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Business of the Arts: Work of Art

A lot happens behind the scenes at the Springfield Art Museum

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At home, if the painting goes great with the couch, the only real challenge is in nudging one side, then the other, until it hangs straight.

The process of mounting an art exhibit at the Springfield Art Museum is quite a bit more involved, with some shows taking five or more years from inception to opening.

Sarah Buhr, the museum’s curator of art, and her team are putting the final touches on an exhibit opening Sept. 23. Titled Jordan Eagles: One Blood, the show features work by a New York-based artist who uses blood as a medium in sculptures, panels, screen prints, and photo and video works.

“I’ve been working with the artist for over two and a half years,” Buhr said.

Their conversations began during the pandemic with phone calls and digital studio visits, but Jordan Eagles came to the museum for a visit last fall, Buhr said. Together, she and the artist looked at the space where his work would be shown and considered how to show each piece to its best advantage.

Then came preplanning, which included coordination of shipping, coordinating text to accompany works and finalizing other details.

“We just took down the last show, and we have three weeks where we will prep the galleries,” she said. “Then the artwork will get here, then the artist will be here and then we’ll finally install everything.”

Exhibit costs vary, Buhr said. A show borrowed from another institution incurs a loan fee plus shipping costs, for instance. If Buhr coordinates an exhibit in-house with contemporary artists or loaned work, costs can include travel, shipping, printing of exhibit catalogs, gallery modifications and artist fees. Even a show drawn from the museum’s own collection includes costs like printing and painting.

“The range, including staff time, would generally be from $10,000 on the low end to $300,000 on the high end,” Buhr said. “Our costs are also spread out over several years due to our planning process, so rarely would the full cost of a show hit in a single fiscal year.”

Eagles’ exhibit will fall in the middle of that range, she figures, though final costs are not known. That exhibit is being supported through a grant given to the museum by Springfield Black Tie, an annual fundraising gala benefiting LGBTQ+ charities. Eagles’ work explores LGBTQ+ themes.

As curator, Buhr is the museum’s point person for coordinating what goes on display and how it is interpreted. She coordinates traveling exhibits, like the current show Tradition Interrupted, which features a dozen international artists expressing contemporary ideas through traditional art and craft. She also mounts exhibits pulled from the museum’s permanent collection, like Creating an American Identity, now on display with art ranging from the 18th century to the present.

In almost any museum, only a small portion of the collection is displayed at any one time – 5%, on average, according to a 2022 article in the journal Collection and Curation. The Louvre in Paris reports that it has 8% of its holdings on display, among them the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo; on the other side of the Channel Tunnel, the British Museum reports it shows 1% of its collection, like the Rosetta Stone and the granite head of Amenhotep III.

Buhr figures about a tenth of the museum’s holdings are on display, but she works diligently to rotate new items out of storage and into the galleries.

Many hands
Buhr said the decision on which works to show happens in conversation with a team of specialists, including Exhibitions Coordinator Cindy Quayle, who does a myriad of tasks, like shipping and receiving artworks and coordinating framing, along with Preparator Brian Fickett, who figures out the mechanics of securely mounting work, among other tasks. Another team member, Registrar Kyle Clymore, keeps close track of the museum’s collection.

Buhr noted some exhibits are curated by other members of the museum staff, as are some events with a gallery element. For example, Joshua Best, museum affairs officer for audience development, coordinates Art in Bloom, an annual spring festival that invites floral and fashion designers from throughout the region to interpret works of art with gallery displays. The annual event 99 Times, coming up Sept. 30, is a themed party – this year’s theme is Seaside Dreams on the Boardwalk – that features cocktail attire and living art tableaux; it is coordinated by Museum Affairs Officer Kate Francis.

Capital campaign
The work of the museum takes many hands, chief among them Director Nick Nelson, the most public face of the museum. These days, Nelson is elbows-deep in the institution’s 2028 Campaign, a comprehensive site plan for the museum’s building and grounds.

The effort includes a $25 million capital improvement campaign with anticipated completion by the museum’s centennial in 2028. The largest donation, $5 million, was given by The Sunderland Foundation of Overland Park, Kansas, in 2022. The museum’s campaign has raised about $16 million to date.

In a March 2022 event announcing the Sunderland gift, Nelson said the capital campaign would benefit city residents and visitors as well.

“We have envisioned a place that speaks to all our visitors’ senses with a modern, creative building and beautiful landscapes. Whether indoors or outdoors, visitors will be immersed in an artistic experience,” he said.

The museum is already serving as a draw, with 41,855 visitors in fiscal 2023, up 32% from 31,784 the year before. It reported revenue of $1.6 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2022.

Enjoying the show
During a recent visit, Quayle was located in an out-of-site workshop packing pieces from the museum’s signature Watercolor USA juried exhibition, which she coordinates. Quayle, an artist herself, said she has worked at the museum for 15 years. She said she loves the work and its challenges.

“It’s detail driven,” she said. “You really have to pay attention to not only deadlines but just the details of the shows and what the needs are, but that’s kind of my personality. I like that detail work.”

She admits to being fanatical about framing and archival materials that will stand the test of time. That doesn’t mean all the work in the museum meets that standard, as Buhr noted.

“We have a piece we just took down that was made with chicken wire and a stick, and it has lots of condition issues,” Buhr said.

Quayle said the exhibitions team works closely together.

“All of us have these jobs that interlink, and we all have to be on the same page,” she said. “We’ve worked together long enough now that it makes it easier at times – we know what the other’s doing.”

Quayle said her best advice to a museum visitor is to relax and lean into the experience.

“They’re not going to like everything they see, but I want them to come in and enjoy what it is that kind of does something for them,” she said. “I’m thinking people put too much emphasis sometimes on trying to understand it.”

Fickett, whose job entails preparing galleries and artwork for display, is also an artist who works in metal and jewelry making. That attention to detail applies to his installations for the museum, where he designs custom fixtures for specific works.

Like Quayle, he encourages a relaxed approach to the museum.

“The best way to explore the museum would be to use what you love as an entry point and then have an open enough mindset to explore and have your mind changed by what’s immediately here,” he said.

“From a curatorial standpoint, the point is to walk out of here with a new story having been told to you.”

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