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University of Minnesota
July 21, 2009
Laura Muessig, Weisman art registrar and courier. Behind Muessig is Georgia O'Keeffe's "Oriental Poppies," one of the most well-traveled and frequently requested works in the Weisman's collection.
Photo: Erika Gratz
A job title like 'registrar' might not sound exciting. It is.
By Adam Overland
Okay, so it's not exactly James Bond stuff. But Laura Muessig's job is more fun than mine, and probably more than yours too. She works (most often) at the Weisman Art Museum (WAM), that monument to geometry which has displayed everything from the Bob Dylan exhibit to Georgia O'Keeffe's work (some of which is part of WAM's permanent collection) to, recently, the DNA of a human being named Eduardo Kac running red through the veins of a petunia.
Muessig, unlike Agent 007, doesn't like her martinis (or petunias for that matter) shaken or stirred. She likes artwork to be safe and sound, and she isn't fooling around on the job.
As a WAM registrar, Muessig is the day-to-day keeper of all physical records, conservation needs, value, and other information about the nearly 20,000 artworks in the Weisman's collection—far more than the museum can display (fortunately, senior registrar Karen Duncan and Muessig work together to accomplish the daunting task). Rather than let inspiration sit unseen in the depths of the Weisman, several times a year Muessig acts as an art courier, taking to the skies or hitching a ride on an 18-wheeler. After all, Georgia O'Keeffe isn't going to Europe or anywhere else on her own.
With the rise of the Weisman's nautically evocative facade on the Mississippi, the museum's works have frequently set sail to other notable museums. It's a common practice; the one-of-a-kind nature of art offers few options. (Although business travelers in a souring economy may choose to meet online, the subtleties of Mona Lisa's expression are not best viewed via webcam.)
When artwork requested by another museum is very valuable or fragile or has special value to the Weisman, a courier is sent along. Muessig has even taken a sort of courier's oath, vowing to be accountable for the safe arrival of the art and to "treat everything like it's a Picasso." "I don't think there has ever been a trip where there hasn't been some good reason why we were there," she says. "All sorts of unexpected things come up."
Muessig recalls once arriving in Paris to meet a piece. On an overseas trip, it's typical for the courier to be on the same aircraft as the artwork. On this particular journey, however, Muessig was to meet the piece at the airport—except the piece didn't arrive. Although she doesn't like to speak about the monetary value of a particular artwork, let's just say the typical airline reimbursement for lost luggage wasn't going to cover it. (The work did later arrive safely.)
Because of airport security regulations, keeping close contact with artwork can be challenging. Muessig has likely spent more hours in the underbelly of an airport than she has overseeing the installation of the work at the borrowing museum.
It's an interesting life on the road; you've left for your destination but you've not yet arrived—on the road is in-between, and strange things happen in-between.
The preferred method of travel for artwork is by truck. It's safer for the artwork. As a rule of thumb, if a piece can be driven, it shall be driven, and Muessig will ride shotgun. At all times, either the driver or Muessig must remain with the truck (and the art). Usually it's Muessig.
While the requesting museum always pays the costs of transporting the work, costs are kept "lean and mean," Muessig says. If it's an overnight trip, she stays in the cab, and not all cabs are sleeper cabs. "I always bring some kind of camping pad, blanket, and pillow, and stretch out on the floor where people put their feet," she says. Sometimes, that involves yoga-like postures to work around the gearshift. If she's lucky, the truck will have a spare cot.
The driver and courier try to accommodate each other. "You pretty much hear everyone's life story ... and keep off certain topics like politics and religion," Muessig says, although she admits once or twice listening to several hours of political talk radio. She also recalls requesting that a driver not smoke. To accommodate that request, the driver pulled over at the nearest Wal-Mart. "He bought three nicotine patches and put them all on," she says.
There've been other adventures: like the trip from Maine to Malibu during California's mudslide season, when closed roads resulted in a truck transfer; or the time her "follow car" was in an accident while the artwork in the truck continued merrily on its way. With so much careful planning and attention to detail these trips can be stressful, but Muessig says a courier can take advantage of where they are. "When your work is done, then you can go to the Bono concert."
Because of security concerns, travel plans are kept on a need-to-know basis, but Muessig is able to say that sometime in August she'll (likely) be heading to Vienna. The trip will involve a 10-hour truck ride, getting on a cargo aircraft, and riding jumpseat with the pilots. "There are no flight attendants, and you make your own meals ... but I'm ready to fly the plane if I need to," she says. A massive freighter aircraft sounds a lot like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the seemingly endless warehouse that somewhere contains something very valuable to humanity. Luckily, Muessig is there for us to keep track of exactly where that something is.