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Balancing Act

It takes a keen eye and lots of creativity to mount a museum exhibit

It takes a keen eye and lots of creativity to mount a museum exhibit

June 06, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

Amy Metzger, Paul Morgan and Tanya Ziniewicz enter the bowels of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in search of a painting ... and the iron guy.

Iron guy is Iron Man, a polychrome steel and wood sculpture by Martinsburg, W.Va., artist Charles Mortensen and the last of 83 works to be wheeled into the Groh Gallery in anticipation of the 70th Annual Cumberland Valley Artists Exhibition.

Question is, does the stone base Iron Man has been set upon complete the sculpture, or is it an inconsequential companion of the colorful - and heavy - piece.

Metzger, associate curator, consults a slide. The verdict: Stone or not, the thick, gray slab is part of Iron Man.

"I'll grab it," she says on the way to carry it the few hundred feet into art space.

"No you won't," Morgan, a volunteer, responds.

"Is it that heavy?"

"Yes."

She lifts it anyway and leads the way back to the gallery, where the trio's work is just beginning.

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Anyone who thinks museum exhibits require no more preparation than a slapdash hanging of canvases should try Metzger's shoes on for size.

Part evaluator of artwork, part engineer, part construction worker, she is an artist in her own right.

Her flushed cheeks betray the notion that installing a show mimics the quiet serenity of a visit to the City Park museum.

"What I've found," she says, "is people seem to think working in a museum is a relaxing, pleasant experience. It is very relaxing, it is very pleasant, but we rarely have time to stop and enjoy that.

"A lot of the time we feel more like a construction worker than a museum employee because you're covered in dust, cleaning frames and you never know what's going to happen."

In the next three days, Metzger, Morgan and new intern Ziniewicz will work to arrange this exhibit so that it's pleasing to the eye. But right now, it is a mish-mash of canvases and sculptures laid pell-mell around the Groh Gallery.

Each of the 73 art works face gallery walls. It's as if they'd each done something so bad it warranted banishment to a corner.

Really, though, it's a functional necessity, as the trio wrap braided picture wire into loops affixed onto each canvas to hang them from gallery walls.

Tedious work, for sure, but it makes way for the fun part, a three-dimensional puzzle where form, function, subject and color each determine which pieces will interlock with one another.

"I just wander around the room staring at things, just moving things all around," Metzger says. "And I'll change my mind and move it all back again."

This is among the busiest days of Metzger's year. The morning was spent disassembling a showing of Washington County schools artwork - nearly 1,000 pieces, a quarter of which still occupies a quadrant of the gallery.

Combined with the volume of Cumberland Valley pieces awaiting installation, the curator relies on Morgan and Ziniewicz to take care of this project in time.

In her first museum internship, Cleveland Institute of Art student Ziniewicz looks forward to the hands-on experience that begins with today's installation.

"It's about what I figured it would be," she says while twisting wire and attaching it to a canvas. "You have to think about how it's going to make people feel to receive one piece before another. ... It definitely takes a special eye."

Assembling a show requires more than making sure all pieces are level. Dark paintings don't necessarily mesh with light. Too many paintings of similar size become stagnant and tend to bore the viewer. Similarly, too many still lifes or portraits or landscapes lumped together can disengage the viewer.

Metzger's job is to mix it all up, creating vibrant walls with a variety of styles and sizes to keep the viewer engaged. Museum Director Jean Woods calls installation a balancing act, where a keen eye and creative mind can create dynamic exhibits that pop off gallery walls.

"It's like you were decorating a room. You might not want to put something chartreuse and orange together whereas you could use complementary colors," Woods says. "On the other hand, if you have a show that is abstract and the artist uses extremely bright colors, brilliant colors and is known for that, that may be exactly what you want to do. Push those colors together because they're trying to stimulate you, get you to think."

When the room looks complete - every painting at eye level, every sculpture properly mounted - Metzger retreats to the doorway for one last test.

From her vantage point at the gallery entrance, no work can block her view of another. If they do, she goes back to tinker with placement until all sight lines are unimpeded.

"Even once I decide I like where it is, I still have to shift a little bit because sometimes it just doesn't work," Metzger says.

Still, as intensive as the work can be, it's a fun job.

"It's a lot of fun," she says. "I really enjoy seeing works by all these artists."

And when it comes down at the end of July? She'll start the whole process again.

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