Woman wearing noise-cancelling headphones works with a drill on a building project

Works of art are often on the move. At the Getty, paintings and sculptures are always coming and going—to and from other museums and artists, or even to and from different areas of the Getty. And when an artwork needs to be moved, you can’t simply stick it in a box. Imagine a 500-pound sculpture or a delicate, 300-year-old canvas shipped via truck or airplane for hundreds of miles, and how carefully it would have to be packed in order for it to arrive at its destination unscathed. Here to ensure that works of art remain safe as they travel the world are art preparators—experts in building crates and other materials that are required whenever a piece must be moved.

Rita Gomez is the lead preparator at the Getty, which means she oversees the packing and crating processes for the artworks that pass through the Getty’s doors. Between building crates and working with registrars on logistics, Rita took some time to share her journey into art handling and reflect on some of the most memorable artworks she’s packed.

The gist of what I do: Like all preparators, my job is to ensure the safe and proper handling of any artwork while it moves from different areas within the museum. My job also includes work­ing with objects that have been approved to travel on loan; I anticipate every move from wall to wall, pedestal to pedestal, if you will.

Mainly I manage the packing/unpacking shop and the crating shop. I work with my exceptionally talented team on strategies for packing objects on the schedule. I oversee the building of the packing crates and the actual packing, and work with the registrars to schedule things like curators coming in to look at an object, since that involves us using screwdrivers and drills to remove lids and open it up. I also assist with objects from the permanent collection and potential acquisitions when they arrive at the loading dock, help pick up objects at the airport, and coordinate the objects coming back to various areas of the museum. It’s anticipating what moves the piece has to go through, and then making decisions based on how the piece would suffer the least, just like a patient in a hospital. The object that went out on loan must return in an unchanged condition.

Prepping to prep: I grew up in Tijuana, Mexico, up to grade school. We were a fronterizo family: my dad commuted daily to the San Diego Country Club, welding the irrigation systems. He was also in partnership with my granduncle in demoli­tion, where they would repurpose materials for projects like restoring theaters. I was always interested in following him like a puppy dog and learning what he was doing. He’d say, “I want you to repair this pen, and this is the wood you’re using.” (At times we owned horses, cows, and chickens.) So I learned to build. Sometimes when he went off to work, I’d try out the tools and supplies he had. I was learning to use the hammer and becoming interested in materials and texture, without knowing that I could apply it to a career in the arts. If I found a piece of wood, I would carve it and give it to my mom and say, “Here’s a spoon that I just made for you.” I didn’t realize I was making sculpture. So I feel like that was my foundation to be a “crater,” our term for a builder of crates and other structures for transporting art.

How I discovered art: On Sundays we’d go visit Grandma. Usually I was a hyper kid—I made my own wheelbarrow where I could put all my tools, and then I’d go do whatever project I was working on. But on Sundays, instead of running around with other kids, I would just sit in Grandma’s rocking chair with her big Bible which was illustrated with works by Rembrandt and Michelangelo. I didn’t know the works’ titles; I wasn’t even reading it. I was just looking at the paintings, which I was extremely compelled by and attracted to. At my house there weren’t any books other than school books; there were just chores and many tasks to do, and we could watch cartoons on the black-and-white TV from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m., run around for a little bit, and go to sleep. That was it. So my grandma’s Bible was my first museum visit because I didn’t even know there was a thing called a museum to go visit.

In 1972 my family and I moved to the Santa Clarita Valley, where I started junior high, and after high school I went to College of the Canyons on a track scholarship. I took an art appreciation class, and oh, my gosh. I loved learning about art. Eventually the teacher had to say, ‘Anybody but Rita raise your hand!’ We had an assignment to go to the Norton Simon Museum, which was my first museum. I was so overwhelmed that I had to sit down and just take it in that I was seeing in person the works of art in my books.

Why I became an art preparator: I was a teaching assistant for one of my art professors, and another professor asked me to help him set up an art installation at Cal State Northridge. So I learned how to move objects. I also learned how to do matting at an art auction house. But I needed a job, so my professor suggested I go to Cooke’s Crating, which is a fine art handling, shipping, installing, and storing company in Los Angeles. I started there doing inventory and eventually became the pack­ing and crating manager.

In 1986 we were asked to come to the Getty Villa to help move the paintings department to the Getty Ranch House. I went there with a team to help move things, and somebody who worked at Getty told me there was a job opening for an art preparator. I applied, took a 100-question test, and got the job. The test included questions like, how would you move a heavy but deli­cate marble object from a confined, tight spot to another location? Within six months of being hired I became the head of the packing team in preparations.

Why I wanted to work at Getty: When the Getty opportunity came up, I thought it would be a dream come true to be hired. Getty was developing like no other institution, and I appreciated that I would be permitted to do the best possible work I could do with the best materials. Everyone at Getty carried themselves with a completely different demeanor than I had been exposed to until then (other than my influential art professors). And of course another important reason was to stay local, due to family ties.

Most challenging project: The Stela with Queen Ix Mutal Ahaw, a relief built by the ancient Mayans, which came from the de Young Museum in San Fran­cisco for the Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA Golden Kingdoms exhibition. She was in 29 fragments of limestone, not adhered together but mounted on a steel frame eight feet tall. I called it a 1,000-pound lollipop.

After its display at the Getty Museum it needed to get to its next venue, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. We were asked to travel with the piece, and I traveled in a truck with it from LA to New York for three days. When the exhibition closed, the Met flew me and my colleague Andrew Gavenda over to repack the piece. When the packing was done, this time Andrew was the courier, so he traveled in a truck with the piece from New York to San Francisco for three days.

That project gave me the heebie-jeebies. You never know how rough the road conditions are going to be. But the main objective is to plan for what we know will happen to the piece on its journey, and for extremes—if it falls over or drops. We want the pack­ing to hold that patient together, so it goes out and comes back unchanged.

What might surprise Getty visitors: We build seismic isolators, so if there’s an earthquake, the object remains still on its pedestal. The floor can move but the object stays in place and the isolator takes the ricochet, the slack, away from the object. They’re heavy—up to 3,000 pounds.

An artwork I love to show people: The sculp­ture Saint Ginés de la Jara by Luisa Roldán, from about 1692. There is a big empty space in his robe, and we used to find pennies in there. I don’t know why people were compelled to throw coins in there. That guy was like a wishing well. But that’s one of the pieces I like to show because Roldán was the first woman sculptor recorded in Spain, and she was also appointed as a sculptor to the royal court. I just think that is so significant.

Best part of my job: I love every aspect of it. Work­ing on pieces like the Maya stela is like a toothache—you savor it and it’s painful, until they take it out. Then it’s such a relief. I like the coordination and problem-solving, I like turning on the radio and getting really dirty building a crate—then, doing the finest of handling for delicate pieces like Roman glass and fine portraits. It’s like handling a big potato chip with paint on it.