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Museums Get Virtual Help To Have Artwork Delivered During The Pandemic

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When the pandemic forced museums around the world to go dark, a lot of people working in them either lost their jobs or had to suddenly work under very different circumstances. With exhibitions either canceled or postponed, the network of people who helped get artwork safely from their owners to museum walls were suddenly left with nothing to do. But as Andrea Shea of member station WBUR reports, some art professionals are still able to find ways to do their job with a little virtual help.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: Contemporary art curator Liz Munsell feels really lucky that most of the 120 borrowed works in her exhibition about painter Jean-Michel Basquiat made it to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston before the museum shut down last March.

LIZ MUNSELL: When the pandemic began here in the U.S., it was impossible to move anything. We didn't know about the future of the art shipping industry.

SHEA: That industry is huge, highly secure and completely invisible to museum-goers, says Los Angeles-based collections manager Jacqueline Cabrera.

JACQUELINE CABRERA: They don't realize it took a year of legalese, negotiations, fabricating the crate, you know, all this stuff to just get that one painting onto that wall.

SHEA: Managing all of that is Jill Kennedy Kernohan's job. She's the MFA's head registrar and the one who got all of those Basquiat's onto the MFA's walls. Before the pandemic, art was often escorted every step of the way by a courier, which could be a hired expert, curator or a registrar from another museum.

JILL KENNEDY KERNOHAN: Couriers used to ride on the trucks. They're not allowed in the trucks anymore. You know, we used to have follow cars, and the couriers would ride in the follow car. They don't want to do that anymore. It's too close contact for too long a period of time. Many of the flights that we would have normally used to get objects here have been canceled.

SHEA: These days, when works arrive at the MFA Boston, Kernohan and her colleagues rely on a virtual courier during installation.

KERNOHAN: It's kind of odd. It feels like having a robot or something in the room with us, but it's been working pretty well.

SHEA: The robot is actually an iPad attached at eye level to a tripod on wheels. Kernohan rolls it around the galleries while talking on Zoom with registrars and couriers on the other end.

KERNOHAN: They watch us unpack. They can consult with the conservator about the condition report. And then they watch us as we put it up on the walls. It's a whole new world for registrars right now (laughter).

SHEA: While photographs and detailed reports on a piece's condition before and after its journey help, Jacqueline Cabrera, who's also a contract courier and registrar herself, says it's challenging to do such visual work from a distance.

CABRERA: What you see with the naked eye versus a camera can be quite different. If you're not certain about something, we will ask that person to kind of put that iPad right up to that painting. But that's the compromise that our people are doing right now. They understand the restrictions.

SHEA: Cabrera says the costs of transporting art have long been some of the highest in exhibition budgets. Those have been slashed because museums have lost millions in ticket revenue throughout the pandemic. Shows have been canceled or postponed. Staff members have been laid off. Now, instead of borrowing, Cabrera sees more institutions looking inward, as she says they should.

CABRERA: There's been plenty of Picasso exhibitions for the last decade. So pull out that obscure artist who you might have a nice holding of and highlight that in your collection.

SHEA: The collection at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts includes more than 450,000 objects, troves of which visitors rarely see. MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum acknowledges it's more cost-effective and efficient to develop and execute a show with what you already have.

MATTHEW TEITELBAUM: You don't have to go halfway around the world to select a work of art. On the other hand - I'm going to say it over and over again - you still have to create a compelling narrative, and you have to be convinced that you have the objects to tell that story.

SHEA: In ways that will attract much-needed visitors to museums as they try to recover. Boston's MFA hopes to reopen again later this month. Courier Jacqueline Cabrera predicts things will continue to be rough for her and the others involved in getting precious paintings from one place to another. But she's hopeful.

CABRERA: I'm so looking forward to traveling again and seeing my colleagues around the world.

SHEA: For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.