May 20, 2010  |  Behind the Scenes
MoMA Offsite: Getting There

Henri Rousseau. The Dream. 1910

I’ve talked so much in this outgoing loan column about the traveling works themselves, and the many different contexts they inhabit beyond the expanses of MoMA’s walls. But I’ve yet to address just how the works get to their destinations. It’s no secret that fine art is crated, shipped by special art-handling companies, and covered by specific art insurance policies…but did you know that some works are personally escorted by Museum staff? This week I talked to two curatorial assistants from the Department of Painting and Sculpture who have been on a handful of courier trips, as we call them, to all corners of the globe. Carla Bianchi is part of a team at MoMA that handles all matters of our loan program, from the moment an official request is received to the time a work finally returns to MoMA, sometimes years later. Nora Lawrence supports exhibitions in our department; recently she worked with Ann Temkin on the catalogue and installation for Monet’s Water Lilies.

Lida Sunderland: Why do some works need people to accompany them?

Carla Bianchi: One of the reasons could be the value of the works. Another reason is that if a work is particularly fragile, it’s good to have somebody with it the whole way to the destination. Also if something has a particular set of installation instructions, meaning someone has to oversee how the work is installed. Even some paintings have special needs for installation.

Nora Lawrence: And a work needn’t have all of these needs to require accompaniment. So it can be case by case, based on a suite of questions.

CB: Another reason too would be familiarity with an institution. If we’ve never loaned somewhere before and we don’t know what they’re like, we might send a courier with something that might otherwise travel unaccompanied. Also, we consider the difficulty of the trip. A work traveling directly from point A to point B could have less need for a courier than a work that has to be trucked to a remote location.

NL: As a courier, you are the only person who is exclusively an advocate for the Museum’s artwork. You’re accompanying a box. At some point it’s going to be handled by people who don’t know what’s in there, so it’s helpful to have someone who knows to be there guiding the box.

LS: What do you do before a trip?

NL: Meet with the conservators to discuss the condition of the work.

CB: And always I try to anticipate problems and go over questions in advance. You have to be equipped to make all sorts of decisions. About lighting, about placement—you’re looking after everything.

LS: So it’s a very distinct role to be the courier from MoMA who wants to protect a work of art to the standards we keep.

NL: Right. Absolutely. We are specifically trained to do so.

LS: Do you have any adventures or misadventures?

CB: For me, the adventures come with the longest trips.

NL: Yes, life-upside-down kind of adventures.

CB: When you fly on a cargo plane, for example, which we do often because many works are too large to fit on a passenger plane, you don’t go the usual routes. To get to Japan once I flew through Alaska and changed flight crews. And often in cargo flights you’re invited into the cockpit, which is an adventure!

NL: And sometimes you have to sit in the cockpit the whole time, which isn’t necessarily so fun.

CB: Right.

NL: One adventure I had was on June 21, the longest day of the year, starting in Norway. We began in Bergen, Norway, went east, through Sweden, and down to Copenhagen. So, it was a fifteen-hour drive, and I was in the back seat of a car. So we left at midnight and then drove all day, and there was almost no night. It was dark for maybe a few hours, but it was really difficult to orient yourself or sleep or figure out what time it was.

CB: Things have changed so much since I started doing courier trips. Another thing is that there are so few airports in Europe now accepting freight that you often must take indirect routes to get where you need to go.

LS: Can you speak about any courier trip rituals?

NL: The black yoga pants are a definite ritual. They can look business-like enough, but are also very comfortable!

CB: I always go to the library before and check out guidebooks.

NL: Right, yes, I always make a point of going to the local museums.

CB: And I pack like a tourist. Umbrella, sewing kit, travel alarm kit, and a shower cap….

NL: And a swimsuit! I try to go swimming. Because you do have some time to yourself, and it can be a fun travel experience when you’re not with the work. So I’ve been able to visit international museums and institutions that we work with a lot, that I didn’t have a personal experience with before.

CB: Especially as someone who works on outgoing loans, seeing some of the shows we’re learning about that we wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to visit is great.

NL: And through that, and because it’s something I just think people learn from traveling, it has been interesting to see very local ideas about what the modern or contemporary art story is.

LS: That sort of relates to my next question, because I’m wondering about what it’s been like to engage with other museums—learn about their processes and see how exhibitions are mounted and installed differently—as I’m sure it can vary from our experience here at MoMA.

CB: It can be very different. One thing I notice in particular is how different the organization is from place to place. And what happens too is that a lot of the places we go to aren’t museums, as we know museums—they’re kunsthalles, or exhibition halls, as in Germany, where there isn’t a permanent collection. This definitely sets a different tone.

NL: Going to smaller museums has been really interesting too, especially to see how the smaller, or more focused collections, are viewed by the cities they inhabit. In Nice, France, for example, there are a lot of works by Niki de Saint Phalle and Ben Vautier, and in Naples there is an emphasis on Italian artists and Arte Povera, which tells a local history. Smaller museums are able to feature more prominently things that larger museums might not have in great depth, or show in great depth.

LS: And I don’t know if either of you have had this experience, but there must be something exciting about bringing back a local treasure for an exhibition. Recently a MoMA courier took Giorgio de Chirico paintings to Italy, for example, so I imagine certain works come with elevated significance for the borrowing institution.

CB: I have definitely had instances where I’ve brought the jewel of the show.

NL: Or the other thing is when you bring works that are never or rarely seen in a country, as when I brought a certain painting by Gauguin to Japan.

CB: Coming from MoMA, we often are bringing the centerpiece. I brought Balthus’s The Street to a show in Cologne once, and that was a very big deal.

NL: And I once brought Rousseau’s The Dream to a Henri Rousseau show at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

LS: I wonder if we can discuss a bit about what happens when something goes wrong? As protectors of artworks, it’s implied that you’re protecting against a mishap, right? So I wonder what sorts of obstacles you encounter.

NL: Well I’ll start by saying that the best way to avoid a situation like that is to document as much as you can. That’s what we do. And it’s important to be very diplomatic. Small issues can become larger very quickly without diplomacy. We are protecting the artworks, yes, but also relationships with institutions.

CB: I’ve never had a big problem! But to return to what we were talking about earlier, you have to be prepared for asking the staff at the place you’re visiting to abide by MoMA guidelines for a MoMA work. I have asked people to adjust placement before, but that isn’t so much a mishap as it is a successful courier story—that’s why I was there.

NL: And sometimes translation can be an issue.

CB: I think one needs to be equal parts creative, and firm.

LS: And how many trips do you go on?

CB: Roughly twice a year, but MoMA always has a courier out, more or less, with busier seasons throughout the year.

LS: What about a favorite trip?

CB: I love going to Milan. And Rome.

NL: Norway was my favorite trip, absolutely.

CB: I can tell you that I would love to go to Russia!

NL: Yes, absolutely.


Couriers extraordinaires that they are, I think Nora and Carla should be sent to Russia soon—don’t you?