This is the second in our series of Q&As on arts careers. We return from conservation in the field to discuss the behind-the-scenes work of a preparator.
What do you do at the Getty?
I’m a preparator—I set up and take down exhibitions. That involves everything from receiving a work, unpacking it, inspecting it, installing it, and securing it in cases or pedestals, to lighting the work and putting up labels. We also build a lot of the cases and case interiors, which we call exhibition furniture.
One way to look at an exhibition is to think of it as a big banquet. The curators write the menu, the registrars get all the food, the designers figure out what the banquet hall is going look like and pick out the china and the decorations, and then the preparators cook the meal and put everything together.
What do you like best about your job?
It’s interesting work: art’s not fast food, and every piece is unique. You never know what objects you’re going to get, how you’re going to handle them, and how they’re going to have to be mounted and treated. There’s also a certain amount of consulting and negotiating with curators, conservators, and couriers.
Oftentimes pieces travel with a courier, a person sent by the lending institution who makes sure the pieces are handled in a certain way. The couriers sometimes say, “We want to do this,” and we might have to say, “You can’t do that.” So often we’re involved in problem solving.
That’s the other part of the job: making everybody happy—or at least satisfied.
What led you to working at the Getty? How did you find this career?
In college I worked for my father, who was an automotive engineer. Later I got a job at San Jose State as a preparator. The mechanical stuff came very fast and easy for me, because I’d been building things since I was a kid. By then I had been studying art for a while, and that led to other jobs in galleries and a museum in Palo Alto.
Right before I came to the Getty I was a gallery director at Cerritos College. I found out that the Getty Villa was hiring preparators to pack up the antiquities and move them here and set them up for the re-opening in 2006. I thought later I would go back to teaching. But once you get to the Getty, you want to stay. The people I work with are great, and the Villa is a beautiful place to work.
Is there a particular educational background that’s necessary for this job?
I have a master’s degree in sculpture. The job description says you just need a high school diploma to apply for this job, but in fact three of the four preparators at the Getty Villa have master’s degrees.
What other skills are helpful for this field of work?
Working in groups. And as in any field, to be able to listen to people and communicate with them is a useful skill.
You also need really strong mechanical or fabrication skills. You have to be good at putting parts together, making things.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
I like mechanical design problems. For example, I often have to figure out how to mount a label or a banner. The designers know where they want to put things, but they don’t know how they actually get set up.
One of the nice things about working at the Villa is that there are only four preparators, so we all get to be carpenters and painters and metal fabricators.
Are you an artist too?
I’ve both painted and sculpted. Right now I’m building a studio in my back yard.
Is it a special challenge to work with the antique objects that make up the Villa’s collection?
The works are certainly older here at the Villa—except for the recent exhibition The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire, which had “new” works, only about 500 or 1,000 years old. Because the works are older at the Villa, most everything has already been broken and repaired, which adds to its fragility. But really, the more modern pieces at the Getty Center are equally fragile.
Our goal is that nothing will ever suffer even the minutest bit of damage. Whether it’s our own work or on loan, it should look the same when it goes on display as when it comes down.
It helps that a lot of the people here have worked as artists. One way to know how strong something is, is to break it. Of course, not the artifacts we work with! But if you’ve worked with stone, bronze casting, textiles, or any other medium, you have some idea of how fragile it is. We don’t learn from breaking ancient artifacts, but from breaking sculptures we’ve made ourselves.
Is there a project that was particularly challenging or memorable? With The Aztec Pantheon the objects were very large, and I’m wondering if that posed a challenge for the preparators.
Some people like working with really small objects and others with huge ones. I find it more interesting, and in a way more comfortable, to handle larger sculptures.
We did a show in 2009 called The Golden Graves of Ancient Vani, which had tons of small pieces of gold jewelry and beads. Handling these is a different sort of talent. You have to wear magnifying glasses when you’re working with objects on that scale. I guess I’d rather set up larger sculptures than tie little gold earrings to a mount with a tiny amount of filament.
Tell me what it’s like to de-install The Aztec Pantheon and set up the next show, The Art of Ancient Greek Theater.
The Aztec show was challenging because some of the objects were ceramic. Several works arrived in multiple pieces, and it took about a day to set up each piece. They’re ceramic with a metal armature inside, and they have to be interlocked in a certain way and stood up. So those are really interesting to take apart as well.
After the Aztec objects are packed up in crates and shipped out, we’ll take the exhibition furniture out of the gallery. The next team will come in and paint the gallery for The Art of Ancient Greek Theater. Then we’ll move in the new exhibition furniture. When the theater objects come in, we’ll unpack them and start installing. And be ready for whatever new problems need to be solved!