A Pleasant Chat with Brett Angell
Last April my dear friend Linda Markarian invited me to the “Make / Speak” event at The North Bennet Street School which was billed as “Seven takes on craft, Seven presentations, Seven minutes each.” So off we trundled to find out what this was all about. Since last I went to NBS School they had pulled up the tent pegs from their old spot on North Bennet Street and beat a hasty retreat around the corner to spiffy new digs at 150 North Street. That was a wee bit mystifying for me so if you are headed over there Google the place first to avoid confusion. Once the proceedings got underway and I was listening to Brett Angell talk about his job at The Museum of Fine Arts Boston, making exhibition mounts for the art objects, I was hooked.
Brett at “Make / Speak,” North Bennet Street School
My first glimpse of Brett Angell was enough to tell me, I wanna hear all about this guy. Brett is a towering presence; his handsome chiseled face has the far-away gaze of a regal hawk. At the lecture he was decked out in a “dancing skull” sports coat, designer jeans and a glorious pair of, do I remember correctly – yellow? wing tipped shoes. Brett stood at the podium of the new Windgate Gallery of the North Bennet Street School at the “Make Speak” event and held his audience in thrall. Who knew that hanging a ton of antique silver off a twenty foot wall would be so complicated or involve such precision skill? Brett knew and he made his story gripping. He told us all about the process he and his staff of skilled craftspeople went through to make, by hand, all the required armatures and fixtures to secure this spectacular treasure to the wall of the new European Gallery at the MFA.
Huguenot Silver Trophy at MFA
At the reception after the presentations I asked him if I might visit with him at the MFA and chat about the complexities of museum display craft and his profession in general and he graciously consented to meet with me. But because of his national and international work schedule our meeting became more eventual than immediate. I have added to this time delay with my own travels and procrastinations but the man is an engaging speaker and what he does fascinates me so I have persisted and finally transcribe our conversation which I now offer to you.
Before I recount our conversation, let me mention that Brett is an accomplished painter and collage sculptor. You will get what I mean by taking a quick peek at his web site where you will see that on top of being a meticulous craftsman and prolific artist, the guy’s a real “Dude,” in the best of ways.
A sampling of Brett’s collages
“As Senior Exhibitions Preparator at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Brett Angell has installed over 85 exhibitions and has traveled extensively to install the museum’s traveling shows including to the MFA’s sister museum in Japan. In addition to preparator he is the chief mount maker and orchestrated the mount designs for the installation of the new Art of the America’s Wing. Angell has previously worked at the Walker Art Center and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. He is also a practicing artist whose artwork is represented locally by Gallery Kayafas and is in the collections of the Chazen Museum of Art, Springfield Art Museum and the Sioux City Art Center.”
Above Quoted from NBS School, web site
So here we go, I have let Brett speak for himself, slicing out my inquiries as superfluous to his eloquence. But just to put you in the know, we met in the grand European painting gallery at The Museum of Fine Arts Boston where there is an incomparable array of glorious paintings and an extravagant display of Imperial silver enhanced by lordly tapestries, all magnificently displayed in a lofty hall.
Grand European Paintings Gallery at MFA
Brett: “This gallery has marble walls covered partially with fabric. The fabric is attached to wooden stretchers that are bolted to the marble, filled with cotton batting and covered with beautiful crimson silk damask. We did tests to explore the structure of the wall with a hammer drill and discovered that behind the marble is empty space of approximately six to eight inches and beyond the space there is masonry. From this we could figure out how to make our mounts. To mount all of these pieces, which, as you can imagine are heavy, we had to secure each of them to the wall even though it looks like some of them are sitting on shelves, those are only a decorative illusion. We design and custom make most of the mounts used in the exhibits throughout the MFA in our laboratory work- shop upstairs.
The Mount Shop at MFA
The silver plates are held with clips that have three prongs. There are two little clips on the bottom and one clip on the top that goes in by gravity. These hold the object in place although we also put in set screws too, just to be safe. The clips are joined to an armature behind the object that screws into a metal stem which is the part that is attached to the wall through all the layers.
When we did this we went up on a lift with a hammer drill, once the designers and curators had decided where they wanted the objects placed. We drilled into the marble and masonry wall so the stem is held in two places by the marble and the masonry. We were able to use a small enough bit so that the fit is tight and it’s not going to pop out. That was enough to hold the pieces in. We had to have engineers look at the over-all situation beforehand because we were worried about the marble’s strength. They had to figure out if the combined weight of the all the shelves and objects would cave in the marble but they decided that it was structurally sound.
The ewers, urns and candle sticks have clips at various points and underneath there’s a piece a plexi cut to the shape of their foot so that if someone did try jimmy it off and take it, the object would be secure because you have that form underneath that is attached to the clips and the whole mount is then screwed into the wall, so essentially it is being clamped into place. We do tons of color matching to make the clips look like the material they are holding. Here we have matched the silver, the red damask on the wall and the all the rest. The clips are made of brass which is braised with solder using a torch and then we prime it to seal it and then we carefully color match it with acrylic paints to match it to the object. We also clear coat it to protect the artwork and underneath, not intended to be seen, is padding, to further protect the object, so there is no abrasive contact.
