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Arts & Culture
Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Tales From The Museum With Dayton Art Institute's Chief Preparator

Sandy Skoglund (American, born 1946), Shimmering Madness, 1998, jelly beans, wood, plastic, metal, motors. Museum purchase, 2001.34. Image courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.
artist: Sandy Skoglund
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courtesy of Dayton Art Institute
Sandy Skoglund's Shimmering Madness installation is part of the Dayton Art Institute's collection.

If you want to know where to find an object deep in the galleries of the Dayton Art Institute, you should talk to Martin Pleiss, the Chief Preparator and Exhibition Designer.

Over the past 23 years, he and his team have handled nearly every item shown in the museum. He does the creative work, plus the heavy lifting.

“We essentially are in charge of the movement, the install, the display, the presentation of all the artwork.”

In addition to the museum’s permanent collection, Martin handles the special traveling shows too. These can come with big logistical challenges. The 2005 blockbuster exhibit, Treasures of Ancient Egypt was then the largest collection of artifacts ever on loan from the Egyptian Government.

“I had told the director you know there’s only one place this is going to fit in the entire museum and it’s the American Wing. When I’m acknowledging that I’m also realizing that we are going to have to move that whole wing, and that’s literally what we did, we took the entire American wing and moved it downstairs and put it back on view, and then the American wing had to be transferred into a place that looked like Egypt.”

It took some doing.

“The Egyptians brought a whole traveling entourage from couriers to conservators, I had my own team, we recreated a tomb, so we had a whole separate prep-shop team for that. One of the sarcophaguses weighed 7 tons, came in through the Great Hall, it had to be crane-lifted and brought through the balcony because it wouldn’t fit anywhere else, and then they wanted it in the 3-window gallery which is 1,2,3,4, 5 galleries into the wing, and it weighs 14,000 lbs. “

Martin studied to be an artist and being around the art is one of the perks of the job.

“To be just right up on some of those old Egyptian stone carvings was just great. It’s great to have gone to school and you see this stuff, I’m going to show my age, in slide shows in Art History and all that, that was one of the early hooks, was how I got involved in this, was at Wright State they had a contemporary art gallery, “

He got a job as a student gallery monitor checking temperature and humidity in the rooms.

"I was immediately drawn to 'wow, you get to install this stuff,' and then you start dealing with contemporary artists who are still alive, and you find out that they have the same trials and tribulations and doubts about their work that you do since you’re a studio major, and it opened my mind to like, wow this is amazing, and I was hooked ever since.”

At the DAI he still gets to work directly with artists.

“I got to meet Sandy Skoglund, worked with her several times, we own the Shimmering Madness installation. She’s a photographer, and she creates these setting to do her photos, and they kind of take on a different life after that.”

Shimmering Madness has a kind of discotheque feel to it. It’s made of two mannequins dancing in the corner of a room. Their heads are on backward, and their arms are gesturing wildly. It’s a quirky piece made of colorful, unusual materials like jellybeans, "and the butterflies which are made out of feathers and hand-painted.”

There are hundreds of butterflies, in every color. Their wings are attached to motors, so they flutter. The dancers, meanwhile, and the dance floor are made out of red, yellow and orange jellybeans. It’s a museum favorite. It was a memorable experience for Martin too.

"In the end, she wanted to see some of my work so we were sitting and it was like we were having a talk you know about art processes, and some of the challenges she faced with some of her work and we were just on this level field, and sometimes you just forgot it’s like wow this is Sandy Skoglund, you know, internationally renowned artist.”

Is there any kind of exhibit that could overwhelm the skills of someone whose job it is to wire butterfly wings and move a sarcophagus? I don’t know, but as Martin Pleiss likes to say, the most challenging show is the next one.

Support for Culture Couch comes from WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community.

Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.