Editor’s Note: ‘Backstage Heroes’ spotlights the many movers and shakers working behind the arts scenes to make magic happen in the Bay Area. Guiding us is Hiya Swanhuyser, a veteran fan and all-around culture vulture who for nearly a decade helmed calendar duties for the SF Weekly, giving her rare personal insight into those toiling in the wings, but rarely in the spotlight.
You never see them. They’re like janitors, or stagehands, or elves. And Charlene Tan is one of them.
Tan is an art preparator -- she physically hangs art on museum walls. Among many, many other duties, that is, and in addition to her own art practice. Like many working artists, the SF Art Institute graduate handles other people’s art as her day job, creating by hand the experiences that allow viewers to focus on the art, not the wall. And then she disappears.
“We actually have to scurry!” she says, laughing. “During the install, curators or artists come in, we place something, and then we have to get away, visually. Literally, like ‘shoosh!’” She mimes a hand waving critters away. “We’re like glamorous art cockroaches.”
The element of art preparatorship that captures my attention is that Tan gets to touch the art. For most of us, it’s just the opposite. “When you see artwork, it’s very static. It doesn’t move, and you’re not supposed to touch it,” Tan tells me as we make our way carefully through the half-finished Body Talk exhibition in the Gatehouse Gallery at di Rosa, the immense art preserve between Sonoma and Napa.
A group show featuring several Bay Area artists, Body Talk looks good, but of course it’s hard to tell, mid-installation. A large salmon-colored woven fabric piece is partially unraveled on the floor with a blue packing blanket beneath it, and several wall works have wads of plastic bag protecting the white paint beneath them. Amy Owen, the curator, greets us and asks Tan to check on the video art again. From inside the space’s video room, Tan monitors the screen. “How about now?” Owen asks from the main room. “Nope, still nothing,” Tan says, futzing with a control console.
As a curator, Owen knows Tan's multifaceted role well. "Preparators assist in the handling and installation of works of art," Owen says, "including a wide range of varied tasks: general preparation of the gallery space -- spackling, sanding, painting -- packing and unpacking objects, hanging and deinstalling artworks, fabricating exhibition furniture, installing exhibition graphics and labels, lighting, cleaning, and generally working directly with artists and curators to realize their vision in the exhibition space."
It also includes troubleshooting video installations like this one, "Shoulder Babies," a new commissioned work by brothers Christian and Kevin Nagler that eventually flickers to life. "The pool of skilled preparators in the Bay Area is primarily based in the city center," Owen says. "So we're always grateful to establish relationships with folks who are willing and able to make the journey to get involved in bringing our projects to life."
Tan is a tall, dramatic woman, and today sports a chic white minidress and enormous sunglasses. It’s a hot day in Napa County’s Carneros valley, in the hundred-degree range. “I’m installing art in a dress,” Tan texted me earlier. “Never happens.”
But even if she’s not in her usual costume, she retains a sense of control and ease among the chaos. I wonder if that confidence flows automatically from getting to touch the art.
“I’ll drive you up to the residence,” she says. As we leave the gallery, I notice a tour group led by a woman in a visor hat around the center, 200 acres of rolling hills dotted with giant outdoor pieces: ceramics, a giant portal made of poured concrete, an actual glass house. That’s in addition to this Gatehouse space, the Main Gallery complex, and the Historic Residence. The founder, Rene di Rosa, bought art as a hobby when he tired of winemaking, and Tan leads us through his original home, pointing out particular pieces. His taste runs to busy, figurative, and whimsical.
“This is my favorite,” she says of a malachite-colored jacuzzi tub filled with black bowling balls, each etched with the word “Me.” And as we move through the house, Tan describes her work here (“I re-installed this area, suggested we replace the old mattresses with a pedestal bed, did some ‘baby conservation.’”) I notice that as we go, she’s constantly rearranging, adjusting, testing. She’s touching the art; it’s her job. Maybe I’m jealous, or maybe I’m just reflexively alarmed; you’re not supposed to touch it.
