How Museum Staff Check Conditions of O'Keeffe Artworks

How Museum Staff Check Conditions of O'Keeffe Artworks

When you walk into the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition, it looks beautiful and completely put together. This was not the case during installation.

The Denver Art Museum is the fifth stop on a seven-city world tour of Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam, and the Land. The exhibition previously travelled to Rome, Munich, and Helsinki before returning to the United States. The paintings in the show come to us from many institutions and private collections across the country. To coordinate such an undertaking required a skilled team and a highly organized system. I was lucky to work with this team from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum during the unpacking, conditioning, and installation of the exhibition.

Prior to the crates' arrival, the gallery walls were being patched and painted with the new O’Keeffe color scheme and the exhibitions crew were building pedestals and wall mounts for the katsina tithu, commonly referred to as kachina or katsina dolls. It was more of a construction zone than a gallery. Once the crates arrived we stored them until the team from the O’Keeffe Museum arrived to personally oversee the unpacking and condition checks of each object. With more than 45 works by the artist and others, it took a full week to carefully unpack and check each work for any new damages or changes to their conditions.

To prevent damage during transit, a combination of packing materials helped create multiple protective layers or microclimates around each artwork. The wooden crates were carefully outfitted with interior foam core siding and each work was packed in a hard sided box wrapped in plastic. Inside the interior boxes, works are wrapped in tyvek to protect them and their frames from any kind of rubbing or abrasions. In some instances, custom trays are built to hold an object as well. These measures assured the works and the frames were safe from the elements and vibrations during transit. We let the objects acclimatize for 48 hours in their crates before we opened them. A slow acclimatization period helps the works slowly adjust to our climate lessening the chances of new damage or stress on the works. Once the crates were opened, the objects were unpacked, cataloged, and we performed detailed condition checks on each artwork.

Using information from the previous venues ,we could determine if any new damages had occurred either during transit or while on exhibition. Registrars and conservators often use a notated image in addition to written documentation to track these changes over time. The condition report for Church Steeple has an image of the painting in raking light. This highlighted the imperfections in the paint surface and makes them easier to see. These imperfections are noted using the corresponding diagram. Luckily we didn’t find any new issues with any of the works.

Once all the works were unpacked and fully conditioned the exhibitions crew began installing the works with the assistance of Denver Art Museum and Georgia O’Keeffe Museum curators, curatorial assistants, educators, and designers. The curators also mocked up a small model of the gallery in their offices in preparation for the installation. We used brown paper templates to help space and place the works before they are unpacked.

This helps the process move smoothly and efficiently and lessens the need to move the art objects unnecessarily. Once the works were placed, the lighting phase begun. Each work was lit with its materials in mind. Works on paper are more dimly lit than paintings on canvas. This helps prolong the life and colors in the painting. Finally we cleaned the gallery of all the crates, tables, lamps, computers, a-frames, power tools, and all the other equipment it takes to install an exhibition. We will keep everything nearby as it will all happen again when the works leave the Denver Art Museum and head to their next venue at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.

Image credits: Many thanks to Dale Kronkright and Darrah Wills from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum for sharing their images with us for this post.

Bridget O’Toole is an associate registrar and database administrator in the registrar’s department at the Denver Art Museum. Bridget has been at the DAM since 1998, and her current favorite artwork on display is Maria van Oosterwyck’s Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase. Bridget formerly was a membership volunteer and curatorial assistant for the painting and sculpture department at the DAM.