Frist Center: Head Preparator Scott Thom | Unsung Nashville
Frist Center Scott Thom

Making Art Work

Frist Center Head Preparator Scott Thom talks forklifts, fine art & motorcycle museums

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:

  1. You can’t have someone learning your secrets and going all Thomas Crowne Affair on your watch, and
  2. 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.”

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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.”

Inveterate Composition for Clare by Rachel Owens weighs in at 3500 pounds
Inveterate Composition for Clare by Rachel Owens weighs 3,500 pounds

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.”

Rose on 65th Street by Sculptor Will Ryman
Rose on 65th Street by Sculptor Will Ryman

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.”

1936 Delahaye 135M Figoni and Falaschi Competition Coupe. Jim Patterson/The Patterson Collection, Louisville, KY. Photograph © 2013 Peter Harholdt
1936 Delahaye 135M Figoni and Falaschi Competition Coupe. The Patterson Collection. Photograph © 2013 Peter Harholdt

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.”

The Hetch-Hetchy Valley, California c.1874-80, Albert Bierstadt
The Hetch-Hetchy Valley, California c.1874-80, Albert Bierstadt

Disappearing act

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.”

barber-https-_www.facebook.com_BarberMuseum_photos_a.10150703557355917.452378.75526510916_10150703557530917_?type=3&theater

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.”

Watch Thom & his team at work

Fast Facts: Frist Center Building

Courtesy of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts
Courtesy of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts

The building that houses the Frist Center for the Visual Arts was built in the 1930s to serve as Nashville’s main post office. Its location near Union Station was convenient for mail distribution since most mail was moved by train at that time. “When the Frist Center assumed stewardship of the building in 1999, everyone thought the grillwork in the Grand Lobby was brass,” says Thom. “In fact, it was an aluminum alloy that had been darkened by years of smoking in the building, the coal-fired heat in homes all over town, and the building’s location next to the train station.”

Courtesy of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts
Courtesy of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts

The Frist opened as a museum in April 2001. It does not have a permanent collection, so it focuses on creating original exhibits and securing traveling exhibits. The museum is named for Nashville’s Frist family, who helped create the museum through their charitable foundation. Thomas F. Frist, Jr., a co-founder of the Hospital Corporation of America, spearheaded the efforts.

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