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Exhibit puts inner workings on display

WSU museum takes visitors behind scenes

An exhibit at the Museum of Art at Washington State University brings the “back of house” to front, putting its staff on display as they do the work involved in running a museum and mounting a show.

The public is invited to observe and ask questions as museum workers do curatorial tasks, such as preservation work, documentation and inventory in the gallery space. Visitors will see how artwork is acquired, photographed and framed and learn about the guidelines museum staffers live by when handling the work.

“People are always coming in and asking us, ‘Hey, do you have a permanent collection,’ ‘What’s behind that big door in the gallery,’ questions like that,” said Zach Mazur, the Pullman museum’s curator of education and collections. “We’re totally opening that up to the public now.”

Mazur curated the exhibit, called “Behind the Scenes,” which will run through July 3.

The staff moved their operations into the museum’s gallery space for the show.

“All the matting and framing and art handling and prep work and condition reporting we’ll be doing in the eyes of the public,” Mazur said.

The exhibit moves visitors through the art acquisition, documentation, storage and exhibition processes, starting with flashing images from the museum’s permanent collection.

A sampling of 20 prints from the museum’s most recent gift – a collection of work by pop artist Jim Dine, who lives part-time in Walla Walla – are stacked against the wall, with some crates opened, “so you can see the images we’re going to be working with throughout the duration of the show,” Mazur said. They’ll also likely work on pieces by Andy Warhol.

A honeycomb-like wooden structure, built as part of research leading toward construction of a geodesic pavilion on WSU’s campus, reflects light throughout the gallery.

Parts of the exhibition will change continually, as student interns curate mini-shows throughout its run, drawing work from the museum’s permanent exhibition.

As the art museum plans an expansion, museum staffers have been touring other facilities’ behind-the-scenes operations, Mazur said, learning how they operate efficiently to plan and mount exhibitions.

“More and more, museums are trying to become more transparent and trying to engage the audience,” he said.

As a university institution, the Museum of Art has a different obligation from other museums, said Chris Bruce, its director. The WSU museum wants to expose people to great art, Bruce said, but also to “make it less precious, in a way – to appreciate it from the inside as well as from ‘It’s there on the wall and therefore it’s important.’ ”

It’ll do so in more spacious digs, if the museum’s fundraising and construction plans play out.

The museum has raised roughly $9.3 million of its $15 million goal for a new building in the center of its Pullman campus, Bruce said. He wants to have raised the money by the end of June 2015.

Olson Kundig Architects of Seattle designed plans for the new 18,000-square-foot, five-gallery, stand-alone museum. The current museum, at 4,500 square feet, has just one gallery and is in a building shared with WSU’s fine arts department.

In the meantime, Bruce said, he’s hoping people leave the current exhibit with a better understanding of what museums do.

Debby Stinson, the museum’s marketing manager, said the exhibit surpassed her expectations.

“When you walk into the gallery, it’s as if you’re walking from one wonderland to another,” she said. “It’s a beautiful exhibit, let alone the fact that you get to learn things while you’re in it.”

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