How To Get My Job: Art Courier

Earlier this month we talked with Dr. Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, about a rash of overseas art thefts and how the museum guards against potential security threats. It's easier to protect artwork when it's hanging in a museum, but what about works the museum loans out to other institutions, especially ones located in the European danger zone? That's when a member of the museum staff is sent on assignment as a courier to accompany the work all the way to its destination. It sounds almost spy-like: traveling with multi-million dollar artworks to exotic locales and staying at upscale hotels--armed with an expense account. Of course, there's responsibility involved. You can't get too drunk and lose your $1.3 million-dollar cargo, like this guy did.

Nevertheless, it sounds like a super-cool job, and Art Attack wanted to find out how to get it. Just like we thought, it actually requires study and experience. Damn!

Julie Bakke, an art registrar (and frequent courier) for the MFAH, delivered the disappointing news.

"It's not as glamorous as people think. I've been in the registrar's profession for about 30 years. I started in the Philadelphia Museum of Art right out of college, and then I was at the Menil Collection for 16 years, and I've been at the MFA for nine years. Basically the registrar's office is in charge of, not only keeping the record on the collection--we're collection managers, and we're responsible for taking care of works in storage. But we're also responsible for the logistics of moving artwork in and out of the museum and within the museum.

In our museum, the pool of couriers comes from registrars, art handlers, conservators and curators. There are certain qualifications. Primarily the courier has to know how museums work, how to handle objects, know how to assess the condition of objects, and have a knowledge of general shipping procedures. Here, we have a basic training course and we have requirements--before doing an international trip, for instance, you have to do something more simple and build up to the more complicated ones.

We work through customs brokers and customs agents, and they in turn contract security, so we can actually go out on the tarmac planeside to make sure the crate doesn't get bumped off the plane. More often it's a concern of physical handling: If a crate's being moved with a forklift, making sure the forks don't go through the crate--that it's not dropped, that it's not tipped, not left out in the weather, things like that."

The priceless cargo:

"We don't like to reveal the values but ... it's several millions. Our most valuable pieces travel quite a bit. Madame Cezanne is one of the most popular pieces requested for loan, and it's quite valuable. Dr. Marzio finally said, "We have to give her a rest." Works from the European collection tend to travel quite a bit also. Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O'Keefe--those are all pretty popular ... Picassos."

The not-so-glamorous part:

"We often put couriers on trucks, especially in Europe, because there aren't a lot of flights that take large cargo. There are only a couple of flights from Houston to Europe that take oversized cargo, which is over 63 inches in height, so a lot of times we'll fly into Amsterdam, because there's a flight daily that goes from here, and then truck from there, which sometimes has to go by tunnel or ferry to other parts of Europe. Paris might involve another 20-hour truck ride. A courier trip could take anywhere from 20 to 36 hours. If you're accompanying artwork to Europe, the standard requirement is basically three days or three nights, hotel. And you have expense for meals, etc. Once you see the piece secured, usually you go sleep. Next day you go back to the museum; the piece is unpacked; do a condition report; and you see the work installed. You get a couple days on your own to rest up and see the sights before you come back."

But it's kind of glammy:

"I've been to Moscow, Amsterdam, Germany, Paris, Japan, Brazil ... we lend all over the world. I was just in Paris, and I had a couple of free days (most of us go to museums and galleries). In this case I was lucky; I was there for a weekend. I went to Versailles and a couple of other small museums in Paris."

On the James Haggerty incident:

"That's the courier's nightmare. By museum standards, that's a complete no-no. You never keep the artwork with you (unless you're hand-carrying something, which basically means you can take it with you on the plane, but with all the security regulations it's getting more and more difficult to do that). There have been times when you've done everything you're supposed to do, and given the go-ahead that your cargo's on, and you get off the plane and you find out it's been bumped, and nobody told you. It's rare that something like that happens. Nowadays with all the technology, and ways to get in touch, the chances of that happening are very slim.

It's a huge responsibility. And it's a great opportunity for our staff to be able to travel to a lot of different places and meet colleagues from other museums, and see other exhibitions and see how other museums operate. But it can be very stressful. A lot of times at the airport, especially with all the regulations and security, at some point some things are just out of your control, and it's your responsibility to do everything you can to make sure that your cargo is handled safely and that it arrives safely. It's an important job."

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