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The Place Where Art Sleeps Volunteers work in the AGO's Marvin Gelber Print and Drawing Study Centre.   Photograph by Lorne Bridgman.

The Place Where Art Sleeps

The vast majority of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s priceless collection isn’t on display—it’s tucked away in high-security, top-secret vaults.

In July 2010, a small team at the Art Gallery of Ontario disassembled David Altmejd’s The Index, an acclaimed multimedia installation that had held court in the museum’s first-floor atrium for a year and a half. Over a week’s time, the team—made up of Altmejd’s personnel and an art handler from the AGO—dismantled the work’s mirror-and-steel bridge structure. They carted away the bird-men dressed in business suits, each of which got its own case, 3 feet by 3 feet by 8 feet. Delicate chunks of dismembered werewolf were placed in crates, as were mushrooms and dildos, crystals and quartzes and shards of glass. The team worked carefully, manoeuvring around Bernini’s The Crucified Christ, a 357-year-old bronze of Jesus on the cross, on display at the centre of the E.R. Wood Gallery. Altmejd’s whole magic world was packed up—fifty-three containers in all, the single biggest piece in AGO storage—and carried by pump truck down the hall into Shipping and Receiving. Most of the boxes, too big to keep on-site, were loaded into a trailer and taken to an undisclosed storage facility. Because the three remaining crates contained taxidermied animals—mostly birds and small rodents—they had to stay in the gallery with their government papers.

I first saw The Index in October 2009, a year into its atrium tenure, but when I returned the following summer to revisit it, I was too late. Instead, I found understated stone carvings by the Inuit artist Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok. The Index had gone into storage, the information desk clerk told me. I wouldn’t see it at the AGO again anytime soon.

Of the AGO’s eighty-five-thousand-piece permanent collection, only about 3,900 works are on display right now. At any given time, 95 percent of the collection is in storage. Paintings, sculptures and installations account for roughly eleven thousand pieces in the vaults, while photography and works on paper make up the other seventy thousand. This isn’t unique to the AGO. Art institutions are a bit like icebergs; the public sees less than a tenth of their holdings. But that may finally be changing. While security and conservation remain top priorities, galleries are beginning to experiment with new ways for the public to engage with their broader collections. Visitors increasingly want to see everything—including what’s behind the scenes.

The AGO’s on-site painting and sculpture vaults are located in the building’s subbasement. Renovations in 2008 created a functioning storage space that’s visible to the public, and, with the opening of the Weston Family Learning Centre in 2011, two other vaults also became viewable. But, for security reasons, the AGO does not offer general tours of its vaults. Access is limited to curatorial staff, the conservation department and the art handlers.

In the subbasement, a single corridor leads to each of the ten vaults. The four largest are roughly 3,000 square feet apiece, while the others are variously smaller. In contrast to the pomp of the galleries upstairs, these rooms are shamelessly pragmatic, designed for cataloguing, preservation and safekeeping. The sculpture vaults—with their cement floors, white cinderblock walls, high ceilings, CCTV cameras, heavy steel doors, wooden skids and labelled racks of boxes—suggest warehouse, prison and library all at once. It’s hard to believe that these rooms house a half-millennia of priceless human history.

The painting vaults look much the same, though, in place of shelving units, dozens of metal screens line the rooms. The screens slide into the middle of the space, and paintings hang in their frames from both sides of the mesh, jigsawed around each other, arranged first by size and then by artist. While Margaret Haupt, the deputy director of collections management and conservation, recounts these details with an everyday familiarity, my mind wanders toward hero worship. Do Frederick Varleys sleep next to van Goghs? Mary Pratts by Picassos? I’m left to speculate; exact storage locations are kept confidential.

Reading from a selection called the AGO1000—a list of roughly a thousand essential pieces from the gallery’s permanent collection—Haupt fires off a number of gems that haven’t moved upstairs in some time. There’s a Richard Serra sculpture called Untitled Steel Corner Prop, acquired in 1986, that hasn’t been installed since 2004—the only time the piece has ever made it into the gallery. Serra’s Corner Prop series explores the post-and-lintel construction system; Untitled Steel Corner Prop is composed of a steel mass hoisted to waist height and pinned against the corner of the room with a single metal leg. Exhibition services jokingly calls it “the widow-maker.” “We don’t install it that often because it’s hard to install safely,” Haupt says. “We don’t want visitors to get hurt.”

Other pieces aren’t displayed because they require additional maintenance. The conservation department is currently working on a Picasso sketch from 1907, as well as Chardin’s 1758 still life Jar of Apricots. The Picasso hasn’t been out in four years and the Chardin hasn’t been out in eight. Montreal-born abstract painter Claude Tousignant’s Gong 88—made up of coloured, concentric circles that are said to vibrate like a gong—has likewise evaded exhibition for the past eight years. Work that is particularly old rarely goes on display. The AGO has a five-hundred-year-old print of Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve that almost never leaves the Print and Drawing vault.

