A rare opportunity saw Andrew Hawley join the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) as a casual art handler after graduating from his BFA in Drawing at RMIT in 2003.
Eighteen years later, he is now the Collection and Exhibition Preparator at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), known for their eccentric and challenging exhibitions, and undoubtedly, one of the most exciting environments in which to work in art installations, storage, and exhibition preparations.
He also holds a Masters in Cultural Materials Conservation from the University of Melbourne, and has worked across ACMI, the Victorian Arts Centre, ExhibitOne, POD Museum and Art services, and the Melbourne Immigration Museum.
From Ron Meuck’s 10 metre infant sculpture to Ai Weiwei’s White House (2015) in Mona’s Siloam, Hawley and his colleagues are the answer to your question: ‘But how did they manage to get it there?’
Here, Hawley shares the excitement of working on high-profile exhibitions and discusses the skills you would need to pursue this challenging but rewarding profession.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE WHAT YOU DO?
In a nutshell; I prepare artwork and other culturally significant material for storage, exhibition and loan, and assist with exhibition/display installation. My role is quite varied but I spend most of my time at our off-site collection store where I design, construct and fit out custom packing units for artworks. These vary from timber crates and travel frames to archival board boxes, archival tubes for rolled works and the occasional solander box. I also ensure artwork is clean and display ready.
I organise and maintain the off-site collection storage area which involves a lot of 3D Tetris. I work closely with colleagues including registrars, a conservator, a mount maker and several other very highly skilled art handler/technicians as well as a wider team of kinetic artwork and time based media technicians.
I assist with exhibition installation/deinstallation and collection changeover at the museum and some external locations during festivals.
I’m also a qualified paper conservator so I undertake some conservation assessments and treatments when required.
Read: So you want my arts job: Museum Program Producer
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN YOUR CAREER?
I finished a fine art degree in 2003 and was looking for something outside the hospitality industry and inside the museum/gallery industry. Luckily, a regular customer at one of the venues I worked in (as a chef/cook), let word slip that the National Gallery of Victoria were hiring casual art handlers to prepare to move into the refurbished premises at St Kilda Road. I got the boss’ details, wrote an application letter, attended a job interview and somehow was successful, despite no prior experience.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FORWARD TO THE MOST IN YOUR JOB?
Unique challenges and a reliance on lateral thinking for solutions – something I experience almost every day. I also have great colleagues with whom I liaise about all aspects of the job. We learn from each others’ creative perspectives.
I love the excitement of a large or high profile exhibition, including engagement with external or international artists and curators, trying to help realise a vision that may or may not be clear in everybody’s mind. I equally love the calm and solitude of a collection store and the fact that I work so closely with museum objects on a daily basis. If I have a bad day, looking at an ancient Egyptian mummified cat or some 2,000 year old bronze knife coins is very soothing.
IN AN INTERVIEW FOR YOUR JOB, WHAT SKILLS AND QUALITIES WOULD YOU LOOK FOR?
Similar institutional experience in a similar capacity (eg. art handling, art packing) would be a must. It takes many years to attune yourself to the level of care required around culturally significant objects and irreplaceable artworks.
Other qualifiers would include:
- A strong work ethic
- An ability to handle multiple projects with strict deadlines
- The ability to delegate fun jobs
- The ability to undertake monotonous or tedious jobs
- Strong, clear communication
- Physically fit and able
The ability to look outside oneself and one’s own experience for solutions. It’s a bit of a ‘jack of all trades’ kind of position and a good Jack should know when they need to call on a master of something.
Someone who prefers order and neatness in their professional life. I’m in no way the neatest person in my private life but organising a storage area that keeps artwork safe and secure requires a high degree of attention to detail.
WHAT IS ONE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE INSTALLATION EXPERIENCES/PROJECTS THAT YOU’VE WORKED ON?
There’s been a lot over the years – I’ve done everything from helping carry and install a 10 metre silicon sculpture of an infant (Ron Mueck) to hanging iconic works from Picasso, Munch or Tom Roberts. From installing 100 tiny neolithic arrow/spear heads in one showcase to helping build a large, imperial Chinese house framework on glass balls (Ai Weiwei), and from installing famous AFL players’ jerseys in a sports museum (MCG/Australian Sports Museum) to hanging stills from Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey (ACMI).
It’s hard to pick one moment from one project. In recent times, it’s probably been the preparatory work and final install of big MONA shows like On the Origins of Art, The Museum of Everything and our recent Monanisms 2021 collection based exhibition.
WHAT’S THE BEST THING HAPPENING IN YOUR SECTOR AT THE MOMENT?
We’re still operating and I still enjoy my job.
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