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Art&Seek Q&A: Art Preparator Holly Hutzell
by Tina Aguilar 10 Jun 2010

Local art preparator Holly Hutzell talks about the fine art of prepping fine art.


Holly Hutzell with Marino Marini's Crouching Woman, 1934, Bronze, Elizabeth Meadows Sculpture Collection.

Guest Blogger Tina Aguilar teaches Humanities and Cultural Studies at Brookhaven College School of the Arts.

When you explore the art venues in our area, how do you think a painting finds itself on the wall? Or how did a tapestry get up there? In addition to the art, some of my fondest memories from working at the Dallas Museum of Art also include those individuals who work hard to make all the behind-the-scenes experiences seamless. The art doesn’t just appear on the walls nor find a home by accident. Part of my fascination with art includes the importance of those who make it ready for us to see and enjoy. I look in wonder wherever I go and know it is quite an orchestration. This week, Holly Hutzell, local art preparator, talks about the fine art of prepping fine art:

Tina Aguilar: Can you tell me how you got started?

Holly Hutzell: I have been in the museum world for about 20 years, and I graduated from The University of North Texas with a degree in Painting and Drawing. At that time, I knew people from the Dallas Museum of Art, and I talked with them about working there. It turned out that I decided to take a job in the museum bookstore after I was out of school. Soon, I was told the museum was more likely to hire someone from in-house, and after about a year a position came up and I applied for it and got it. My friend and mentor, Russell Sublette, is a key figure with this history. The position also made a difference for me as a single parent. My job was a way after I graduated to be connected to art. In school you are at it 24/7…making art, talking about art, sleeping and breathing art. And when you leave school, you may not have that opportunity. This worked for me, and it was a way to keep myself immersed in it. Now, as an independent contracted preparator, I am usually hired as head preparator.

T.A.: You work between Dallas and Fort Worth, How often do you travel between museums?

H.H.: Typically, about two museums throughout the month, and I always look forward to my work. I love every single day, and I am one of those lucky people that can say that.

T.A.: It must be like being in a candy store. What do you do on a daily basis?

H.H.: Usually, there is one person as head preparator who is the lead. Tasks are assigned on skill level and coordinated with the rest of the team working together. There are all levels from crating to the installation process. We matte and frame artworks, construct mounts, design and deal with proper crating techniques and needs – it is necessary to custom fit art for transport – and then the installation and de-installation part of course, which is the easiest part. It’s nice to keep the same crew on the same show. I have also been an art courier. This means you travel with the art, because it can’t go by itself. Couriers can be curators, registrars, conservators, preparators and, of course, may be a team or individuals who usher the work to the next venue. Sometimes, I am matting and framing, which means mounting a work, cutting the board and framing it properly. Recently, I worked on a Rembrandt and Dürer for the Meadows Museum.

T.A.: Is there a push-pull between certain areas?

H.H.: No, I wouldn’t say there is necessarily a push-pull. I work closely with the registrars, curators, conservators, exhibition designers and directors. The relationships are each different and with specific needs for a particular show. I get to feel out what the curators like and how they respond to each space, and I have grown to know them and their preferences. For example, most contemporary curators are going to want each work lighted a specific way – more light on the work and with greater space to separate each piece so it can have its own presence. The registrar is kind of the watchdog for their collections. They care about and want their collections, conditions, location and well-being of every piece to be in order. It really is a team effort, and communication is important. We all talk and notify the rest of the group about any movement of the art. We don’t take one step without discussing it with the group we’re working with. We communicate if we’re going to pick it up and go to the left and take three steps back – everyone knows about it.

T.A.: How do you know what you will be doing for each location?

H.H.: Mostly, I am scheduled out three months at a time or book work when shows close. Like the Charles IV show at the Meadows Museum comes down in July. On those days we are de-installing, I know that I have to go in earlier because I will have a crew with me. We prep our assignments depending on the needs.

T. A.: How many are in a team?

H.H.: I have about six, and we usually work in pairs, typically keeping an even number.

T.A.: So how are you going to move the large wall textile or the chair in the Charles IV show?

H.H.: We actually have a Velcro strip sewn into the back of the textile. On pieces like this, there is usually a linen lining on the back, and this is where it would be attached. We will go up on the airlift and undo the Velcro and roll it as we go and take it down. Then, with the floor properly covered for the protection of the piece, we unroll it and reroll it to fit it in its tube and then it goes in the crate. Now for the chair the arms slide out and we wrap those separately and pack them. There are specific installation arms that are larger and padded so that we can move the main portion carefully and put it back in its crate. Crates also are fitted to hold the art in place so it doesn’t move around or have extra space for any issues.

T. A.: What was the first piece that you worked with? Do you have favorites?

H.H: When I first started working … the largest project was with about 300 – hundreds of gold discs that the DMA has in the pre-Columbian collection. I had to mount all of them, and there were a lot of them. The most memorable, or the one I got excited about, was the Duchamp show, being my favorite painter, and also handling a Bruegel the Elder work. I have Stendhal syndrome, and when I am uncrating a piece that I might only have ever seen as a two-inch image in an art book, then seeing the real thing, I tend to be filled with emotion and my eyes water and I get flushed. The curators get a kick out of it.

T.A.: What tools do you use?

H.H.: Well, let me show you what I have here in my bag. I always carry gloves, a tape measure, a knife, pencil and a Sharpie. …other items are levels, screw guns and a hammer. Everyone thinks I might use my tape measure the most, but it’s my knife that I use the most – for everything from prepping the room to patching holes and cutting sheetrock and opening plastic.

T.A.: How about being a woman in the industry?

H. H.: I think we work harder. It’s in our society that women are weaker or not mechanically inclined. Women can get the job done just fine and by doing it a little differently … especially as a head preparatory, I have encountered difficulty with some who are not comfortable taking directions from a female. I think someone has to get to know you, and it is twice as hard.

T.A.: Do you get the opportunity to share some of your wisdom?

H.H.: I have been asked to speak to students at The University of North Texas and at The University of Texas at Dallas and discuss what it takes to do your work as an artist and present it. Mostly, I share that it’s best to keep in mind the work and presentation can be done without a lot of expense. In the past, I have helped with different installations where students participate and help me. One show is the Voertman’s Bookstore Annual Show, where UNT students exhibit in their gallery space. Once, as we were installing, there was a piece where the students thought it was really interesting how an artist used the material. It was a piece of luan, where the artist had painted on this thin veneer. I was showing them how it could warp, and sure enough when we put it on the wall it wasn’t flush with the surface. I saw them understand. So I encourage them that you have to be aware of your materials. An artist like Richard Tuttle, who I really enjoy, does it well. If you want your work to be appreciated, the materials matter.

T.A.: So talk to me about your mail art magazine that you have been doing for a while.  Are you finding time for your own art?

H.H.: Sure, I started FFT in the late 80s and early 90s. Dixon Coulbourn put together his Idle Time in the 80s, and it was inspiring so I decided to start my own. His was about punk rock, and FFT is about art – low art. It is created with flexibility, and there are no rules. I did not want any rules, because I want everyone to enjoy doing it. I make about three to four a year. Most preparators are artists and work as they can. I am starting to do more of my own work these days and will see how the painting goes.

Holly Hutzell soon begins another installation at the Amon Carter Museum and, as the creativity doesn’t miss a generation, plans to help her daughter, Teryn, move to New York City, where she will continue her studies with the Columbus College of Art and Design Satellite Program.