Had I known on that day in the winter of 1982 as I climbed the wide creaking staircase to the cavernous, white-walled third floor Nexus Gallery in the old Forrest Avenue school building on Ralph McGill Boulevard in Atlanta (now, poignantly, an empty lot at the corner of Glen Iris) to begin the internship that my Georgia State University photography professor John McWilliams had alerted me to, that this experience would lead to a panoply of artists, ideas, curators, critics, friends, exhibitions, travel, conferences, lectures, studios, residencies and job opportunities, I would have taken more photographs and better notes along the way. As it was, my first day as an intern at Nexus Gallery was an eye-opener.
Although I had pursued studio art classes in the typical funky circumstances of loft spaces, apartment dining rooms, basements, art school classrooms, and rehabbed college Quonset huts, my understanding of the physicality of art installations and gallery work was incomplete, to say the least. Galleries and museums were quiet, reflective, aesthetic environments – carefully orchestrated, meticulously annotated and elegantly lit – where everyone spoke in hushed tones. Footsteps echoed across the polished wooden or raw cement flooring. Distantly, somewhere, one might hear a phone ring, a muted discussion, the staccato of a typewriter (yes, it was that long ago!).
But, on my first day at Nexus, the ever-brilliant and seemingly never-daunted artist/curator (now /architect) Amy Landesberg and I tore down a temporary wall. We loaded up the broken shards of drywall and the dusty, unsalvageable debris and two-by-fours in several large gray trash cans, hooked the cans up to a chain-and-claw hook/pulley wench, rolled them out along the hoist beam through the third floor window, and lowered them to the parking lot below – a DIY freight elevator of sorts. Running downstairs, we awkwardly taxied the trash cans down the driveway to the dumpster on Fortune Street.
I quickly discovered that when doors closed between exhibitions, galleries and museums are basically construction sites. Glamorous, not. But, fine by me. Paint, spackle, tools, sand paper, sheet plastic, dollies, wrapping and unwrapping, crates and boxes. Paper masks on elastic strings for sanding. Pencils and levels, hammers, drills, screws and nails. We used L-hooks and sheet glass to hang countless unframed photographs (after all, this was the Valhalla of fine art photographers.) Glass cleaner and paper towels. Glassine and bubble wrap. Later I learned about condition reports, loan agreements and fine-art shipping protocols. White gloves. Surface damage. Inherent vice.
The photographer Kiyoaki Kato taught me to install artwork – the calculations of eye-level. Measuring an entire wall, the width of all the pieces, then figuring the spacing between works. How to measure from the top of the frame to the two points on the wire. Arithmetic has never been my strong suit, so I found this precision rather intimidating. What if I make a mistake and hang it wrong, or put a screw or nail in the wrong place?, I asked. No problem, Kiyo told me, you just do it again, and patch any mistakes that show. Only way to learn was to do it.
Step by step and show by show, I learned to hang various types of work in various circumstances, how to place pedestals, lay out exhibitions, sequence artwork into visual narratives. Our signage was letter-by-letter press-on vinyl, purchased from Sam Flax, and the tungsten lights were spots or floods in “cans” in the 16-foot ceilings. Just extracting the enormous wooden A-frame ladder from the storeroom was a two-person job, but once erected, it could be scuttled across the wooden floors, its legs buffered by carpet squares and duct tape, like tennis balls on walkers. We hand-typed labels, spray-mounted them to foam core, then hand-cut them with X-acto knives and T-squares.