adkins Gallery.
There are hundreds of objects hung on the walls of the museum, and each one can tell several stories — stories of the artist, stories of the piece’s creation and of several possible narratives to be told by the artwork itself.
But there is also the story of how that piece came to the museum, why it has been placed in a specific gallery, how it was hung there.
From the creation of a gallery to closing night, the different departments of the museum, including the curatorial staff, registration department, prep team and communications, work together to allow the public to interact safely with the artwork — even amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, honestly’
Hadley Jerman is the Eugene B. Adkins Curator and was in charge of curating the current display of the Adkins collection on the second floor of the museum, a space dedicated to Native American art and art of the American West.
Jerman said an exhibit or a gallery begins with the formation of a concept or a theme for the space, which range from simple to complex. For the current display, Jerman wanted to showcase the work of the art colonies in the southwestern U.S., such as Taos, New Mexico, and the different ways the area was portrayed or romanticized.
Jerman then turns to finding specific pieces from the museum’s collection to display, looking for pieces that would add something to the exhibit’s theme. She said instead of using artwork to tell a story, she aims to let the pieces tell the story themselves.
“I don’t really want to impose a narrative on art,” Jerman said. “I want it to tell the story that’s appropriate to its context.”
Jerman said this step can be daunting, as the Fred Jones Museum has over 20,000 objects in its permanent collection and hundreds more on loan from other institutions. Jerman uses the museum’s online database to search for any type of artwork that would work well with the exhibit’s concept, and her search often finds both familiar and unfamiliar pieces.
She makes a list of potential items, but Jerman said an important part of her creative process is going to the museum’s vaults and seeing the works in person.
“Partly I’m looking at them to see, does it look as nice in person? Is it really big? What’s the scale? Will the colors work with what’s going to be around it?” Jerman said.
With her checklist mostly finalized, Jerman then begins to plan the exhibit’s layout. Jerman said she often needs to visualize the space and uses printed pictures of the artwork to arrange the exhibit’s flow on her desk.
As she is organizing and reorganizing the small pictures, she imagines how visitors will interact with the exhibit’s design and order.
“If they are going to understand this narrative I’m sharing through the artwork, I have to think through how they are going to experience the space, like what’s the beginning and what’s the end,” Jerman said. “What if they came in the opposite side? … Does it work forward or backwards? Is it confusing?”
Curators also write the text that is displayed beside the artwork to give context and information about the piece, and these texts require research on each piece in the exhibit. Jerman said this process enables her to continuously learn about art history and different art styles.
This curatorial process is a combination of scholarly research and creative design. While she analyzes how a piece might relate to broader issues of a time period, she also works on how to tell a story with the physical organization of the artwork.
“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, honestly, but it’s really — it is the best job I’ve ever had,” Jerman said. “It’s very creative and intellectually challenging.”
‘Organized, detail oriented’
Jennifer Cashin is the chief registrar for Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. The registration department is in charge of keeping track of all objects in the museum’s permanent collection and all items on loan from other institutions, she said.
“For us, it’s being organized, detail oriented and just always making sure that we know where things are, and if we don’t, we go out and find them,” Cashin said.
Every object in the museum is cataloged in the online database, but there is also a physical file associated with it.
“An ordinary day for us is going through the vaults, making sure that everything is tagged properly, making sure there is no dust or any damage to the artwork,” Cashin said.
Cashin said that scattered throughout the museum are “HOBOs” — small boxes used to measure the temperature and humidity in the museum. She said registration regularly checks the boxes and works closely with the facilities department to fix any problems the HOBOs show.
“Every two weeks, we’ll take them down, and we’ll create graphs so we can see, ‘Oh, this one day there was a huge spike. What happened? Can we see if we can try to fix that?’” Cashin said.
In addition to keeping track of the art, Cashin said registration also deals with loan agreements, insurance and shipments, as well as outgoing loans, which include art from the museum’s collection displayed in other buildings on campus, such as the Bizzell Memorial Library.
When new artworks or loans arrive, registration handles getting the pieces acclimated to the museum’s environment.
“We let it adjust to our temperature, so we leave it in their crates in the vault for 24 hours,” Cashin said.
The team then opens the crate and does a condition report, noting any damage to the art, and compares it to the report done before the art was shipped. Afterwards, the art either goes into storage or to the prep team for installation.
