Chihuly at Oklahoma City Museum of Art: A Behind-the-Scenes Look
Last year I paid a visit to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, and was awestruck with the display of the Chihuly collection. As the operations manager of DPR Art Rescue, I am logistically involved with coordinating art installations and managing conservation work, and enjoy visiting museums to mindfully imagine work behind the scenes. On occasion, I would see Chihuly art in private collections and of course in public installations; however, this particular exhibit at the OKCMOA generated a greater fascination and wonder. What captured me was this swirl of color, shape and texture, influenced and manipulated by light. A powerful exhibit within an unassuming location; therefore I thought an exposition or story of the origin, installation and care required further researching.
The following is written by a resident of Oklahoma, free lance writer and Art patron, Ann Cieslak-Bukowinski
To celebrate the opening in its new facility in March 2002, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art commissioned a signature piece from renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. The resulting work is the extraordinary "Eleanor Blake Kirkpatrick Memorial Tower “. At 55-feet-high, and made of 2400 handblown parts, the glass sculpture remains the tallest of Chihuly towers. The Tower fills a three-story atrium at the Museum's main entrance, and greets visitors with stunning light and color.
In addition to the Tower, the Museum inauguration showcased a large collection of Chihuly glass in a temporary exhibition. Visitor acclaim and strong public support enabled the Museum to raise funds and, in June 2004, purchase the inaugural exhibition. It probably didn't hurt matters that Mr. Chihuly's then partner and future wife, Leslie Jackson, had roots in Oklahoma City.
The comprehensive collection contains major works of the artist's various series including Waterford Crystal Chandelier (one of only two made), Oklahoma Persian Ceiling, Float Boat, Ikebana Boat, Persians, Macchia, Baskets, Putti, Cylinders, Ikebana, Seaforms, and Drawings. In total, there are nearly 80 named works, including the Tower and three gifts Dale Chihuly later made to the Museum.
The biggest challenge Museum staff faced, while preparing for the grand opening in the newly constructed building, was the two-month schedule. The staff was charged with the massive undertaking of getting all the galleries ready, not just the Chihuly Tower and Inaugural Exhibition.
The task of unloading eight semi-trailers filled with delicate glass was enormous. Chihuly Studio personnel, museum staff, and contract laborers ferried hundreds of coded and numbered boxes containing glass parts, sets of metal armature pieces, and various supplies to their appropriate installation sites, and then carefully unpacked them. This preparatory stage could have proved as daunting as the next: the actual installation of several thousand pieces of glass in intricate displays of artistic perfection.
In the early stages of the process Dale Chihuly's right-hand man Parks Anderson and the Studio team provided on-the-go training to museum staff and contract labor, focusing on the handling of fragile glass - where to hold ... how to identify the safe-handling spot of each piece. Teams worked simultaneously on various installations, circulating from room to room and completing tasks. Sustained dialogue with various Studio and Museum staff groups assured a smooth process and an on-time finish - without breakage!
For the Museum's opening in 2002, the Inaugural Exhibit was installed on the first floor; when the acquisition became permanent, it was reinstalled on the third floor and named Dale Chihuly: The Collection which opened in April 2004, after month-long intensive set building and preparations. The 2000-pound Waterford Crystal Chandelier, measuring nine feet, seven inches in height, five feet, five inches across, was moved at that time to its present location in the Museum's Theater Lobby.
With input from the Chihuly Studio, museum staff recently redesigned the sets to allow for viewing of works from more angles. They also lengthened and redesigned the Oklahoma Persian Ceiling. The Collection was removed from view in 2011 for about a year and reopened in January 2012 as Illuminations: Rediscovering the Art of Dale Chihuly. Although present during the initial installation and at both reinstallations, Parks Anderson was not as involved this time as he had been previously. The Museum's own crew, headed by Ernesto Sanchez, who took part in the inaugural installations in 2002, installed most of the redesigned displays.
As the signature piece, the commissioned Tower is the only Chihuly work at the museum which has never been moved. The Waterford Chandelier was installed twice, and the Persian Ceiling and the rest of the Collection were installed a total of three times. Original installations and later re-installations involved the labor-intensive process of carefully removing and inventorying each piece, cleaning it, and re-packing it into its marked container. This was followed by a replay of the unpacking, cleaning, and re-installation processes once the new sets were ready.
