• Hiring Art Handling Staff or Building a Perfect Monster

    Presented at the PACIN Workshop on May 5, 2005 in Indianapolis, Indiana
    by Richard Hinson

    When we need to hire new staff, for most of us in the art handling business, experienced art handlers are hard to find. My experience has taught me that art handlers are created, not found. Like Victor Frankenstein did with his creation, we have to find the most qualified, best candidates for the job and piece by piece create an art handler. Sometimes the best candidate is someone with no former art handling experience.

    What do you look for in new hires? How do you train someone with no experience working in a museum or gallery? Where do you find the resources needed to properly train your staff? Do you train within the institution or out? At what point is the training over? Should you train your employees to work on specific areas or the entire collection? How often should you retrain your staff?

    Some of these questions will need to be answered by you. What are your specific needs and how do they apply to you? I’d like to discuss these questions with you and give you some of my experiences with the problem of finding and training qualified staff.

    Hopefully, after my discussion, you will have some answers that will tame the monster known as hiring new Preparations staff.

    1. What do you look for in new hires?
    When I need to hire new staff, I try to find a candidate with lots of job experience.

    Do they know how to drive a truck? One of the requirements for employment in our department is a driver’s license and a willingness to learn how to drive our truck. Currently, one of my staff doesn’t have a driver’s license. I have excused this because he has other skills that some of my other staff don’t possess. He is very skilled at electrical wiring, something that has come in handy on more than one occasion when we have a new accession with electrical components. But, his lack of a driver’s license has been more than just inconvenient on several occasions.

    Have they ever worked with heavy equipment? Knowing how to rig an object for lifting is a very useful skill for my staff. Lifting heavy objects for installation within the museum or outside in our sculpture garden is something that is happening with greater regularity at the museum.

    Do they have carpentry skills? At the museum we out-source all of our new travel crates, but we do a lot of retro-fitting of old crates for storage and travel, we sometimes need to design cleats or some other type of hanging apparatus for objects needing special care, and we usually build all of our own storage crates for the permanent collection.

    All of these activities require some carpentry skills. Are they artists and what medium do they work in? Being artists, they should have a heightened sensibility to handling art, but this isn’t always true. Other than Curators, who handles art more cavalierly than an artist? I have found that sculptors have the greatest awareness when it comes to handling delicate objects.

    A new hire needs some basic hand tool skills: saws, drills, screw guns, hammers, wrenches, sockets and ratchets. I try to ask them questions in the initial interview that reflect they know how to use these tools. If they say they know how to use these tools, and they usually do, I ask them questions that give me an idea how much experience they have. Do they do their own auto repair?

    Sometimes we get candidates that have worked for other art shipping companies in our region. If they tell me they have had crate building experience, I ask where they built the crates and for what kinds of objects. I try to ask enough questions to find out if they really know how to use tools or just know of them. Knowing what a hammer drill or pneumatic nail gun is doesn’t mean they know how to use them.

    As all of you here know, handling museum objects is a delicate business requiring a great deal of patience. In the initial interview with a potential new hire, I ask a lot of questions. Usually each question I ask spurs several others along the same lines. The more relaxed the candidate is during the interview, or the interrogation as one of my staff puts it, the easier it is to read their patience level. If they seem nervous, and many candidates do, I recommend we take a break, walk around the department, look at the activities, meet a few of the staff working there, and take a short break. I try not to intimidate the candidate by keeping the interview casual and friendly.

    Sometimes a candidate for a new hire can come from the most unlikely background. People working in the food service industry are accustomed to working within a deadline every day. Meeting deadlines and working with others to achieve a common goal are important qualities sometimes overlooked when compared to how much art handling experience a candidate has.

    Accepting the fact that, in most instances, we have to create our art handlers, finding a candidate with a good work ethic is a great beginning.

    2. How do you train your staff?
    What I do at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is let the new hire work with one of our Senior Preparators.

    We have three Senior Preparators working on our staff. Each one of them has more seniority than the rest of our staff and much more experience working with our collection. I meet with them prior to the start date for the new hire, explain that I want them to work with the new employee, and give them as much background as they need to properly train this new staff member.

