That’s A Job! (Preparator)

I want to thank our readers for all the great feedback about our interview with food photographer Maya Visnyei. We’re excited to keep this feature going and help you discover more of the jobs that exists in and around art. Our second profile is Josh Morden, preparator at Stephen Bulger Gallery. Never heard of a preparator?  I’ll give you a hint: he gets to touch the art.

Name: Josh Morden
Job Description: Preparator

KTB: So what is a preparator?
Josh Morden: I do most of the framing for the gallery, and the installation of the shows. ‘Preparator’ is a made up word, someone in the arts once made it up and it doesn’t exist in the dictionary, but most museums even use it as a term, it’s pretty standard.

KTB: Are you freelance or an employee?
JM: I’m an employee of the gallery

KTB: Where do you work?
JM: I’m most always on-site at the gallery.

 KTB: Can you describe your pay structure?
JM: This is a salary position for me, but I know a lot of other framers in the city have an hourly fee instead.

 KTB: What responsibilities are involved in your job?
JM: It’s framing, it’s hanging, it’s basically doing most of the physical labour involved in running a gallery.

KTB: Is it a separate job than an installer?
JM: Yes. An installer specifically hangs the works for exhibition. ‘Preparator’ is kind of an umbrella term for someone who both frames and installs. And also there’s packaging, crating work for shipments, etc.

KTB: So basically if anyone’s touching the work, it’s you?
JM: Yep.

KTB: What is an average day for you?
JM: Usually there’s no such thing as an ‘average’ day, which is one of the things I really like about the job. Since most galleries are small businesses at their heart, it means you’re doing something different every day. Usually there are client orders to be framed, and around exhibition times there are exhibitions to be framed. Usually something is coming on or off the walls, and sometimes things need to be de-framed. The week before an exhibition gets installed I’m focused on ordering supplies, making sure we have everything, matting all the work, framing all the work, and finally, on the last day, hanging it all. When there’s an art fair, I may spend a week framing, and then a week crating the work, getting it packaged and ready to ship.

KTB: What background do you have for this job?
JM: Before I graduated from Ryerson I got an internship here, and that became a job as a registrar (the person who tracks the gallery’s inventory). While doing that I got used to handling the prints. I left the gallery for a while to do my masters degree, and when I finished there was an opening for a preparator and they offered me the job.

KTB: Where does your master’s degree fit in with your work at the gallery?
JM: It doesn’t, really.

KTB: Why did you decide to take a break from work to continue your education?
JM: I wanted to continue the work I was doing. Even though I like doing a hands on job, I really love academic pursuit. I did my masters degree because there was a lot I was reading about and researching, and I wanted to have a place where I could do that.

KTB: What are some important skills for this job?
JM: You need to have a good eye for detail because framing is the major component of the work, and it’s a meticulous job. It’s one of those things where you know you’re doing a really good job if no one can tell it’s there. You need to be delicate, and you need to have steady hands, because you are the person lifting and handling all the work, and you definitely get the nerves when you’re managing the really expensive work. But really, the number one skill you should have for this job is you need be a jack of all trades.

KTB: So the number one skill you need is to have a lot of skills?
JM: Ha, yeah. You need to be a polymath. If you’re the kind of person who, when any weird thing gets thrown at you, you’re like “ok, let’s figure this out, let’s see if we can do this!” that is perfect for this job. You will be thrown such curveballs every day, you just need to have that attitude.

KTB: What should someone considering this kind of work know about the job?
JM: You need to have a lot of patience. I think when a lot of people start out they really stress out about how they’re going to frame everything perfectly. But it’s like animal training where if you’re scared the animal can sense it… in this case, if you’re scared the work can sense it. If you just approach things and you’re calm, you’ll do the job and you’ll do it well.

KTB: What happens if something breaks while it’s being installed?
JM: That hasn’t happened.

KTB: What happens if someone viewing the show knock something off a wall?
JM: That’s one of the reasons we frame with plexi instead of glass….

KTB: What’s the most important tool in your kit?
JM: It’s hilarious how much I use a bookbinder’s bone folder. It’s the most useful thing ever for the number of time you have to flip corners out of mats, press things down, all kinds of stuff.

KTB: What is the most exciting thing you get to do?
JM: I like it when I get to travel and install at art fairs. There’s a show we do inNew York every year at the Park Avenue Armoury, and for the past few years I’ve gone down to install the show there.

KTB: What’s best piece you’ve ever handled?
JM: I’m a geek at heart; we have a really great piece in the gallery that’s a portrait of Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, by Yousef Karsh. And it’s signed by all three of them.

KTB: What is a misconception people have of your job?
JM: I’ve never really spoken to anyone who has a conception of my job, let alone a misconception…no one really knows this is a job. The most I can think of is that this is a Luddite job, but it’s really a highly skilled job. One of the things I love is that it has such transferable skills; it’s like being a plumber. You know that there’s always going to be someone in the world who’s going to need something framed.