From Forklifts to Finishing Touches: Inside the Work of an Art Technician
When it comes to museum work, most people know that curators build the collection, and conservators preserve and protect the artworks. But do you know how an artwork gets from storage into the gallery?
Art technicians play a crucial role in giving the public first-hand access to our collections, but their work is much more than simply moving and placing an object. On any given day, an art technician may be installing a sculpture, configuring audio-visual systems, or brainstorming the best way to transport a pillar of human fat. It’s a job that requires not only immense technical knowledge, but also creativity, collaboration, and excellent spatial awareness.
Kieran Champion, Senior Manager of Installation and Displays at M+, shares his journey into the field, the ins and outs of installing priceless objects and artworks, and the joys of building a team in Hong Kong.
How did you get into art installation?
Like many Australians, I went to the UK before I turned thirty to enact a visa that would allow me to work there for two years. My wife ended up getting a job in Oxford, and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford happened to have a job advertised for an art handler with construction experience. Having graduated from art school and worked for my brothers in landscape construction for a number of years, I thought to myself: ‘If that’s not serendipity, then I don’t know what is.’
My art-handling skills were in no way great. I knew how to be cautious, but I had no proper training. Luckily, my colleagues were very sympathetic to me, and I learned a lot. It was an amazing collection to work with; it felt like a privilege to do what we did.
At one point or another, I knew that being an art technician or art fabricator was what I wanted to do. You ask technicians, handlers—whatever you want to call them—how they fell into it, and most of them will tell you that they fell arse-backwards into it! I don’t think anyone graduated art school and said, ‘You know what I want to do? I want to work for a museum hanging art.’ It’s just not on your radar.
It seems that the skills, problem-solving, or patterns of thinking you learn in one field can be applied in other ways, particularly in a museum environment.
That’s it. Creativity and problem-solving are quite tight bedfellows, aren’t they? Whether it’s making art, or making decisions, there’s always risk present and choices that are irreversible. I’ve always looked to take opportunities where I can and roll the dice a little bit. And I still feel that way. You’ve got one life to live; there’s no point grinding it out doing something you don’t want to do.
You spent time in Hong Kong when you were young. What was it like coming back to a city that you have a history with?
It was something I’d always wanted to do if I could, and when the opportunity arose, I was thrilled. Hong Kong has always held a special place for me. The first plane I ever got on took me to Hong Kong; I was three years old. My dad worked for Cathay Pacific for twenty years. I was here for Handover Night. I used to come up for my school holidays a few times a year and visit my parents. It was the closest thing to a second home that I ever had, given that I was at boarding school all through high school. The opportunity to come live here and help create an industry around art installation in Hong Kong really interested me.
What kind of work does the job entail?
I think the majority of what we do is problem-solving: from small things, like readjusting the back of an artwork, to installing complicated, multi-functional works like Sarah Sze’s Centrifuge, which has a huge number of components. Some works don’t have instructions. Others consist of dozens of different parts, technologies, materials. I love that the job is essentially just a whole bunch of people who come together and solve a problem. That’s the thing that gives you the most thrill.
One day we’re driving a forklift; the next, we’re installing the finest pieces of delftware porcelain. I love that. We switch between these things, and the mindset is still weirdly the same. Everything is thought about cautiously. You’re constantly aware of your surroundings. You’re aware of exactly where you need to put your feet. You’re aware of what your colleague is doing. You often don’t have to speak; you can just look or raise an eyebrow, and there’s a beautiful simpatico that takes place. That’s something that I look forward to: seeing my team get into that. And that all comes back to the people that you work with. The brotherhood and sisterhood of what we do on a daily basis.
What do you like most about art installation?
We’re seeing these artworks, objects, like no one ever gets to see them. It’s the privilege of this job. It still makes the hairs on my arms and neck stand up as I’m saying this to you now. I’ve seen the back of artworks where artists have written little messages to their loved ones, things that the public never gets to see or experience, like spending time alone with a Monet exhibition that I’ve just hung.
I once installed a Stradivarius that was donated to the Ashmolean under the condition that it was never played, which is kind of crazy. It’s one of the most perfectly preserved Stradivari in the world for that reason. It was amazing to see something so old look so perfect and to be the one responsible for handling and installing it. There are parts of what we do where it’s hard to describe how much satisfaction it gives you.
I’m not a practising artist anymore, but it’s a huge part of what fills the creative urge for me, especially the collaborative aspect. When everything is working and flows well, the curator’s happy, the registrar’s feeling like everything’s going to schedule, the technicians are communicating on this non-verbal level—not that they’re generally very quiet! It’s a hard thing to put your finger on, but it’s what gives me my creative fulfilment. Now, when I look at my young team taking that on, you can see them developing and growing in their roles. I’ve watched it happen over almost four years; it’s hugely satisfying from my point of view.
What does an install look like for a museum with as much space as M+?
We’ve got around 17,000 square metres of exhibition display space. It’s the equivalent of the Tate or Pompidou. I think it’s pretty rare for these kinds of things to start from scratch and at this scale. What it takes to install that is a lot of people and a lot of planning and back-end support. The thing that I like the most about everything here is the people we’ve got that are going to carry it through. We’re the ones that finish it on the wall and put it in place, but without exhibition managers, registrars, conservators, and all the other staff who make people engaged and interested in it, it wouldn’t work.
Are there misconceptions about your field of work?
Yeah! I’ll give you an example. Maybe it was a throwaway line, but I think it exemplifies the mindset of a lot of people within museums about what it is us art handlers, or art technicians, do. A former colleague at another institution once said that we were simply ‘unskilled labour’. We adapted that. One of the older techs quickly made that into his Instagram handle. He still posts things under #UnskilledLabour!
The job’s evolved into such a complicated thing now as we go from large-scale installations like setting up infinity rooms to works with audio-visual capabilities, programming technicalities, information and communications infrastructure, and just so much construction. Our work exemplifies the cross-disciplinary practice of contemporary art. That’s why I feel the title of ‘art handler’ is not apt; it’s a bit old-fashioned. It’s not something that tells you what it is that we do. ‘Technician’ is far more accurate, as it encompasses a lot of experience, know-how, and various types of skills to do it at the highest level.
What are you most looking forward to?
When I first came to Hong Kong, I was more of an on-the-floor manager, and there were key artworks for which I really liked the idea of the challenge—like Civilisation Pillar, which is made out of human fat. Big commissions, working with contemporary artists—those things excite me.
But now, as I transition into a more desk management position, I have to switch my enjoyment to other things. I have found that now from watching my young team develop the joy and understanding of what it is to be an art technician. Seeing my team advance into becoming world-class art technicians is what I’m looking forward to.
The next generation has got good things coming, particularly with this building and what it’s going to do for the city’s creative culture. Technicians and artists within the city can think, ‘Yeah, I can be an artist and come work here’. At least, that’s what I hope to leave behind when I go eventually.
As told to Chris Sullivan (Senior Producer, Digital Content, M+). The above interview has been edited for clarity. All images: M+, Hong Kong (unless otherwise indicated). This article was originally published on M+ Stories.
Kieran Champion is Senior Manager, Installations and Displays at M+.