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Spring 2003

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Centennial spotlight

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Special handling

Ever wonder how the artworks actually get mounted on the Tang Museum walls? At busy, ambitious museums like the Tang, directors and curators design the exhibitions but rarely hammer the nails. Enter museum preparator Christopher Kobuskie.
     Originally trained as an artist, Kobuskie is also adept at carpentry and ad-hoc engineering, skills honed in previous work at Albany-area museums. To dress the Tang’s two main galleries with six major exhibitions each year, Kobuskie hires and directs temporary installation crews—“mostly artists with contracting or carpentry experience.” Besides handling the artworks, the crew rearranges and paints the large temporary walls that create new gallery configurations for each show, then tailors individual lights, sound, and wiring.
Chris Kobuskie rides a lift to hang a huge hair-and-twine artwork in the Tang Museum.
     “Every situation, every artwork, is unique,” observes Kobuskie, and that’s especially true of the eclectic contemporary works often showcased at the Tang. Installations and electronic art, for instance, don’t come with frames—or even instructions, sometimes. “An artist sends us slides of the artwork and we figure how to present it. Sometimes we have to call the artists or lenders or other museum preparators and say, ‘We’re a little stumped.’ They always help.”
     Working closely with museum director Charles Stainback and curator Ian Berry, Kobuskie gauges how many crew-hours will be needed to properly install the hundred or so artworks per exhibition. It takes exquisite care to move each piece from shipping crate to gallery. “You pace yourself, wear white gloves, and arrange cushioned surfaces beneath every piece,” he says.
     The challenges can seem daunting. For instance, a delicate hanging called The Praying Wall was made of human hair, white glue, and twine; its display at the Tang measured an imposing 20 by 25 feet. But “it wasn’t as difficult as you would think,” grins Kobuskie. “It came in four-by-six-foot sections that we laid out on brown paper. We handed sections up to two people in the scissors-lift, who nailed them up with finish nails, boom-boom-boom. Took one day.”
     At the other end of the scale, a cute little number like Rebecca Horn’s Oysters Piano was a major headache. Composed of a delicate set of levers, each ending with an oyster shell holding a pearl-like marble, “it ran on a tiny electric motor. We went through four motors before we determined that crossed wiring was burning them out,” says Kobuskie.
     Over the short course of his Tang career, Kobuskie has installed a fog machine, tanks of live frogs, a 200-pound Roy Lichtenstein painting, and a glittering Native American “boutique,” complete with disco lights and music. “It’s all part of my job—from ordering lightbulbs to handling $100,000 artworks,” he says.
     As an artist himself, Kobuskie has his favorites in each show, “but as a preparator, I sometimes just think, ‘Boy, that piece was hard to install!’ But Oysters Piano was, after all, really a joy. When the keys went up and down and the marbles moved on the shells, they made a little clinking noise that was very lovely.” —BAM


© 2003 Skidmore College