At lunchtime we sip iced coffees at the Carneros Inn, just up Sonoma Highway. I want to know about touching all that delicate or valuable material -- is it more stressful, or more awesome?
“I started out at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts,” she says, thinking back to 2003. Another local artist, Michael Arcega, had been her studio neighbor at the time, and advised her to volunteer at non-profit galleries and local museums. She essentially never left, and remembers those years as “kind of a glory time. It was like a little community of fellow artists and musicians who were installing art and playing great music while we were doing it.” (Today, she’s playing Lera Lynn in her car as we drive up the hill to the residence.) She explains that the YBCA was intensely professional in its handling practices, but had a certain casual, informal element, as well. Her definition of “casual” isn’t what I expect, to put it mildly.
“It was living artists, and emerging artists," she says, "so nothing was really worth over a million dollars.” She breaks up laughing, loudly, at my reaction -- I’ve made a bizarre expression, but at the same time, I just got an insight into this kind of work: It’s exactly equal parts stressful and awesome.
After the YBCA, Tan went to work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, installing shows by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Sharon Lockhart, Bill Fontana, and her favorite yet, Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a 24-hour–long piece of film art showing every minute in a day as cribbed from cinema, for which she and a team constructed an entire theater space to the artist’s specifications.
At SFMOMA, the work she handled wasn’t piddly million-dollar Tinker-Toy stuff. Tan follows public art auctions, and art sales of world-class museum-quality art, so when it came time to dig into SFMOMA's permanent collection, for example, she was well aware of what she had in her hands. “When I held a Picasso in a frame, I knew the price of it.”
Inside, I panic when she says “Picasso.” What if it broke? What if you fell over? Tan answers with another revelation, something I’d never thought about before: when a young woman is in a room, moving a Picasso from one place to another, “There’s the registrar, and the conservation team, and you have more than enough [preparators] on hand. Sometimes the insurance people are there. There’s a kind of grace to it.”
She has plenty of stories, like the time her team spent months playing their favorite music over the MOMA’s half-million-dollar sound system after hours, or how cool it was to work with great artists she’d only read about, or how it was being obliged to work with the assistants of said artists, or about bonding with Arcega about being Filipino-American artists. Or the story about the time a certain artist -- she won’t name names -- demanded a very specific radio tower, and had been trying to find it for months. With only days to go before the exhibition’s opening, Tan found it in three hours. She’s just that way. “I know how to build, I know materials, I know people who can get it done... Or, you know, there’s always Google on your phone. Which I’ve done. In the dark. Under an installation, on my back.”
It’s hard physical work. Tan weathered a bike injury not too long ago, and had to shift into project manager mode, instead of getting her hands dirty and building crates. She’s now recovered, but realizes that it’s easy to devalue skills aimed at erasing their own existence. It can be misunderstood as grunt work. In reality, she explains, it’s highly skilled labor. “You can tell when you’re handling art with people who haven’t done it before, and it’s actually kind of scary," she says. "You worry.”
Tan talks a lot about crates, since building and opening them is actually her most important and elf-like activity. Preparators build crates around every piece of art you’ve ever seen, essentially, and this can be fairly creative in its own right. It’s an engineering triumph, a logic problem, and a security question; it’s also one of the best parts of the job.
“Sometimes it feels like I’m finding treasure. Because I’m opening this crate, like (woodworking Formalist sculptor) Martin Puryear, when you open his crates, you’re just like 'Oh my god, this sculpture is literally floating in the crate with ratchet straps.' And then it’s a whole orchestra to drop it down, move these pieces around.”
So you don’t see them, but if you look closely, you’ll see their work, or maybe just feel it, sensing the echoes of their tiny feet receding in the distance.
“It’s like how ballerinas are supposed to be graceful -- you’re not supposed to know that they’re working hard,” Tan tells me. “It’s supposed to look like it’s just miraculously there.”