If you go to the New Britain Museum of American Art on a Friday afternoon, you’ll see grouchy old men with their arms crossed trying to tease meaning out of an abstract oil painting. You’ll see young families: children with sticky fingers, mothers with diaper bags, grandparents. There’ll be women with glasses and scarves and long skirts, and students mimicking coastal landscapes on sketchpads with charcoal or thick pencils. But you won’t see all of the art.
The vast majority (read: like 98%) of the museum’s art sits in the storage basement: a series of small, white cinderblock rooms with cement floors connected by a hallway that runs the length of the building. American impressionist art hangs in rows on sliding racks, and piles sit in cardboard boxes. On the ground, paintings lean against walls lined up like soldiers ready to someday see the front lines.
“At any given moment, we display about 1.5% of our total collection,” says collections manager Keith Gervase. Gervase oversees the art transport and displays. He walks the galleries with purpose, pointing out cracks in paintings or footlights on the ceiling, or the gold leafing on the frames. He’s wearing a black shirt and a baseball hat, Carhartt pants. In the line at Starbucks, probably ordering black coffee, he might strike you as a farmer or carpenter. Not an art expert.
There are many reasons for the limited display, ranging from issues of wall space to repair jobs. If it’s a piece done on paper, it will need to rest, and sits in storage to regain some of its integrity.
“Works on paper, get three months out of a two-year period of time,” says Gervase. “When it’s been up for three months, we take it down, it goes back in storage for two years. And that’s just to make sure it’s there for the next generation.”
And though the act of preservation remains top priority at the New Britain Museum and other art museums globally, it is also important that art be viewed. In more affluent, larger cities, to resolve this issue, museums have opted for so-called “visible storage,” a way of keeping art in a controlled space, while still remaining available for public consumption. Essentially, museums keep art behind sliding glass panes, away from the main galleries in warehouse-type spaces. At the Brooklyn Museum, while only about 350 works are on display regularly, in the open archives, there are more than 2,000 objects and works of art ready for public viewing.
But in New Britain, where basement rooms are packed floor to ceiling with sculptures, and walking space is whittled down to accommodate a wider area for storage, this option is logistically impossible.
Much of what is done at the museum is a matter of preservation, but the act of preservation itself is a risky business. Curators walk a fine line when repairing art, even an act as simple as general maintenance can disrupt the integrity of an original work.
Art conservation involves a series of agreements and compromises, almost a bartering system like the fur trade, or a dating service. If a piece comes with too many issues, too much baggage, it’s just not going to work out. If a repair job is not completed with utmost precision and attention to detail, the work becomes an imitation, valueless.
“There’s a very large piece by Robert Salmon, and it had extensive damage, and our conservator declined to do it. Basically, he said, ‘there’s so much work that needs to be done that by the time I’m done with it it’s no longer going to be just a Robert Salmon. The majority of the paint is going to be ours.’”
Above the stairs leading to the upstairs galleries, a blown glass sculpture by the renowned artist Dale Chihuly dangles from four steel cords. The piece is colored in various shades of blue. It’s massive, and like many Chihuly sculptures, it’s composed of independent pieces, bulbs and tentacles and speckled arms, connected with wire and plastic tubing.
Gervase stands on the stairs beneath the sculpture, gesturing at the various shifting parts. He explains that, due to a car accident, Chihuly no longer blows his own glass or composes his own work, opting instead to draw up plans while a team of students or interns or other artists performs the laborious task of assembly.
“We had to take this apart. But because it’s Dale Chihuly, it’s his legacy, we had to put this back together in such a way where it’s exactly the way it was originally configured. When we were done we had to take a number of pictures and photographs to send back to the Chihuly studio for them to look at and sign off on. If they didn’t sign off on it, we’d no longer be able to call it a Chihuly.”
Museums acquire art from various sources, from other museums or curators, collections on “tour,” or private donors, who, at their death, may donate entire collections for the sake of preserving a legacy.
Accepting donations can become complicated for museum curators. Some collectors may donate their entire collections to the museum in their wills, but whether or not these collections are suitable for display depends on several factors.
“We’ll reject things for a wide variety of reasons. There are plenty of times when someone passes away and they bequest their entire collection to us, and sometimes its 100 pieces and we’ll go pick it up, and some of it’s awesome and some of its crap,” he says. He points to a stack of paintings resting in a tall cardboard box. “That came from an estate. All of these works were part of the estate. On the back of these works, there’s mold. So they’re done. We can’t have them in our collection, they can’t be near our artwork, so this is all going out to consignment, and it’s absolutely too bad, but we gotta look out for our own collection.”
Though Gervase stresses the importance of conserving art, the museum lends out pieces to corporate hotels or business offices, sometimes restaurants, or for private events, in order to receive extra revenue. And when each piece goes out, there’s a chance it’ll come back damaged, either from the typical wear and tear of being up on a wall, or in transit.
“The ugly truth about museums and lending things: nothing ever comes back in better condition than when it left. It just doesn’t happen.”
Navigating the politics of art, lending or displaying or appeasing a specific aesthetic, becomes a strategic game, in a sense. Four years ago, the Delaware Art Museum sold paintings in order to stay afloat in a world increasingly hostile to art institutions. They were effectively black-listed by the Association of Art Museum Directors, who instructed other associated museums not to loan or trade with them.
While the New Britain Museum, to this point, has not experienced the same sort of rigmarole in trading or selling, there is a certain alertness to the way Gervase speaks, as if he is always preparing for the worst-case scenario, an artistic apocalypse.
Standing in the main gallery, Gervase points to a scuff mark beneath a painting on display. “That, right there, is somebody getting a real good look at this painting, and knocking their purse against the wall.” He frowns, but emphasizes that the job comes with its rewards, that there’s nothing else he would rather do, in spite of the logistic challenges. “There’s always something to keep up on.”