Where I work: McNay Art Museum

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Please do not touch the art.

If you’ve been to art galleries and museums, you’ve probably seen signs with this message. Most important is the preservation of art, which is why touching art unless it is explicitly labeled as “interactive” is strictly prohibited. Even a tiny bit of pressure or grease on a finger can seriously damage a work of art.

But my job at the McNay Art Museum is literally touching art. While wearing gloves, part of my job is to touch the art in order to set it up, store it or transport it. Before I even knew what an art preparer was, I knew I wanted a career in the arts.

My first fine art exhibition was when I was young while visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts. What had the most impact were the Detroit industry murals that Diego Rivera painted in the early 1930s. Years later, I would paint murals myself here in San Antonio. To this day, whenever I work on a mural project, I remember seeing Rivera’s murals for the first time.

I started my formal training at San Antonio College, where I took painting classes and learned how to build my own canvas stretcher frames for my paintings. To complete my Bachelor of Fine Arts, I transferred to the University of Texas at San Antonio, where I mainly focused on painting and murals, specifically the history of Mexican muralism.

During a trip to Paris in 2015, I saw employees of the Musée d’Orsay working directly with art. They were curators and technicians, and they were working on the restoration of a large painting by Courbet. They were locked in a glass cube and visitors were able to observe the process. I remember thinking, “How can I do this? How to find a job in a museum?

Osray employees working on an exhibition during Rhys’ trip to Paris in 2015. Credit: Courtesy / Rhys Munro

After graduation, I immediately started working on wall commissions and art prep work for which I was hired by the city’s Department of Arts and Culture. Building a reputation as both a professional artist and art manager for the city’s galleries and local private collectors led the installation director of the McNay Art Museum to reach out in early 2018 with an offer to join the team as a contract art preparer. In early 2020, I was hired on a full-time permanent basis by the McNays.

One of the best parts of my job is unpacking incoming artwork on loan to the museum. When the crate arrives, we unload it into our artwork receiving area, where we remove the bolts, then lift the lid to see what’s inside. It’s a thrill that never gets old.

Visitors to the museum can see the front of the painting once it’s hung in an exhibit, but the back tells its own story. There are often writings by the artist and gallery labels – some dating back over 100 years – documenting where the painting traveled. These markings reveal the history of the work, like a passport to painting.

In addition to taking care of the art, with our installation team, I take care of everything from the preparation and painting of the gallery walls to the making of the labels and the transport of the works of art. . I like to visit the houses of private collectors, who are almost always very kind and will show us with enthusiasm and pride other works in their collection.

The first time I worked at the McNay was in the spring of 2018 on an exhibition called Immersed. The highlight of this was the installation of Yayoi Kusama Consequences of the erasure of eternity. The work is essentially a small piece of floor-to-ceiling mirrors and lights that gives the viewer the feeling of infinity. The installation process was incredibly complex and detailed – and fun! As a lifelong Lego fan, it was like putting together the ultimate Lego set. Honestly, it was such a privilege to be part of the installation team and be a part of this rare process.

Cherise 'Rhys' Munro se tient à l'intérieur de <i>All the undying love I have for pumpkins</i> by Yayoi Kusama.
Rhys Munro stands inside Yayoi Kusama’s All the undying love I have for pumpkins. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Like most countries around the world, the McNay closed temporarily in March of last year due to the pandemic. The installation team got back to work fairly early in June 2020, even before the museum was open to the public. We did our best to maintain a sense of normalcy and continued to run the exhibitions in our galleries.

At one point, I have to admit that it seemed rather futile to exchange works of art and install new shows. While the world is virtually at a standstill, which naturally results in low visitor traffic, we asked ourselves: “What is this for?” But seeing even a few guests walking around the museum and admiring the art was worth it. I appreciated that they keep coming and clinging to a sense of normalcy through art. At the same time, it reassured me that I still had a goal.

I now have a new post of museum conservation technician, which is still within the conservation service. My new role involves the maintenance, preservation and handling of works from the museum’s collection on display and stored, including all exterior sculptures. Every day I am grateful for the opportunities I have had. Even when I’m exhausted, with muscles sore from heavy art manipulation all day, it’s a satisfying feeling at the end of seeing a show unfold and knowing that I’m a part of it.

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