Museum & Gallery Assistant Kari Adams gives an insight to the world of art couriering and accompanying works ‘on loan’

Currently, we have two artworks from our permanent Collection on loan to the Barbican for their exhibition, Modern Couples, Art Intimacy and the Avant-garde (10 Oct 2018 – Jan 27 2019). Firstly, the alabaster sculpture Large and Small Form (1934) by Barbara Hepworth, and secondly, the oldest dated work in the Collection 1929 (fireworks), an oil painting by Ben Nicholson. In order for these artworks to journey from their home here in Orkney to a gallery in London, certain procedures were put in place and a ‘courier’ was required to oversee their installation. On this particular occasion, I travelled to London to witness their handling and integration into this noteworthy Barbican exhibition.

Barbara Hepworth Large and Small Form , 1934 © Bowness

Barbara Hepworth Large and Small Form, 1934 © Bowness

The role of the courier

When artworks have to travel between venues, a courier is responsible for the safety of the object(s). This requirement can entail travelling with the object ‘door-to-door’ on a fine art truck; sometimes hand-carrying the object and supervising crates until they are safely placed on their selected mode of transport. On other occasions, as was the case with this particular trip, the courier is there to ‘meet’ the object(s) at the destination. It all really just depends on the nature of the piece and what is going to offer the most appropriate level of care and supervision. (Similarly, the courier’s presence is required for the de-installation of the exhibition to ensure a seamless return.)

Before the artworks leave the gallery

In preparation for these two artworks to be packed and shipped to the Barbican, condition checks had to be carried out. As in museums and galleries the world over, detailed records relating to all the artworks in our collection are kept so that their overall condition can be monitored; and, when they are requested for loan, these records are reviewed and updated before they can be packed. Both written and visual documentation is contained within these files which archive their continued conservation and condition. This is a highly important part of the process as it reinforces the long term conservation of the object. Like many pieces in our Collection, Large and Small Form and 1929 (fireworks) have crates which have been specially designed for their needs. After thorough condition checking, the works were very carefully packaged by myself and the curator into their crates. At this point we would always ensure that the crates are stable, and that any movement through travel will not disturb the artworks enclosed. Crates are always clearly labelled so that the art carrier collecting the work knows exactly what is contained within each crate. We can then be satisfied they are ready to begin their journey.

Barbican Centre art gallery

Barbican Centre art gallery

From the Pier to the Barbican

The crates were collected by a fine art carrier truck, and travelled via ferry and road to London. On their arrival to the Barbican, the crates were securely stored until I was present. The Exhibitions Organiser met with me on the morning of the install day, and a rough schedule of the day was given. I was then taken to the space where our Hepworth and Nicholson were going to be displayed and I was re-acquainted with our crates. A lot was happening in the gallery space and there were sparks of anticipation and excitement in the air - it really was a hive of activity; technicians, exhibitions staff, curators and couriers unpacking works, carrying out condition checking, and mounting and installing a variety of different works on loan from an array of different museums and galleries around the world. If I take anything away from this experience it would be a new found appreciation for the organisation of an exhibition on this scale. The time, care and dedication given to the careful installation of artworks at every stage was very much plain to see.

Barbican Centre

Barbican Centre

The value of patience

Initial condition checking commenced. I worked with a Barbican technician to unpack our crates, who was then on-hand to create itemised packing instructions for their later reference – photos were taken at each stage of the ‘unpack’, and notes were made pertaining to each artwork on how they were wrapped, packaged and secured. The Exhibitions Organiser then joined us to witness the official condition checks, making sure that both parties (Barbican and Pier) were satisfied that everything was recorded accurately and that the journey hadn’t inflicted any loss or damage. Once complete, there followed a period of time to allow for other threads of the exhibition to materialise. The Pier’s artworks were carefully stored on packing tables where they remained until it was time for installation. Our two pieces from the Pier are curated within a room of further Hepworth’s and Nicholson’s, thus, their installation was dependent on nominated couriers being present for checking and install. The result being, although our sculpture and painting had been condition checked, they were only actually installed much later on that afternoon.

After a breadth of time, following the install of surrounding artworks, we were able to place the artworks in situ. As expected, this was the pinnacle moment of the day – seeing Large and Small Form next to another significant alabaster Hepworth sculpture on loan from Tate, and 1929 (Fireworks) alongside a lively Winifred Nicholson, I was very much aware of the new and intriguing conversations which were emerging. Another highlight of the day was simply being able to watch the Barbican technicians ‘at work’, carefully measuring and hanging works in their designated spots – meticulous measuring and considered handling made for very interesting viewing. By far the biggest draw of the installation process, aside from seeing the artworks ‘in place’, was being able to meet people from other museums and galleries. This trip as a courier provided me with the invaluable opportunity to engage with technical staff, conservators and curators from various institutions and learn from their diverse and profound wealth of knowledge.

Revealing matters

Ultimately, this courier trip gave me a wonderful insight into the journey of an artwork - from the comfort and familiarity of our Collection, to a temporary home within the arms of less familiar gallery walls. Knowing the works have settled into a new environment where they will live and breathe within the framework of an exhibition for the next few months gave a great sense of pride. I feel there lies a true significance within the role of caring for an artwork which is to offer that artwork ‘on loan’, and essentially show it off in all its glory. Exposing artwork on a platform to attract a new audience is a level of care in itself - giving it the opportunity to revel within new grounds, gather fresh appreciation and fundamentally extend its life beyond the margins of the Collection to which it belongs.

Follow the link to read more about Modern Couples

AuthorIsla Holloway