Handle With Care

A Conversation with the Museum's Operations Team

To many of our visitors, Greg Williams, Director of Museum Operations, and Stew Henderson, Senior Preparator, are familiar faces. Yet despite their presence, their work as the Museum’s operations team might remain a mystery to many. Anna Fan ’15, Assistant for Special Projects, spoke with Greg and Stew to learn more about their crucial roles here at the Museum and the men that fill them.

Greg and Stew installing Marsden Hartley's Brilliant Autumn Landscape #28, c. 1930 in the Sam L. Cohen Gallery
Greg and Stew installing Marsden Hartley’s Brilliant Autumn Landscape #28, c. 1930 in the Sam L. Cohen Gallery

ANNA FAN (AF): What are your official titles and the roles and responsibilities involved in your positions?

GREG WILLIAMS (GW): I am the Director of Museum Operations, and my job is to oversee the museum facility and to manage the exhibitions. I work with the curators in designing the positioning of the works and the walls to ensure that we are adhering to best practices, then I work with contractors and my crew to get walls painted, adjust the lighting, and install display cases, labels, accompanying wall text—and hopefully we get all that done before the show opens!

STEW HENDERSON (SH): And I am the Senior Preparator. My job involves the exhibition installation. I work closely with Greg in installing the shows and with our registrars in art movement and art handling.

AF: What, exactly, is a preparator?

SH: It’s kind of in the title — we prepare; we patch and paint the walls and get them ready for the next show and prepare the artwork for exhibition. A big part of the job is matting and framing artwork for its display. Anything that needs to get done before the art gets into the gallery, I’m responsible for it.

AF: One of the rules in any art museum is “don’t touch the artwork.” Since it is your job to do so, how do you go about handling it?

SH: I think the number-one thing is that every work of art that you handle is irreplaceable. That’s really important to keep in mind, because you can’t bring any biases or prejudices like, “Oh, I don’t like that painting, I’ll just grab it and go.” We have specific training on how to carry paintings, how to handle works on paper, etc.

AF: Greg, you’ve curated a few shows here. Tell us about those exhibitions, and how the different facets of your work here influence each other.

GW: My mentor, Hugh Gourley, taught me how to arrange work in an exhibition to make things… make sense. After a while, I was the person who did the arranging, did the installing, lighting, and labels. It all came kind of naturally. Eventually, I did curate an exhibition called Maine Contemporary Furniture, and then another exhibition, which was quite popular, that featured guitars from collectors, builders, and performers from all around the state of Maine.

Greg with Hugh Gourley standing outside
Greg with Hugh Gourley outside the Paul J. Schupf Wing for the Work of Alex Katz

SH: That show was called A Player’s Art. Through his work, Greg has an institutional knowledge of the space and the collection, which the curators here really rely on.

Greg featured in the Waterville Daily Sentinel in conjunction with A Player’s Art
Greg featured in the Waterville Daily Sentinel in conjunction with A Player’s Art. Photograph by David DeTurk.

AF: Stew, does your background as an artist influence your work?

SH: I think you’ll find a lot of artists in this position. There’s no formal school for preparators, so many people get into it by moving a friend’s art to a show, then the next thing you know you’re working for that gallery or museum, and it evolves from there. My position definitely allows me to see artwork a lot differently than most artists would, by virtue of being able to handle it, see the back of it, take it apart, frame it—there is a real tangible knowledge I gain from that experience.

Stew in his studio in Belfast, Maine.
Stew at work in his studio in Belfast, Maine.

AF: How do you balance the tremendous force that is often needed to move and install an object with the delicate precision that is required to handle all artworks?

GW: We always have to assess what we need to do, talk about it, create a plan. If it’s a delicate piece, a fragile ceramic, we’re ready for it. We tell each other, “OK, we’re going to carefully proceed this way or that way.” If it’s a very heavy piece, we figure out how we can get that installed without hurting the work, ourselves, or anyone else.

SH: There’s different equipment for different jobs. We have a lift-table that can lift about a ton. You have to go slow, and know exactly how it gets from A to B before you actually do it.

AF: Measure twice, cut once, right?

GW: Right. One of the biggest parts of our jobs is solving problems, because we’re doing things, in many instances, where no one has ever done it before. If someone’s done it before, we want to know how they did it, of course. A good example is the current exhibition with the weather vanes and the way they’re arranged. We came up with a general plan, and during the installation we worked with the curators as we positioned them.

SH: We learn from others, too. We visit other museums and talk with other people that do what we do. We’ve been to conferences for preparators, and learned about new materials, new processes. This fall we’re going to have a really great meeting with the people who work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, so that will be a great experience for us.

AF: You mentioned the weather vanes that are currently on view; what did you enjoy most about installing that show?

GW: Well, after we drafted a sketch we then faced the task of having to get these things on the wall. We started with the sailboat, which we wanted to be the pinnacle. Well, where exactly does it sit, considering all these other pieces? A lot of it’s instinctual—figuring out how different forms work together, and how to fill the different spaces—but it’s very precise. We’d position a piece, then look at it and go, “pull that up three inches, move that over two.” So we’d take it down, mark it, and then put together the pieces of the puzzle. When that came together, that made me feel great.