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February 2, 2008

Defensive Packing — The 'Drop Test'


World-class art packer and mover Rita Gomez (above) was profiled in a March 28, 2007 New York Times article by Laura Novak.

I was interested to learn that Ms. Gomez "packs defensively" — i.e., she calculates her crates' ability to withstand drops from as high as four feet.

In the OR we do the same thing with our monitors and machines, because we know that sooner or later they're bound to go crashing to the floor.

"Can it pass the drop test?", that's the question.

Here's the Times story.

    Master of the Science of Packing and Crating

    IN the art world, Rita Gomez is a mover, but most certainly not a shaker.

    She wears blue jeans with scuffed work boots and spends her days in a windowless room with all the glamour of a warehouse, yet Ms. Gomez has bragging rights to rival any in the business.

    Among the highly educated scholars who make the Getty Center one of the world’s renowned art institutions, it is Ms. Gomez, with her walkie-talkie and untucked flannel shirt, who has the whole collection in her hands.

    Over the last 20 years, Ms. Gomez has cradled Cleopatra’s perfume bottle and carried van Gogh’s “Irises” so many times she has lost count. She is, in museum terms, the lead preparator for packing and crating.

    “The great thing about this job is that we get to touch everything — Pissarro, Renoir, Degas,” she said. “Yesterday we unpacked another drawing by van Gogh.”

    The sophistication of her work — as much a fine art as a science — is a sign of how essential packers have become to the flow of art around the world.

    “Rita’s crates are famous,” said Mikka Gee Conway, the Getty’s assistant director for museum advancement. “I’ve seen preparers at other museums gather their staff around an empty Rita Gomez crate and use it as a teaching tool.”

    Each year from 2001 to 2005, 3,000 art objects traveled to and from the museum on loan or for restoration or exhibition. It can cost as much as $3,000 to prepare some objects for loan, Ms. Gee Conway said; in one year alone, the overall cost for in-house packing and crating was more than $100,000.

    Ms. Gomez’s goal is to allow the receiver to unpack the art by following a simple set of instructions without having to use a tool.

    “You never get tired of it because it is always a problem and always a challenge,” she said.

    She begins by measuring and weighing the object to be moved, working in the gallery with her assistants, Che Machado and Cary Stehl. Then she carves precise shapes in foam to fit and protect every surface when the object is crated.

    Tales are whispered throughout the industry of art crates coming off conveyor belts in airports going “gadunk, gadunk, gadunk,” Ms. Gomez said, mimicking the sound of breakage.

    Since arms are only human and forklifts can be faulty, she packs defensively. She does complex calculations to determine a crate’s drop height and takes steps to ensure that if a crate is repeatedly dropped, from a height of one foot to four feet, the art remains unharmed.

    “I think when you have a more complicated project, you do wake up thinking about it and you go to bed thinking about it,” she said. “You’re modeling in your head. I’m padding it, cutting it and so on. And then sometimes you make up your mind and just proceed.”

    That can mean moving beyond what Ms. Gomez calls the “goofy calculations” to applying common sense. Her cardinal rules: never touch an object without gloves (except porcelain: leaving a fingerprint is better than dropping the item); always place paintings face down (unless covered with glass) in case a pair of eyeglasses, a pen or a phone drop on it; pack objects upright no matter the size or shape; and consider using newborn-baby booties as buffers on points where foam cannot be molded.

    “Sometimes my analogy is that we’re art nurses or a person in a hospital, like a technician or physical therapist,” she said. “It’s like, how do you move a person without injury, making them comfortable. It’s a lot of that.”

    Ms. Gomez is surrounded every day by some of the art world’s wonders. One day in January she packed two Hogarth paintings in the morning and unpacked several Holbeins after lunch.

    But not everything must be rushed to a gallery. One day, an 18th-century black stone bust by Francis Harwood kept her company, peering out from the foam of its crate. A Constable landscape hung on a metal grate. Renoir’s “Promenade” sat next to it; its custom crate had been retrofitted to ship a Pissarro landscape of similar size.

    Ms. Gomez’s team can easily spend eight hours a day for four or more weeks on a single crate. While she sometimes worries that she has done too much or too little cushioning, the Getty’s staff frets more about the other end of the journey.

    “We worry about damage when the art is coming in and out of her crates at institutions with other people and handlers,” said Arlen Heginbotham, a conservator of decorative arts and sculpture. “That is the most dangerous moment for the object.”

    Art packing and crating has become more standard in recent years, after an organization of professional art movers, the Packing, Art Handling and Crating Information Network, was established.

    The industry has changed a lot, said Mike Hascall, the owner of Artech, a fine-art transportation and installation company in Seattle. Before, he said, “there were craft secrets and trade secrets and people didn’t share information.” But the packing information group now sells manuals, he added, “and the Smithsonian has test labs, and the museums have really set the standards for the industry of art handling.”

    Ms. Gomez’s work has earned her unusual respect.

    For several months she has been working with Mr. Heginbotham and Brian Considine, also a conservator of decorative arts and sculpture, to prepare a 17th-century Italian table for transport to England in 2008.

    Several years ago, Mr. Considine recalled, he accompanied a piece packed by Ms. Gomez to Amsterdam for an exhibition.

    “We opened up the crate and the guy looked at me, and he said, ‘God, Rita’s amazing,’ ” Mr. Considine said. “I didn’t even know the guy knew her name. They didn’t say beautiful crate or anything. They just said, ‘God, Rita’s amazing.’ ”

February 2, 2008 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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It takes a great amount of patience to pack and move art items as most of them are fragile and need to be handled with care. Thanks for introducing Rita Gomez. She is doing a wonderful job.

Posted by: Archie | Feb 25, 2008 4:37:47 AM

Same with architectual models. There's nothing better than seeing our atelier studio put in 1000 hours on a scale model for a bid ($100k+), then drop it from four feet before sending it off to Dubai.

Posted by: JMT | Feb 2, 2008 2:19:42 PM

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