Behind the Art

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Behind the museum wall is a climate controlled environment. It’s not too cold and not too warm. But you still need to keep your gloves on.

The storage area for the Bates College Museum of Art’s permanent collection contains 4,500 objects, the majority are works of art on paper. “Works on paper are sort of what we are known for,” said museum curator Bill Low.

“Works on paper are very delicate,” said Low, who said he is fortunate to not only oversee the collection, but to touch and smell the art as well.

“The reason I have this job is because I love caring for objects,” said Low. “You can learn a lot from handling the objects, the smell of them, the origin of them.”

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Low and his staff always wear white gloves when they touch the objects. The natural oils on fingers can damage the art. A thumb print may not show up now, but it will in 10 years, said Low.

The museum’s permanent collection is used primarily for teaching. It was founded in 1955 when a gift of 99 drawings by Lewiston native Marsden Hartley was given to the college.

The collection is open to the public by appointment, said Low. Maine summers attract a fair number of scholars and tourists to view the collection, especially to see Hartley’s works, said Low.

The storage area is small for a collection this size, said Low. “We have had to turn gifts away due to the lack of space,” he said. “We have to be selective.”

When not on display in one of the museum’s three galleries, art is stored at a consistent 65 to 70 degrees with a relative humidity of 40 to 50 percent. Consistency is the key, said Low. Objects of art are separated by type: photography, small works on paper, large works on paper, three dimensional works, paintings and over-sized works on paper. Each work of art, big or small, is given an accession number for cataloging purposes.

Low and his staff look off-campus when planning for the three to five temporary art exhibitions hosted by Bates each year. Low pursues works of art from different museums and collectors to supplement what he may already have. If he needs to borrow art, he plans years in advance. Low is currently working on exhibits for 2013-2014. “At the same time, it is important to be nimble, to meet the needs of the college and the community,” he said.

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