    When the new hire shows up on his/her first day, I introduce them to the Senior Preparator they will be working with and make sure they understand they are not to work independently of the Senior Preparator unless that Preparator has instructed them to do so. The Senior Preparator not only teaches the new employee how to handle art, they also guide them through the maze of internal workings of the museum and show them how to make things happen, in spite of the people who constantly thwart our every move. I try to keep these two together for a month or so, checking daily on the new employee’s progress, dealing with any problems the Senior Preparator feels should be addressed, and this is extremely important, to reinforce the Senior Preparator that he/she is doing a good job working with this new employee.

    I’m also sensitive to the fact that under these circumstances, the Senior Preparator is subject to burn-out. It’s hard to be “on” all the time. When a complicated job comes up requiring the experience of one of our Senior Preparators, I assign the responsibility to one of the other Senior Preparators, allowing this one to work with the new employee and not have double-duty to meet the deadline for the job and keep an eye on the new hire and everyone else working on the project. Letting the Senior Preparator have a break from the training for a day or so every now and then also helps to prevent burn-out.

    I also like to have a Preparations Staff meeting every two weeks. I present new monthly calendars and any up-dates of schedule changes, assign responsibilities, and keep my staff informed about what is going on in the museum. Since I have a captive audience, I use this time to train and retrain my staff. I do this in several ways. I will assign one of the Preparators to do a report on how to handle a particular kind of object, such as works-on-paper, small 3-d objects, or paintings. I try to coincide this with whatever big exhibition is coming up in the near future. For example, if it’s a painting exhibition, the report should be about properly handling paintings. They are required to give a short, 15-minute talk and demonstration on how to handle these objects. They are free to use anyone at the staff meeting to help with the demonstration and all of the resources of our department.

    I personally assist the Preparator assemble current information and encourage them to make drawings and diagrams to help with their presentation. This not only shifts the burden of constantly training my staff myself, but also helps the Preparators learn where they can find resources for handling objects in the collection and reinforces what all of the staff should know about handling a particular kind of object.

    When time is more critical, such as during a very busy installation/deinstallation schedule, I sometimes use the “Preventive Conservation in Museums” videotapes from the Canadian Conservation Institute. They are excellent VHS format tapes on art handling. There are 19 tapes in the series and cover such topics as, “Packing and Transporting of Museum Objects”, “Storage”, The Care of Paintings”, “The Care of Textiles”, “The Care of Works-On-Paper” to name just a few. They were produced in 1995 and are the most comprehensive collection of tapes on museum practices that I’ve seen. They are also expensive, but are worth the cost in the time it will save you when retraining your staff. I asked the Library here at the Museum to purchase them for us several years ago. Maybe you could do the same?

    When my budget will allow it, I try to send at least one of my staff to the Campbell Center for Historic Studies in Mount Carroll, Illinois. They have a great curriculum covering many subjects on art handling that will be valuable to you and your staff. John Molini from the Art Institute of Chicago teaches a “Packing and Crating Workshop” that every art handler from every museum or gallery in the country should attend. Look up the Campbell Center on the internet for a schedule of courses.

    I also like to send my staff to any regional workshops or conferences offered that I feel will benefit the staff and department. The Texas Association of Museums offers workshops and an annual conference. Whenever I can, I try to send someone from my staff to the TAM Conference. The cost is lower, compared to AAM and the Campbell Center, because it’s much closer to Houston. Sometimes it’s even offered in Houston.

    Another way I train my staff is to share as much information about why something should be done a certain way instead of just telling them how it should be done. Explaining why the Oz Clips should be attached to the painting a certain way usually means I won’t have to explain it every time we put Oz Clips on a painting. I’ve got a bright group of people on my staff and usually one explanation is all it takes. This has a trickle down effect. I don’t claim to know everything, even though I’ve been accused of acting like I do, and don’t have a problem with one of my staff showing me a better or safer way to do something.

    Taking advice and listening to what my staff has to say sets a good example for the Senior Preparators. Most of the time, they are the ones in the galleries doing the work while I’m in the office or attending a meeting. The Senior Preparators are my eyes and ears out in the museum. Setting a good example for them is one of the best ways I know to keep them alert and paying attention to what’s going on around them.

    3. Where do you find the resources to train your staff?
    Unfortunately, most of the training your staff is going to get will be hands-on working with your collection. Not the best scenario for training, but with care and guidance, it can be done.