I ask Haupt if she has a favourite piece in storage—something she thinks ought to be displayed in the gallery. “You’re speaking to someone who trained as a paper conservator,” she says. “I don’t want it on the wall, because I don’t want to lose it.” But then Haupt indulges the question. “I love old master drawings and I love topographical watercolours. Both of those are really light sensitive. I believe that I can see changes when something is exhibited once for just four months. To my mind, I can see change from the light exposure. I’d just as soon that it not go on the wall.”

Haupt recalls a nineteenth-century watercolour by Lucius O’Brien called Mount Hermit Range, Selkirk, B.C., near Glacier Hotel, which depicts a stand of conifers winding down a mountainside, white peaks rising in the background. “The colour change caused by light exposure is very subtle, but seems, to my eye, to depict a landscape under a sun which is hotter and brighter than when I first saw the work,” she says.

Haupt has a very different relationship with art than I do. I enjoy the aesthetic and the history of a piece; I look to make some meaning of it, to contextualize it. I take it with me as an idea, but I’m quickly off to the next one. Haupt is a caretaker; she’s interested in the life of the work and the preservation of history for generations to come. Though she never says it exactly, she makes it plain: sometimes conservation and exhibition are at odds. Opening your storage vaults to the public or mandating rotation—nice as it sounds—is not that easy.

The debate over whether museums should preserve their collections or serve the public is not new. In “The Gloom of the Museum,” an essay from 1917, American librarian John Cotton Dana wrote that the institutions were like “remote palaces and temples—filled with objects not closely associated with the life of the people who are asked to get pleasure and profit from them.” Dana imagined a new museum, one better attuned to public service and less concerned with “piling up treasures.” The museum shouldn’t just be a storehouse, but rather a place of popular education.

Dana’s vision became a touchstone in the ongoing evolution of public arts institutions. Museum director and scholar Stephen E. Weil captured the attitude of the new museum in his 2000 essay “Collecting Then, Collecting Today: What’s the Difference?” He wrote, “a museum’s collection—which might once have been thought of as its ‘end’—can now be seen as a ‘means,’ as an instrument for the achievement of a larger end and simply one among a number of resources that the museum can employ to carry out its service obligations to the public.”

While this change in thinking—from collection-centred to audience-focused—has occurred over the last century, Lynne Teather, a professor emeritus of museum studies at the University of Toronto, takes a longer view. She reminds me that the Louvre—once a palace, then a storehouse for the royal collection, then a gallery for aristocrats and elites—only became a public museum during the French Revolution; the National Assembly thought it was the people’s right to see their nation’s masterworks. Teather sees experiments in transparency like the AGO’s as another step in the growing public-service mission of the museum. She says that there’s a financial angle, too. Less government support means that more money has to be made from visitors, members and private donors—people who want to get their money’s worth.

Following my conversation with Haupt, I make an appointment to see Dürer’s Adam and Eve in the AGO’s Marvin Gelber Print and Drawing Study Centre. Since it opened in 1993, the Study Centre has kept regular hours during which visitors can book personal appointments to see any of its seventy thousand works—part of the AGO’s effort to expose the public to its broader collection. After learning that I was researching an article, the assistant curator of prints and drawings offers to select a few other gems for me to visit.

The Study Centre occupies the south-westernmost corner of the first floor of the museum. It’s a handsome room, with bookcases set along the northern wall and large worktables running down the centre of the space. There’s dark wood everywhere. Behind the bookcases, the prints and drawings vault is visible through a plate-glass door. This vault is even larger than its painting and sculpture counterparts. It has two floors, and a catwalk hangs around the perimeter of the room. A waist-high work surface bisects the aisles of moveable storage shelves. Prints are stored on one side of the room, drawings on the other. On the upper-level catwalk, similar shelves line the walls. As a rule of thumb, works before 1900 are kept upstairs, and works after 1900 are kept downstairs. They are then organized by nationality and date, and alphabetically by artist. The work is stored in hundreds upon hundreds of solander boxes—black, leather-bound, acid-free clamshell cases of varying sizes in which paper works are stacked on top of each other.

I’m given a pair of white cotton gloves and led to one of the tables at the centre of the study room. A volunteer rolls over a pushcart and unloads a pile onto the desk in front of me. As I take the works one by one, lift up their protective mats and remove the thin paper coverings, I’m met by a series of masterpieces. The first is an etching and aquatint from 1969 by David Hockney. Pregnant Celia depicts his long-time muse on a stool, wearing her floral-print dress with her hands at her lap, just below her swollen stomach. Next, I uncover a pen-and-ink-on-newspaper by Henry Moore, The Artist’s Mother, from 1927. Moore sketched his mother knitting or darning on page eight of the Essex County Standard. Moore’s ink strokes overlap the bus schedule for Colchester and Brightling Sea: “From Colchester Bus Park: 8.15, 10.0, 11am (not Thursdays).” Then I come across a pair of Rembrandts, Three Heads of Women: One Asleep and the artist’s own rendition of Adam and Eve; both are etchings on paper and roughly 375 years old. Every mat I open contains another jewel—a Munch, then a Lucien Freud.

