Art Matters by Ben Stout, Atelier Art Service
For the past nine months, I have been part of a team of art handlers and registrars occupied with the task of temporarily relocating nearly all of the artworks in the Princeton University Art Museum. The project proceeds in phases. Step one was to move enough artworks from off-site storage to make room for the Museum collections; step two is packing and relocating the artworks inside the Museum. In the best of circumstances this is a monumental task.
On my first day as an art handler, I took a Monet painting to the airport together with a more experienced handler. We took the crate from one East Coast city to another, navigated our way to the airport, signed the crate over to another shipping party, and it was gone. It was abstract. Not the painting, of course. I never saw the painting. The task was abstract. The idea that there was a multimillion-dollar painting next to me was abstract. The crate gave no indication of what was in it. The only proof was paperwork that was both materially important and totally bland. Stained with coffee. Perforated. It could have easily been a lie. It could have been a can of baked beans in that crate. It could have been a fake. It didn’t matter. We still would have treated it in the exact same way.
Sometimes the art seems to disappear in the handling—to disappear behind the logistical formalities, international financial transfers, and massive insurance arrangements. Other times it feels like we—the art handlers—are among the few remaining caretakers of objects that have a lifetime of value in them.
The entire studio of the artist John Rhoden needed to be relocated from 23 Cranberry Street in Brooklyn Heights to Philadelphia. When we arrived, I met a real estate agent; a friend of Rhoden who is his lawyer and executor; a registrar and a conservator from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where the collection will be taken; and Dr. Kelli Morgan, an art scholar who is researching Rhoden’s work. We were presented with years of work. And not just John’s work. Rhoden, who died in 2001, was survived by his wife, Richanda, who lived in the space until her death in 2016 and was a prolific painter.
Square steel grids with resin or stained-glass panels that divided a room, tree trunks carved into figurative columns, room-size bronze reclining nudes, horses, abstract shapes like plants and buildings and people over seven feet tall. Everything was monumental and modern. The studio is a converted livery stable with three floors. It has a freight elevator and a basement. Every room was filled with sculptures. There have to have been at least three hundred, and still more unfinished works in the basement. It was as if Rhoden made the sculptures just to live with them, and to a certain extent, it seems like that’s what happened.
We spent October through January relocating the sculptures to Philadelphia. Three other art handlers and I drove up on Monday mornings and packed all week. We rented Airbnb apartments in Brooklyn neighborhoods and had the support of roving truck teams that resupplied us with materials and took away packed art. Essentially, we were left alone in a Brooklyn Heights sculpture studio that had been steadily filling with art since the 1950s. It seems that John and Richanda wanted to set their own terms, but doing so kept them from having powerful public careers mixed with great commercial success. They made enough to live. They traveled. They never had children. John was an African American man; Richanda was a half Cherokee and half Menominee woman.
What I have come to appreciate about the Princeton University Art Museum is the space made for objects that aren't particularly beautiful or, rather, are not directly about beauty—neither now nor when they were made—but are essential for an education. Masterpieces have their place in museums, but what I love are the practical objects that tell us about how people lived.
My first relocation project at the Museum in 2016 involved moving entire sections of art and artifacts so that fire safety systems could be atmospherically tested. Four packers and three Museum registrars, supported by a truck team, relocated three vaults of cultural objects. The items I remember most are a collection of small, nearly identical molded clay oil lamps, excavated at the ancient Greek city of Antioch-on-the-Orontes in modern-day Turkey, and a Roman sewer pipe that had been thrown on a pottery wheel. Badly damaged, it still showed its throw rings and its taper. Signs of a maker and of the object’s intended place and societal fitment, respectively. I suspect that the potters who made the oil lamps used two-part press molds to produce them. With very basic clay these could be pumped out so that people could have indoor or movable light. The sewer pipe connected pottery as a technology with a community need. These once common, now rare artifacts serve as counterpoints to seductive works by exceptional individuals. They are a type of connective tissue that, because of their ceramic materiality, is geologically permanent.
Project Manager, Atelier Art Service