Last summer, during the third and fourth weeks of my volunteer curatorial internship at MOA, I was asked by curators Karen Duffek and Tania Willard to gather and organize documentation about all of the artworks by Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun that we would be showing in the upcoming exhibition and book, Unceded Territories.
This included everything from recording the title and size of each painting or drawing to the museum or private collection that owns it; the medium, provenance, other exhibits it was shown in; and published writings about it. This kind of information is needed to keep track of all the artworks for the curators and other museum staff involved in the project. I had to input the correct information into the spreadsheets and make sure that the photos of each artwork had the necessary credit lines for reproduction.
I searched for published photos of Yuxweluptun’s works that we could order and reprint in our own book, so that we wouldn’t have to organize photography of every one of the 60+ works that were going to be in the show. Using existing photos saves on the costs of new photography for the exhibition catalogue; these costs can include crating, shipping, and insuring works to bring them to the photographer, and then returning them to the lender. All of this generally needs to happen more than a year before an exhibit opens in order for the book to be printed in time—which means that the works then have to be shipped again—this time back to the museum for the actual exhibition.
One of the many catalogues I combed through was RED, published by the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in 2013. It was the most recent exhibition and book to feature a substantial number of Yuxweluptun’s paintings and drawings. I made a list of all the images in the catalogue, as well as the works’ source information and photo credits. Then I decided to take the initiative and contact the Eiteljorg’s registrar to ask for all of the images.
However, I soon learned that I had jumped the gun! There is a protocol to be followed by major museum and art institutions to make such requests. For one thing, it needs to be done on official MOA letterhead so it looks legit; in addition, we didn’t want ALL the Eiteljorg’s photos, only a few, and these had not yet been selected by the exhibition curators. Most importantly, I learned that such requests for photos of an artist’s work first require written permission from the artist himself, and that the other institutions won’t release the images without it. Who knew it was so complicated?!
After receiving the go-ahead on further image reproduction requests from other sources, I had to cross-reference every title, making sure it corresponded with the information in the other catalogues and lists. I went back and forth between every catalogue and book ever written about Yuxweluptun. And thankfully, despite my overzealous initial request, the registrar at the Eiteljorg was kind enough to respond to my first impetuous e-mail—and to offer their photos at no charge to MOA. Whew!
This wasn’t the end of the paperwork, either. Over the following weeks I worked on the computer, researching, cross-referencing, organizing, and copying-and-pasting a series of seemingly never-ending updates on the spreadsheets. The curators were adding and subtracting works, trying to narrow down the selection for the show and the book, owners were being identified, credit lines composed, locations confirmed, new photography arranged.
I organized and re-organized the lists of works by theme, lender, and chronological order. By doing so, it helped staff to keep track of every piece and opened up curatorial options when preparing for the exhibition floorplan. With thirteen columns in the spreadsheet for each row, this made for major computer eye squint…
I was becoming excelled-out. But I’ve learned that this kind of drudgery underlies all exhibitions; it’s largely unseen, but the project can’t happen without it. I guess curatorial work isn’t all glamour!