These kinds of clips are a common design but we often have to come up with our own design, for instance the trumpets. We made the mounts fully articulating because what often happens is that the curators have an idea of what they want it to look like, but you can’t just make a fixed mount because then there’s no flexibility when you get into the gallery. The mounts we made for the trumpets move in all directions, right and left, up and down, and in and out. It did end up that Malcolm (Rodgers,) the Director, wanted it angled up and away from the wall to animate the display a little more.
Generally the Director will come in during the installation but he usually lets the designer and curator do what has been previously discussed and what he himself has approved. When he joins us he’ll often have good suggestions like, “Let’s move this here or change that.” And I’d say probably 90% of the time his suggestions are really good and absolutely enhance the design. And sometimes he comes in and doesn’t change it at all. It’s his prerogative, obviously, because he is the director of the museum and he has a certain vision of how he wants everything to look. But he’ll come in and say maybe, “this is too close” or “maybe this could be moved over” and sometimes, as I said about the trumpets, he’ll say, “you know, what if we angle this away from the wall a little.” We just try to please him, and the curators and the designers.
Brett, did I mention the tattoos?
The shelves that appear to be holding the drums are hollow inside. They actually have a metal structure that attaches to bolts that are embedded into the wall and the shelf that you see slides over that, it is just decorative. The thing that is actually holding the weight is a steel armature. When you have an object the size and weight of these silver drums or these larger ewers and urns, they need stronger support. We have a conservation engineer that does those things. Because when you use steel you need a high amount of heat and special tools with elaborate equipment to handle the weight and size of installation. My team consists of myself and two people so we don’t deal with these issues. We create mounts that are table size or smaller, being able to hold small objects or maybe one hundred or a hundred and thirty pounds. Some of the larger component parts, such as the steel shelf, can be fabricated by outside contractors but mostly it is done here by the museum staff.
You’re only seeing part of what is going on here and obviously it is not important for the viewer to even know that. Here (Brett points the legs of a large silver drum) we had to make three little opposing clips that grab the legs and then again, to hide it, we had to have the metal follow the contour of the object behind to hide the mount. The goal for us, for our mounts, is to make them disappear. We always joke that if we do our job right no one will ever know anything’s there. In essence it looks like you didn’t do anything even though it’s holding all these things.
This collection of Huguenot silver had been in storage for some time so the curators wanted to show it. And one of the important concepts that Malcolm (Rodgers, MFA Director) has for the museum is to integrate all the arts. So we don’t just have a painting, sculpture or decorative gallery. He wants to bring things together from similar periods and revive how these artworks would have been displayed originally which they learned from careful research, including the silver and these tapestry panels. It’s great to have the silver and paintings with their gold frames against the silk damask framed by the tapestries and further enhanced by the marble and coffered ceiling. The design and intention of the curators and the director was to embellish the room to the fullest degree to equal the importance of the MFA’s collections.
There were about 50 people working to create this display. Writing and printing the labels, deciding what information and images are to be in the labels, the carpenters to construct and install all these things, the people who did the fabric, my whole team to design, construct mounts and install the pieces, the technicians to coat the silver and many more. I really enjoy the process. In the beginning we meet as a team to discuss the issues like, “can we display all of this silver, can we display it this way, and does it make sense curatorially?” Then the different people who are experts in their fields can weigh in and from that, we can decide if there are any changes that need to be made to the display design, or can we go ahead. Although there are challenges for my team, we rarely ever say we can’t do it, I’d say 98% of the time we’ll figure out some way to make the mounts to meet the display needs.
I’m a museum nerd so when I go to other cities I always go to museums. And, of course, doing what I do, I love to see how other museums do their thing. And sometimes I get new ideas and sometimes I think, “we do that better” but every museums does things differently. At the MFA we have a lot of human resources; a lot of other museums don’t have as many people working for them. So we are able to do a lot more. I’ve worked in museums where you have to do multiple tasks, I’ve had to hang the sheet-rock, apply the mud, paint the walls and even do the eventual demo. But at the MFA with our huge budget and extensive staff, we are all specialized so we can get a lot done with the highest quality results. A lot of it is about money. It costs money to do these things.
Every two years there’s a mount maker’s conference started by the mount makers at the Getty Villa in LA about 8 years ago. It’s a two day seminar where we share freely with each other. The first day the participants give presentations and the second day we have poster presentations where people can come up and ask questions. It’s been fantastic because not only do we meet the technicians of our field but we are also establishing a data base so when any one of our members has a question we can just throw it out there by email and another member will come back with what kinds of materials to use or what possible solutions they have used.
Before I started at the MFA I didn’t have any idea that mount making was even a job. Now I’ve been doing this for the ten years. When I was in graduate school in Milwaukee I worked in a frame shop that happened to do a lot of work for museums. There I learned how to do archival framing which is technically specific. Then in Minneapolis I got a job at the Walker Institute where I worked in their frame shop.
We were dealing with a lot of two dimensional work. When I came here I started working with three dimensional objects. I didn’t have my current position at first. I was what we call a “Collections Care Person” handling and moving art. I kept at it and worked my way in and eventually did projects I was more interested in. My predecessor saw my enthusiasm and started teaching me about mount making. This was a point when the museum was getting so busy that she needed help and they created a position for me to be her assistant and I did that for quite a few years. Eventually she was offered a fantastic job at Harvard and I bumped up and took her position. She was super supportive and still is, since she is just across the river.”
“Tenuous – Alliance” Brent’s Art