One of the most important invisible jobs at a museum is that of the preparator: the person who takes the art out of the crate it comes in and hangs it on the wall. Or, just as likely, dangles it from the ceiling, or lays it out on the floor, or puts it together out of the twenty pieces it came in. Preparators build walls to divide big spaces into smaller spaces, put up wallpaper, build pedestals, hang lights, make computers run video clips, and, perhaps most important of all, ensure that artists know their work is being well taken care of. The head preparator is the person who oversees all of it, orchestrating an infinity of details, staying on budget despite unforeseen obstacles, and making sure the show opens on time no matter what.
Last month, ICA’s long-time head preparator, Shannon Bowser, moved to New York to take a job at the New Museum. On one of her last days in Philadelphia, barely a week before ICA’s fall shows opened, she sat down with me and talked about the job, what she’d miss, and what she’ll remember.
There’s no training program for preparators. Shannon went to art school, where she studied sculpture, and she learned the preparator’s art on the job at her first gallery gig for Larry Becker Contemporary Art. She got hired on the ICA crew in 1999 and became head preparator a few years later when the position opened up. “We’ve never not been in time for opening,” she says, though sometimes they are sweeping out the last dust as the first visitors walk in.
What’s the most important thing a preparator needs to know?
“Take it slow when handling the art.” Indeed I never saw Shannon looking rushed or impatient, though surely she must have been sometimes. She never broke any art work, or was in charge when any art got broken, though she saw her share of that elsewhere.
What was the hardest project she had to build?
Fertilizers: Olin/Eisenman, in 2006, a huge installation that had to be built in two weeks from architectural blueprints—a new language for her.
She also told me about rehanging scores of small paintings by an artist who decided they were all hung a quarter inch too high. But when she talked about Barry Le Va, she got excited.
For the 2005 Barry Le Va survey, Accumulated Vision, ICA recreated a seminal work involving a lot of broken glass. A so-called scatter artist, Le Va would lay a big sheet of plate glass on the floor, and then he would pick up a sledge hammer and smash it. Then he’d do it again, and again. Then, the preparators got to do it.
Another Le Va piece involved shooting bullets (bullets!) into the gallery wall. A lot of permissions had to be gathered before this could happen, and the preparators didn’t get to pull the trigger, but they did get to do a lot of stuff to prepare the wall so that the integrity of the building wouldn’t be compromised. A cop was brought in, and he shot five times. “You can’t even describe how loud it was,” Shannon says. “It was physically thrilling.” After the show opened, La Va bought each crew member a bottle of champagne.
Like most preparators, Shannon is an artist herself. These days she works mostly in cast concrete and in watercolor, and she runs a custom fabrication business on the side. She showed most recently at Parlor Gallery in Lancaster last January, and you can see her beautiful sculpture and her custom furniture and doors at her website, www.shannonbowser.com.
ICA is a small museum, and our head preparator job is part-time. This is great for an artist in some ways and bad in others. I’m happy for Shannon that she’s working full-time at a big museum now, but I worry about her own art, where she’ll find the time for it. Of course, many of the artists whose work she hung over the years at ICA still had day jobs too. It takes a lot of energy, will, and persistence to live like that for as long as it takes to break through, for the few who do break through. This is just how it is, but it’s worth remembering.
At ICA we’ll remember Shannon for a long time. When I asked around the museum, these are a few things people said came to mind when they thought of her:
“Grace under pressure. Shannon always seemed very steady to me, even if installation was overwhelming and not steady. Nothing seemed too difficult.”
“It was to Shannon’s keen eye and calm demeanor that I would turn in those curatorial moments of installation indecision. As a sculptor, she had an artist’s affinity for objects in space and as a longtime colleague at ICA, she knew the galleries well. Of all the many installations we worked on, it was the Barry Le Va exhibition cemented our bond! The show was challenging–with bullets fired into the wall and major installations of Barry’s process art to realize and reconstruct—and Barry can be gruff. His admiration for Shannon and her crew, as shared by so many artists over the years, is one of ICA’s greatest tributes.”
“Her calm and her creativity.”
“Shannon can wrangle a team of men like nobody’s business.”
“I always told Shannon I could see her with her own show on HGTV. She is all about the details and fine craftsmanship, and of course cool sneaks and Tees! It’s amazing how on top of each project she was, always managing to be on budget without compromising the end product. She always had a calm way whether it was dealing with difficult vendors, or when it was getting close to an opening.”
“Six years ago we had several candidates for our Chief Preparator position. The job is an arduous one with many angles. At an art opening, Shannon Bowser sat next to me in a dark video room and told me, ‘I can do that job better than anyone.’ No one else being considered had said that to me, and at first it gave me pause. Here was a woman eager and driven to take on a job dominated by men. We gave her that chance, and she flourished. Our work at the ICA became instantly easier as she took command of the installations. Shannon often had uphill battles: colorful artists, skin-tight budgets, urgent deadlines, and working as a woman in a construction-oriented job. In too many instances to count, a contractor or artist would look me right in the eye and ask an important question about the installation. I would point to Shannon and say, “Talk to the boss.” Shannon loved that and was always able to quickly gain their confidence with her problem-solving and assured demeanor. After the first set of shows whose installation she oversaw, she turned to me at the opening dinner, held up her glass of wine, and said, ‘I told you I could do this job.’ I won’t forget that moment, or all of the other times Shannon made things fantastic at the ICA. We all miss her but wish her well in her big job in the Big Apple.”