Finally, I come upon Dürer’s Adam and Eve, a 1504 print from a copper engraving. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, an art-history classic, says that this is the work in which Dürer first used arithmetic ratios to perfect the proportions of the human body, bringing classical Italian style into the German tradition. Eve stands next to Adam, taking the forbidden fruit from the serpent’s mouth. Haupt’s sentiment comes to mind: though we may want to see all the artwork we can, sometimes exhibition comes at the cost of preserving what’s truly beautiful.

Open-door study centres and visible storage displays are two of the AGO’s responses to the growing demand to see its permanent collection. Other galleries have answered differently. On a few special occasions, the Vancouver Art Gallery has offered guided vault tours. Ottawa’s National Gallery gives storage tours to patrons who have purchased a certain type of membership. The Art Gallery of Hamilton welcomes the study of its permanent collection and takes appointments for those interested in visiting works held in storage. The AGH has also begun to digitize its permanent collection in its Virtual Vault.

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo proactively rotates its work, bringing more pieces out of storage and on display. Collection curator Holly Hughes says that she remembers visiting the museum as a child; she always knew where Gauguin’s The Yellow Christ was because, back then, it never moved. Albright-Knox now uses its more iconic works to introduce visitors to other parts of its collection. Walking down the hall is like thumbing through the pages of a textbook on modern art—Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning, Frida Kahlo, Wassily Kandinsky—but, in the radial corridors, visitors find conceptual portraits by Cindy Sherman and works by Helen Frankenthaler. Opposite a Lee Krasner and a Jackson Pollock, the main hallway lets off into a lower gallery, where a giant wooden girl by Marisol sits on the ground. Behind her hangs Toccata and Fugue by Arman—seventeen violins bisected down the neck and arranged guts-out in a black display box. Upstairs, in an exhibition called “Decade: Contemporary Collecting 2002–2012,” Albright-Knox is highlighting works that it has acquired over the last ten years. Hughes says that, in the face of tightening budgets, the gallery has been importing fewer exhibitions, and instead is aggressively building programming around its permanent collection.

The AGO has been trying to make better use of its own resources, too. In the last year or so, the gallery has put on exhibitions of works by Betty Goodwin, Jack Chambers, Greg Curnoe and the General Idea collective, bringing many of the shows up from the basement. Right now, the fifth floor is filled exclusively with new and old acquisitions from the contemporary collection. Earlier this year, the floor below hosted a career retrospective of Iain Baxter& (pronounced “Baxter-and”). It drew heavily on the gallery’s own holdings and archives, and I went to take a look.

In 2005, Baxter& had an ampersand legally grafted onto his surname. He told Canadian Art that it symbolized a “non-authorial take on art production ... an unending collaboration with the viewer and the means to question the artist’s role.” What does it mean to the &man, so conscious of his relationship with the viewer, when his show is packed up and stored away—when the work “goes to sleep,” as he puts it? “There’s a tiny bit of sadness, but at the same time, you’re moving on and making new things,” he says. “And you know they’re well kept.”

The question seems uninteresting to Baxter&, so he refocuses it: “In the future, museums will ask, ‘What works would you like to see?’” Baxter& envisions fully digitized collections that will allow visitors to vote on which pieces make it into the gallery space. The work won’t ever go to sleep; you’ll be able to instantly call it up and study it. He sees online cataloguing as a whole new means of storage, giving the public total access to the collection. Working with Adam Lauder of York University, Baxter& has begun to gather his own works online. The IAINBAXTER&raisonnE is an “electronic collection, virtual exhibition platform and research environment” that brings the traditional catalogue raisonné—a comprehensive record of an artist’s output—into cyberspace.

As I walk around the AGO’s Baxter& exhibition, past Bagged Landscape with Water—a cartoonish lake-and-sky setting constructed from inflatable vinyl bags, water and blue food colouring—and past the bank of old tube TVs, their flickering screens covered in acrylic paint, I see the sculptor Evan Penny. A swarm of AGO staff follows him from room to room. I recognize Penny from his sculpture Old Self, Variation #1—a hyper-realistic silicone bust of the artist imagined as an old man. (He looks much younger in real life.) He’s pointing around the space, imagining it as though Baxter&’s works—an entire Smart car, taxidermied animals piked atop exhaust pipes—weren’t there.

Penny looks excited as he discusses where his “stretches”—a series of massive busts that look like they’ve been pulled out of shape in Photoshop—should be placed. This fall, his work will be installed here. One of his pieces will make the elevator ride up from the AGO’s basement, while the rest will come in from other galleries and their respective storage spaces. Baxter&’s Bagged Landscape with Water will then perform the changing of the guard, rejoining the thousands and thousands of pieces that sleep beneath the gallery floor.