Behind the Scenes
MCA staff members are interviewed in 1997 about their work. Interviews include Torri Johnson, security officer; Margaret Farr, assistant director of education; Pablo Helguera, coordinator of public programs; Dominic Molon, curatorial assistant; Don Meckley, chief preparator; Don Bergh, design and publications director; and Kevin E. Consey, museum director.
Torri Johnson: I’m a museum security officer. We walk around and we protect the art, the patrons, and the staff members. The training lasts us basically three days. So, we learn how to observe the artwork and notice if there is any damage to the artwork, or if someone slips and falls, we would know how to take care of that. We don’t have to carry guns because that would make us look really bad to the patrons if we carry guns, and this is a friendly place so we don’t have to have guns.
No, we don’t hurt people. We just inform them that they can’t touch the artwork, and if things get out of hand, we will call a supervisor to handle any other major problems. You really meet a lot of different people. Every day all day, you get a chance to see a lot of school groups come through the building and you get a chance to talk to a lot of kids and adults about the art and what they like about the art. During the National Convention, I met governors from different states. I met Jesse Jackson here one night. We have 24-hour security so basically there’s like a different variety of hours. So it could be 7 to 3 in the morning, 3 to 11 in the afternoon, or 11 to 7 in the morning.
Margaret Farr: I’m involved in lots of different activities. I help to work with teachers to make sure that teachers can bring their students and have a good experience for those students here at the museum. I help to train the tour guides, who are volunteers. I help also with getting information out, so I help to work on label copy and also the audio tours. You might see people with these phone-like mechanisms, and those all have to have scripts that we approve. So I help to work with all of those things.
The most interesting part, I would say, would be that there are a lot of these challenges that sometimes we present art that’s very difficult to understand. And so, we try to think of different ways to make that understandable to people and enjoyable when they come to the museum.
I have a bachelor’s degree and then I went on and got my master’s degree, which was two more additional years, and then about eight years more and I got my PhD in art history. So that’s a lot of years of school, but I enjoyed it all. A long time ago, I was one of the volunteer tour guides that I mentioned to you, that I now train. This was when I was in between periods in school. And I enjoyed giving tours so much that that was one of the reasons I decided to apply. But when I initially started here, I was in a position called museum educator, where I mostly gave tours and worked with the guides who give the tours.
Pablo Helguera: My name is Pablo Helguera, and I’m the coordinator of public programs here at the museum in the education department. I write a lot of letters to many of the artists that are going to be coming here at the museum to exhibit their work. And I’m going to arrange their travel to come here to the museum to speak about their work. Another part of my job is to talk to people who come here to the museum and they take classes.
Student 1: Hey Angelique. What’s a curator?
Student 2: I don’t know. Come on, let’s find out.
Student 1: You’re walking too slow.
Dominic Molon: I work with artists on getting them into the museum and then helping them make their art. I also kind of pick who those people are who come in and do that, and also help other curators here at the museum in setting up their exhibitions. Also, I write information about them that either goes on the gallery wall or comes—goes in a book that people buy because they’re interested in that artist. What I dislike is something that I probably should have known it would be is that you spend probably more time just doing paperwork and doing phone calls or just stuff that I didn’t study to do and less time actually looking at art or thinking about it or talking to people about it.
I’d say the most exciting day was when the first exhibition that I put together. When we had another building, I was a security guard and worked at that for a while while I was studying art history in college, and then came back here to work after I finished with college. Yeah, I don’t want to be a curatorial assistant for the rest of my life but I’d like to be—my goal is to be the sort of chief curator of the museum, the person who sort of makes some of the more final decisions as to what exhibitions go into the building and what the big exhibitions are.
I really like it. The people are really wonderful and nice to work with and I like working with artists because they have a lot of really interesting ideas and they’re always very interesting people.
Don Meckley: I’m a chief preparator, which means that after the artwork has been brought to the building, someone has to actually install the artwork in the galleries. That’s what my crew does. What we do for these exhibitions includes not only putting the artwork up, but we also build all of the walls and do all of the painting in there. So when you walk inside these two spaces downstairs, for example, the only walls that come with the building are the exterior walls. Those are the permanent walls. Everything that’s inside, all of the other walls that make up the gallery spaces, those are things that we build.
In high school, I wanted to be an architect. The closest I could get to that at the time was to work as an apprentice carpenter starting when I was about 14. And I worked for about four or five years learning carpentry. So when I got out of college, I found that there weren’t a lot of things that you could do if you weren’t successful selling your artwork for money. But I found that I could use my carpentry skills helping to set up exhibitions. Normally I work 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, but when we’re doing installations I work any number of hours that are necessary to get the job done. We just finished this show a couple of weeks ago and that week I was working 80–90-hour weeks. I’m lucky to be able to come to work in tennis shoes, jeans, and usually just a T-shirt to do my job.
Don Bergh: Our department produces all of the publications for the museum. And what that means is anything that’s printed. All of the books, catalogues, fliers, posters—anything that communicates a written message, is produced by me and my department. A typical day is probably spent half doing design work, working on different projects, and the other half is making lots of phone calls. There’s a lot of organizing of things that has to go on.
The computer—we couldn’t really do what we do without a computer these days. When I first started doing design, we did it the old-fashioned way. And everything was type set. We had to put wax on the back of it and stick it down on boards. But with a computer, there’s so many things you can do so quickly.
A lot of what we do is very public; a lot of people see the work we do. And I think for me, the most important days are when we have big openings and thousands of people come to see exhibitions, and all the materials that we’ve spent a lot of energy on are sort of shown to the public for the first time. And that’s kind of a thrill.
Kevin E. Consey: I work with bringing exhibitions to the museum. I work on developing our education and teaching programs. And then I also am in charge of supervising the museum’s staff and activities. The principal reason I like it a lot is that every day is a different day—that there are different things to do that are usually exciting and interesting. It’s the challenge of trying to make a day that’s 48 hours long rather than 24 hours.
I really didn’t have any clear idea until I went to college that being involved in an art museum was something you could do. I really had no idea. I had never been in a museum until I was 18 years old. The degrees I have are a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in art history, and a master’s degree in museum practice.
I think my favorite piece in the museum actually is not in the museum but it’s across the street. It’s that Richard Hunt sculpture out in Seneca Park. His family were sharecroppers in the South, moved to Chicago. Richard was able to go to school to train himself as an artist and has had an enormously successful career. What it symbolizes for me is really the ability of anyone to become an artist and to make a difference in the world and in the city.