The installation of the Tim Burton show took thirteen days, beginning on October 28, 2009, and ending (save some inevitable last-minute tweaking) on Friday, November 13. As the first institution given the opportunity to exhibit Burton’s unseen work, the urge to present a comprehensive selection was hard to resist. With 716 pieces of framed art, objects, and media to put in place, the pressure was on—especially since we knew that a series of special openings had been scheduled before the general public arrived: Tim’s private opening on November 16 for his friends and collaborators, a Department of Film benefit honoring Tim on November 17, and the opening reception on November 18. The realization that we would soon be hosting Johnny Depp, Danny Elfman, Helena Bonham Carter, Catherine O’Hara, Bo Welch, Glenn Shadix, Diane Wiest, Colleen Atwood, Danny DeVito, Jeffrey Jones, Crispin Glover, and others—not to mention Tim himself—added to the sense of excitement shared by everyone on the MoMA installation team.
In an earlier blog post, I compared the production of an exhibition to the production of a film, and I believe this best describes our experience with installing the Burton show. A gallery is like a film set, the art being installed is like a “cast of characters,” and the curator acts as the director, bringing his vision to life with the aid of essential collaborators. In this case, my co-organizer and “assistant director” Jenny He and I were supported by a dedicated team led by David Hollely, our “production designer,” who managed carpenters, painters, and electricians; Jennifer Wolfe, our “production manager,” who kept track of the hundreds of works being handled during the various stages of the exhibition’s organization; conservators Roger Griffith and Margo Delidow, who worked closely with Rick Heinrichs on the restoration of his sculptures and the care of fragile objects; and Rachel Abrams, who supervised the crew of “art handlers” that stayed with us step by step, one wall after another, unpacking crates, arranging art, and hanging work. (They are truly the unsung heroes in the life of every museum.) There were times during the installation where we found ourselves installing three walls at once: one crew hanging 1980s-period character studies in salon-style arrangements, a second crew placing The Giant Zlig (1976), a rejected children’s book Burton wrote for Disney when he was seventeen years old, in a wall-mounted display case, and another crew fixing the large sandworm jaws from Beetlejuice (1988) very high up on a wall with the aid of mobile lift equipment.
For our main exhibition space, we were assigned a 4,450-square-foot East Wing gallery on the third floor, with a 1,215-square-foot-long entry hall that had windows overlooking the Museum’s sculpture garden. We were also using the Department of Film’s Titus lobby galleries outside our theaters (for Tim’s oversized Polaroid photographs), where a complete retrospective of Tim’s features and related films programs were screened throughout the five-month run of the show. Our first decision was to wall off the garden windows to create a long, striped entrance hallway that riffed on the “Carnivalesque” themes in Burton’s work. In my favorite review, critic Jim Hoberman (“Alice in Chains,” The Village Voice, March 3, 2010) compared the experience of the show to a Coney Island visit. Our plans for a black-light room at the end of the hallway inspired Tim to create a six-foot-tall, rotating, fluorescent carousel with music by Danny Elfman, one of the seven new sculptural pieces—including Balloon Boy, Robot Boy, a Stainboy diorama, and a creature family—that he conceived and built after visiting our galleries in July, just four months before the show’s opening.
We asked ourselves: How does a museum of art install so much work on paper and canvas that was never intended for display in a gallery? (For instance, virtually none of Tim’s drawings have titles.) Our answer was to structure the show in two ways: the first was based on the narrative of his life—as a child in Burbank, CA (“Surviving Burbank”), as a student and apprentice at CalArts and Disney (“Beautifying Burbank”), and as a successful filmmaker (“Beyond Burbank”); the second explored major motifs, such as body modification, armoring, masking, and Burton’s creature-based notions of character. Without the aid of much explanatory wall text, our intention was that visitors wanting a “story” would find it, while those who simply wished to savor the “attractions” would have that choice as well. Finally, we applied a more subliminal strategy for making Burton’s work seem at home in the Museum. Taking inspiration from the exhibition style of our colleagues in other curatorial departments, we mounted Tim’s early cartoons in the style of a Drawings gallery, sculptures and works on canvas in the style of a Painting and Sculpture gallery, and film costumes from Ed Wood (1994) and Edward Scissorhands (1990) and the animatronic puppets from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) in the manner of a collection display by our Architecture and Design department.
The challenge of interpreting Tim Burton’s unique and restless creative imagination for an art museum audience had kept us busy for nearly four years. Expectations were high now and we were at last ready to welcome the public. Just as I am ready here—in my last Burton post—to say goodbye and thank you all for reading.