The Magic of Museum Gel
Originally developed for museums in earthquake prone Southern California (also known as Quakehold Museum Gel), museum gel is a silicone adhesive gel which protects glass and crystal from accidental bumps or tips. Translucent and liquid, it can be formed into small balls and pressed onto to the bottoms of glass objects, which are then pressed onto a display surface. Developed specifically for glass-on-glass applications, the product forms a tight invisible bond and can be easily removed and reused. It is now widely used to secure glass pieces in temporary or permanent installations in museums, antique shops, and homes where inquisitive cats and small children may roam!
Clear Museum gel is indispensable in the installations and re-installations of Chihuly glass. By preventing unintended movement of pieces, it protects the Museum's valuable collection from damage from accidental bumps, vibrations, or earth tremors. It also makes scheduled dusting and cleaning of glass works much easier.
Cleaning and Maintenance
The Chihuly collection is dusted daily and deep cleaned weekly, except for the Tower. It is deep cleaned every one to two years.
The process takes three to four days for most glass fixtures and is done at night, after closing hours. The Museum staff use a variety of cleaning aids, mainly Swiffer brand microfiber cloths, Plexiglas cleaners, ammonia-free glass cleaners, and pure cotton single-layer cloth baby diapers. The old fashioned baby diapers used with ammonia free glass cleaner leave no residue or film and are best for colored glass.
Installation Process: Specific Pieces
Tower: The process, working from top to bottom, took two and a half weeks to complete. First, the three-piece steel armature with prongs was erected in a square black-granite reflecting pool (filled later), and attached with wires to the topmost section of the atrium's metal three-story frame. Next, came the handling of 2400 handblown glass parts, now unboxed and arrayed by color and shape on floor mats around the atrium - delicate organic textured curls mostly orange, yellow, and blue. Each glass part, coated with silicone at its open end to form a tight seal, was carefully slid onto a prong on the armature according to Chihuly's design. The intricate tower installation was accomplished by teams working on three sets of three-story scaffolding positioned around the armature.
Chandelier: The installation process is the reverse of the tower, proceeding from bottom to top. Once the somewhat flexible internal structure was suspended from the ceiling, the team set to work attaching the 203 individual blown lead crystal parts, etched by Irish Waterford artisans.
Persian Ceiling: Originally on a smaller 7- by 12-foot scale, this work is in its new 8- by 40-foot dimension currently set as a passageway connecting two rooms of Chihuly glass art. The new 8- by 40-foot Ceiling consists of 500 to 550 individual pieces of superimposed and overlapping glass forms in differing sizes, shapes, color combinations, patterns, and striations. The pieces are intricately arranged atop a supporting structure of eight adjacent panels of clear glass laminate, each eight feet wide by five feet long. The Persian Ceiling is perfectly illuminated (backlit) throughout its length.
The effect is pure magic ... the art version of walking through an undersea tunnel at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, minus the shark swimming overhead or the subdued watery hues. Here, it's the magic of still life in vibrant color! While the brain says still life, senses perceive movement. Here, undulating lines of glassy fluidity capture the eye and fix the gaze upward. As with all other installations in the Collection, each stop along the Ceiling's 40-foot path increases viewer appreciation for Chihuly's innovations in handblown glass and for his endlessly creative mind.
Ikebana Boat: Perhaps the most intriguing piece of the collection, this work begs the question: What on earth inspired Chihuly to create this? Was it the childhood memory of a wide-eyed boy at an old-fashioned candy counter? This is precisely the reaction my cousin experienced at seeing the staging of the Ikebana Boat. Perhaps fascination with limitless forms and variety of candy, with its accompanying memory of a child's excitement at eye-pleasing, mouth-watering treats, connects to the inner-child in all of us. Sharing the same staging area and brimming with an infinite variety of spheres is the equally dazzling and imaginative Float Boat ... A nod to childhood ball games? Or, perhaps a more cosmic connection?
Much like stained-glass windows, handblown glass art engages our senses fully and immediately. We are struck by many aspects of the works themselves (such as color, form, proportion) but we may be equally captivated by their inner structure or by innovative staging and lighting.
In the case of Dale Chihuly glass art, a behind-the-scenes look in no way detracts from the visual experience of inventive, organic glass forms transmitting light in magical ways. Knowing how much sophisticated engineering and preparation goes into each installation can indeed enhance appreciation for the artist's work. Awareness of behind-the-scenes collaborative efforts elicits gratitude for the art lovers whose vision made the permanent Chihuly Collection at the OKCMOA possible, and for the skill and dedication of Museum staff members entrusted with its management and care. Creating and displaying beautiful glass art in a way that engages the viewer's imagination is, no doubt, one of life's most rewarding callings.
By Ann Cieslak-Bukowinski