‘Do not touch signs don’t apply to us’
Once the exhibit is planned, its actual creation is done by the prep department, a small team comprised of just two people. Brad Stevens is the chief preparator and exhibition designer, and Keri Smith is the associate preparator.
Stevens said it’s the prep team’s job to bring the curator’s ideas and plans to life, and actually create the exhibit.
“We’ll design everything, kind of make what we think the gallery will look like,” Stevens said. “And then the prep side of it is we do all the building, art handling, installation, lighting, packing, shipping, painting, receipting.”
Stevens said the bulk of his department’s work is done behind the scenes, most of which is done on Mondays, when the museum is closed to the public.
“We fix it, we design it, we install it,” Stevens said. “We are all back of the house stuff, but everything that you see when you come into the museum, we’ve touched. We set it all up.”
The prep department is one of the few departments insured by the museum, allowing them to handle the artwork.
“The ‘Do not touch’ signs don’t apply to us at all,” Smith said.
At times, this level of responsibility can be daunting. Stevens has worked at the museum for 12 years now but said he will always remember his first project: reglazing Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Alexander Reid.”
Stevens said taking the artwork out of the frame and putting the thin layer of glass over it was a delicate and nerve-wracking process.
“I had the registrar here watching me and sweating bullets because I was touching a Van Gogh,” Stevens said.
While the novelty of his job has worn off, Stevens said the prep department treats every piece of the museum’s 20,000-object collection equally.
Stevens said that over the past decade, the museum has become more self-sufficient, and the prep department has begun to play an even bigger role in the museum by making frames and mounts for ceramics and jewelry in-house.
Prep is continuously learning how to display different styles and mediums of art found in the museum’s collection, Stevens said, and the process often takes a lot of brainstorming to figure out how to accomplish specific requests or ideas, such as a double-sided frame or virtual reality technology.
“Two things that have to interact with each other but can’t damage each other,” Smith said. “The art cannot fall over on a person and hurt a person, and a person can’t reach out and poke the artwork and hurt the artwork, so our job is to make sure they have access to each other but security from one another, too.”
‘We still have a duty to our audience’
Once the art is displayed, there are several ways the public can interact with it. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered many of the public’s interactions with the museum.
Kaylee Kain, director of communication, said the museum usually has a whole semester of events planned around an exhibition — curator talks, student parties, and opening and closing night ceremonies.
But, due to COVID-19, the museum closed along with the university in March, reopened Aug. 4 to members and frontline workers and Aug. 11 to the public, Kain said.
Even when its doors were not open, Kain said its staff were busy shifting focus to the museum’s website to enable the public to still engage with the art, calling it a “virtual backup plan.” She said that the staff’s jobs do not stop even if they are not physically in the museum.
“We still have a duty to our audience and to the students here at OU and the faculty and staff to still provide an experience and engagement through art and a critical understanding of the benefits of the arts,” Kain said.
The website’s “Museum at Home” page enables guests to explore several of the museum’s permanent collections virtually, including the Weitzenhoffer collection, which contains the work of Van Gogh, Claude Monet and Edgar Degas.
It also includes various activities that can be done from home, including instructions for art projects and creative writing prompts inspired by work from the museum’s collection. Kain said the museum plans to continually develop and update the website throughout the year.
With the museum’s reopening in August, Kain said their priority is maintaining a safe environment for guests. New rules include a mask mandate, maintaining 6 feet between visiting groups and suspending guided tours of large groups.
Kain said it is easy to social distance in the museum because it is such a large building with several floors, galleries and rooms, and the museum can be a safe place for students to pass time in between classes when places like the Oklahoma Memorial Union are busy.
“There’s no reason to be within 6 feet of someone else in the museum,” Kain said. “They can come to the museum, and they can walk around and feel perfectly safe doing so because we’re taking so many precautions that our visitors will be safe.”
Kain said the pandemic is also affecting exhibitions’ timelines, with temporary exhibitions remaining in place longer in order to give the public more time to see it. She said the museum is currently less focused on visitation numbers and more on interactions with the art.
“I think it’s more about providing an experience and an engagement with art in the most successful way,” Kain said, “whether that’s virtually or whether that’s socially distant in the gallery.”