The job of preparator is a bit of mystery, and not just because no one knows how to pronounce it. (It’s prep-PARE-a-tor.)
The inner workings of an art museum are secretive for two reasons:
- You can’t have someone learning your secrets and going all Thomas Crowne Affair on your watch, and
- You’re actually trying to fade into the background so the art can be the star.
“Our job is almost like being a stagehand in the theater,” says Scott Thom, Head Preparator at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts.
“Visitors don’t see a lot of the planning or structure that go on behind the scenes, but if we’re doing our job, we’re creating an experience.”
That requires a lot of planning: research, painting, carpentry, unpacking, installation — and the preparator tackles them all.
“You have to have a lot of different skills,” says Thom.
“One day you’re working with sculptures and forklifts, and the next day you’re hanging projectors. It’s a lot about figuring out your own solutions to things.”
How did they do that?
There’s no such thing as studying to be a preparator. Thom got his MFA in printmaking from UT Austin and started art handling there, but most of his training has been of the on-the-job variety.
“It’s highly specialized, so not a lot of people are coming out of school looking for this type of position,” he says. “Most are artists or musicians or creative people who got into it to make ends meet, which gives it kind of a fraternity, or guild, feel.”
The hands-on nature of the job suits the temperament of anyone who creates art for a living. Though the ultimate goal is to disappear into the background, working with different mediums and ideas — and trying to cultivate a larger emotional response — is challenging, mentally and physically.
“People don’t really understand what a physically demanding job it is,” Thom says.
“Everything — every crate that arrives — is a couple hundred pounds, even for a medium size painting. And they have to be handled by people, not machines. It feels almost like you’re competing because it’s so intense and physical.”
A ton of work
Which brings us to the biggest installation Thom’s ever tackled. The mashed-up Humvee currently on display in back of the Frist was a serious undertaking, he says, but the rose sculpture out in front of the Broadway entrance was the biggest pound-for-pound.
“It came to us in multi-ton pieces,” Thom says. (A ton is 2,000 pounds.)
“We got a local rigging crew out there with a crane, and it took us a whole day to install. But that’s not surprising when you’re working with 9,000 pounds.”
But even with that massive installation under their belts, Thom’s team had to start from scratch for “Sensuous Steel,” the Frist’s 2013 exhibit of art deco automobiles.
“The car show was great,” he says.
“It was very unusual for us, and logistically challenging. We had to remove doors inside and outside the building; everything had to be pushed into the gallery, not driven. These cars are so delicate, rare and valuable — It’s not like you’re dealing with an old broken-down Escort! It was difficult but so fun.”
The art of change
Since the Frist is a non-collecting museum, no display is permanent. While they try to plan several years in advance, the turnaround time between exhibits can be as short as six weeks.
“Places that have collections often have a slower pace and fewer exhibits per year. This is constantly changing, which makes my job more interesting,” says Thom.
“And it’s nice, too, because you get to focus so closely in on whatever you’re unpacking and hanging that day. You get up close and see what you’ve never seen before.”
Thom even gained new appreciation for an art form he never really liked once he worked on the Hudson River School exhibition, which included Albert Bierstadt.
“I am not a huge fan of romantic landscape painting, but the Bierstadt was just amazing to see firsthand,” he says.
“When you see a painting up close, it’s much different than seeing it in book. You see the skill, and with this one, the light effects seem to come from within the painting rather than without. I’m still not a big fan of landscapes, but this one stuck with me.”
As someone who enjoys all kinds of art, Thom has visited lots of museums. He has obviously made the rounds in New York, and appreciates what he’s seen there. But he hasn’t seen anything that beats one particular museum in The South.
“My favorite museum building would have to be the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum just outside Birmingham, Alabama,” he says.
“It’s an unholy alliance of stunning architecture and (mostly) motorcycles, with views of the active racetrack from the panoramic windows. It can be sensory overload for a gear-head when the track is in use.”
Thom is quick to remind, though, that the museum itself should never really be the focal point.
“I have seen some great exhibitions at various places, but the building itself usually becomes secondary, as it should.”
For most people, that is.
“I’m always looking at how they do things like wall construction or paint finishes; the level of craftsmanship and care that they take; how they hang projectors or paintings,” he says.
“It’s interesting to see other people’s ideas. I’m always looking for something I’ve never seen before.”