    The PACIN website offers some art handling information in the form of articles on various subjects. The PACIN ListServe offers you the opportunity to ask questions that people from all over the country can respond to and is an incredible resource for you. Get on the ListServe and ask a question and see what happens.

    The American Institute for Conservation has a website with a great deal of useful information under the heading “Caring for Your Treasures”.

    Do a Google search or go to Amazon.com and enter “Preventive Conservation” and see what turns up.

    At the end of this article there are some book titles I pulled from my personal stash and there are many, many more. Look up one of these titles on Amazon.com. When it comes up on the opening page it will say “people who bought this book also bought this...” or something like that, and will give you several other titles with a similar subject. There are lots of resources out there; you just have to look for them.

    4. How long is the training process?
    We currently have over 70,000 objects in our care and the collection is growing every day. This growth in our collection brings new objects with new art handling challenges.

    Contemporary artists are using new materials in unconventional ways that create new storage and handling issues. Conservation learns of new materials or how old ones need to be used differently for storage and transit. Because of this, I don’t think the training process ever ends. I consider the training period for my full-time staff to be about one year. It usually takes a full year for me to gain enough confidence in their abilities.

    Fortunately for me, I have a helpful Conservation Department and Conservation Director at my disposal that shares information freely. They understand that many of the problems with objects in our collection, those that require some form of Conservation, are brought to their attention because the Preparations Department discovered it during unpacking, installing, or storing the objects. Helping us to understand the needs of the collection benefits them and the museum. Whenever possible, I ask a Conservator to join our staff meetings to share their ideas and teach us to be a better department.

    5. Cross-training or specific areas?
    The collection at the MFA,H is encyclopedic. We have nine buildings with art displayed or stored in them spread out over a three mile radius from the two main museum buildings. We have in our collection paintings, works-on-paper, large and small sculptures located both indoors and out, textiles that include everything from room sized rugs to costumes, ceramics, glass objects, jewelry, and more.

    Everyone on my staff needs to know how to handle each of these kinds of objects because they may be working in a different building with an entirely different collection from one day to the next. Cross-training is the only way we train at the MFA,H. This kind of training takes the longest, requires a large investment in time and resources, and mandates constant follow-up to see that both new employees and full-time staff are handling the collection appropriately and are making good decisions about its care. Depending on the size and scope of your collection, cross-training may not be necessary.

    6. Train and retrain?
    Training your staff properly is essential to safeguard the collection and prevent injuries. Retraining your staff is also essential to prevent accidents happening to the collection. Everyone on my staff knows how to properly handle paintings, but I still bring the CCI VHS tape on the “Care of Paintings” to a staff meeting for everyone to view, including myself. Or, I will ask one of them to do a report on properly handling paintings. To say these activities are greeted with a lack of enthusiasm is a gross understatement, but by doing this regularly, it reinforces what they already know and helps them make the right decisions when I’m not around.

    Part of your training and retraining program should include written art handling guidelines and protocols. Always give new hires a permanent copy of the written guidelines. And ask them to read them. When objects get damaged at your institution, use these as examples of where the guidelines failed and implement new protocols to prevent a repeat of the damage. Ask any of your Conservators to review the guidelines and help rewrite them where needed. Make sure all of your staff gets up-dated copies of any new or revised guidelines. Never miss an opportunity to review your art handling procedures and implement new protocols. As your collection expands, so should your art handling guidelines. Make sure all of your art handlers and any other staff that handle art, such as Curators and Curatorial Assistants, have been given a written copy of the guidelines.

    The moral of this story is simple. When looking to hire new staff, always try to find the best candidate you can. Don’t limit yourself to just finding people with art handling experience. Look for bright, intelligent people with as much employment diversity as possible. Limiting your candidate search to only people with art handling experience will be frustrating and tedious. Use the interview process to learn as much about the candidate as possible. Ask as many questions as you can to get the information you need to make a decision about whether this candidate will be a good employee. Train the new hire as best you can for as long as you can. Use all of the resources available to you, including your full-time staff, to train your new hires. Produce written art handling guidelines and review them regularly. Include your staff in the review process and use this as a retraining activity. Retrain. Retrain. Retrain. By being diligent, and merciless, with your training and retraining program, hopefully, you will be able to build the staff you need and unlike Victor Frankenstein, not have to worry about the monster throwing you off the windmill.