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Behind the Scenes: The Making of Maker & Muse at the Frick

Behind the Scenes: The Making of <i>Maker & Muse</i> at the Frick
February 12, 2020 By: Sarah Hall, Chief Curator, Director of Collections

Behind the Scenes: The Making of Maker & Muse at the Frick

For me, every exhibition installation feels like I’m Indiana Jones and we’re opening treasure chests. There’s nothing to quite match the first day of uncrating and carefully unwrapping objects. Maker & Muse: Women and Early Twentieth Century Art Jewelry, with more than 200 splendid pieces of jewelry and decorative art, is perhaps even more of a “treasure chest” exhibition than usual. There are fiery opals, twinkling aquamarines and luminous moonstones, rich enamels, baroque pearls, coral, malachite, lapis lazuli, sapphire, topaz, emeralds, rubies and a dusting of diamonds. It’s an exhibition that will delight the eye, but also immerse you in a fascinating period of history, when women’s roles were evolving toward a new century, when ideals of craftsmanship and beauty were often allied with political ideals, and when the idea of style was expanding to value personal artistic expression through clothes and accessories. 

As you might imagine, installing an exhibition of 200 or so pieces of jewelry is a fairly fussy proposition. Let me take you on a walk through of what’s been happening in the galleries over the last two weeks as we prepare for Friday’s members’ preview day and Saturday’s public opening. First, I should say that this installation was a bit unusual—because installing jewelry is fussy, the exhibition traveled with is own casework. It saved us some work. I didn’t have to plan exactly where to put all 218 pieces—I simply had to plan where to put the cases and how to have visitors flow through the exhibition, and how I wanted the space to feel.

The installation of the jewelry itself was also handled as part of the exhibition contract. The exhibition was organized by the Driehaus Museum in Chicago and is toured by International Arts & Artists of Washington, D.C. Mountmaker Andrew Talley has been traveling from venue to venue installing the jewelry in mounts that he crafted, and Driehaus Museum registrar Catherine Nguyen has been monitoring the condition of the jewelry. We also had a representative in from the Tiffany Archives overseeing the installation of their pieces. But before all of that happened, the first step in the installation was painting the galleries. A dark gray and medium blue were chosen to complement the colors of the incoming casework. (Museum fact: painting should be completed two weeks prior to object installation to ensure not simply that the paint is completely dry, but that it has adequately off-gassed; although, thankfully these days there are safer paints available that don’t release volatile organic compunds.)

We had a week to “play” with the casework before the object installation began. We positioned the cases according to my installation plan, tested the lighting, and refined spacing. Meanwhile, the art handling crew was cutting lengths of conduit painted to match the walls to mask the many electric cords, testing the lighting in the cases, and doing some other preparation. One of the first things we did was test our video component. Dancer Löie Fuller created a sensation in the late 19th century with her pre-Isadora Duncan modern dance that involved sweeping, swirling movements in a flowing gown. Fuller sewed metal rods into the sleeves of her oversized gowns to allow her to better control the movement of the billowing fabric. Her mesmerizing dance was a clear real-life analogue to the curvaceous female forms echoed in Art Nouveau art and jewelry. We wanted to bring Löie’s dancing right into the galleries.

Testing the Löie Fuller video. We opted to project directly on the gallery wall rather than use a screen, which would have created another object in the room. You can see that we have casework and pedestals in place, but no objects yet.

The second week of the installation we had our courier Catherine from the Driehaus Museum and our mountmaker Andrew in to help with the installation of the jewelry. In truth, installing the jewelry was the most painless part of the installation. Everything had its assigned place and Catherine and Andrew are both completely familiar with the show, so most of the jewelry was installed in about a day and a half. Once the jewelry was positioned in the case, we added the numbers that will dovetail with our labels, and we used brushes, tape, and a tiny lintroller to remove any dust or debris from inside the cases.  A lot of closed casework means a lot of acrylic to clean.

Catherine and Andrew unpacking supplies for the installation.

This is the only photo I took of the inside of a crate, and my finger was over the viewfinder! The crates open upright and are filled with boxes which slide out and have compartments for the jewelry.

One of the British Arts and Crafts jewelry cases installed but not yet closed. The photo sitting on the case is a guide to positioning the jewelry.

Here, Briget is cleaning the acrylic case covers amid all the typical accessories to an installation—crates, boxes, lighting supplies. Note the projector suspended from the ceiling, ready to bring Löie Fuller’s Serpentine dance into the galleries.

The most time consuming part of the installation was the interior lighting of the cases—the strands of LED lights needed to be positioned around the top edge of the casework and directed to best illuminate the individual pieces of jewelry. Once the jewelry was installed, we worked on the furniture—including a jeweler’s workbench topped with an assortment of tools, and the 2-D works that complement each section of jewelry. Once all the objects were in place, the overall exhibition lighting was adjusted. Text panels, graphics, and labels followed.

It takes 3 people to lift a hood into place. Note that you can just see, at right by Briget’s ear, a suction cup used to safely grip glass or acrylic.

Mountmaker Andrew Talley installs a display of jewelers' tools. 

Terry and Duncan install the iconic Alphonse Mucha lithograph of Sarah Bernhardt as Gismonda, one of the most famous pieces of Art Nouveau graphic art in the world. She makes for a fabulous entrance into the world of this exhibition. (Note, I’m not so sure how I feel about sharing the building with another, more dramatic, Sarah.)

Here most of the cases are installed and Terry is working his way through the room adjusting the interior lighting. This was the most time consuming part of the installation. You can also see the round table top sitting on a dolly—we fabricated our own bases for the round displays. In the next photo you can see one of the new bases being positioned so that bolt holes can be drilled prior to painting. (These were the last cases installed because we obviously needed to install the bases before the jewelry.)

Duncan and Terry fuss with the lighting.

What does it all look like now? You’ll have to visit and see for yourself.

In the meantime, I will leave you with a couple snapshots of favorites from the installation. Mind you, there are so many beautiful things—Australian black opals that look like nothing I’ve ever seen before, a delightful little surprise of a row of pink sapphires on a neck clasp, necklaces made for suffragists in green, white, and violet, symbolically saying “Give women votes!,” and a pantheon of sea creatures to discover from cuttlefish to mermaids to seahorses—I’m sure my favorites will change every day.

I love this charming bee bracelet by husband and wife team Nelson and Edith Dawson. The English Arts and Crafts movement saw a number of such couples, who worked together to revitalize the status of artisans and bring the beauty of handmade objects to more households.
Bee Bracelet, c. 1905. Gold, enamel, pearl. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus.

This exquisite hair comb keeps stopping me in my tracks. 
Hair Comb, Attributed to Lucien Gaillard, c. 1900. Horn, sapphire. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus.

Maker & Muse: Women and Early Twentieth Century Art Jewelry will be on view at The Frick Art Museum from February 15–May 10, 2020. If you're interested in more behind-the-scenes details about the making of Maker & Muse, join us on Tuesday, February 25 at 7 p.m. for Gallery Conversations with Guest Labelists to hear local artists, writers, and makers who offered their insight as exhibition label writers share more about the fascinating works on view.
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