March of 2020 was the month the world decided the best thing to do was stand still. Artists I know just kept on making art. They are creative and unstoppable.
After art school, I moved to NYC and quickly learned to exchange art installation and fabrication skills for an income that would allow me to make the artwork I wanted to make and still pay my bills. Sculpture Chicago, an international venue, lured me westward. By 1992 we were incorporated, and remain today a small group of nine creative people who derive their financial security from providing specialized fine art-rigging and artifact handling services. Our clients are individual artists, collectors, museums, galleries, universities, curators, landscape architects, construction companies, and corporations. We have steadily carved out a niche as specialized service providers. Since Covid, we are also now regarded as essential workers, because the work we perform is in unison with the construction industry. When the news of Covid began whispering westward from New York, we wondered what we would do if we were told we must close, and how we could prepare. What would our employees need to make it through? There was no easy answer.
So we decided to do what we always do when faced with a challenging project: we unpacked it, and laid the pieces out on the table, facing up. We talked among ourselves. By the time the shelter-in-place mandate began on March 21st at 5pm CST, we were prepared to sit down and take a break along with the rest of the world. All the while we kept our antennae keenly tuned, listening for any clear message in the static.
While quarantined at home we realized our good fortune; our home and work life are located only 2.7 miles apart. Only two of the nine employees live outside of that radius. If necessary, we could all walk to work. During this time one rigger did venture into the shop alone to take apart and reassemble his motorcyle by following a YouTube video. Another acquired and restored a vintage sailboat. Our project coordinator moved even closer to the shop, and yet easily continued to work from home.
Significantly, we learned the difference between being laid off and being furloughed – something 30 years in business had never required us to do or understand. We also realized that we all enjoyed our work, even if for different reasons, and that as long as we had projects to plan, we could easily work from home. We waited.
The first solid sign that business was about to change came in March, when we were notified that seven of our already scheduled, on-site installations planned for March, April and May were postponed – but for how long? We had to do something we had never done before; we furloughed five art installers. No sooner did we take this step when Wintrust Bank reached out to explain the process of applying for Payroll Protection Program Funds; a net appeared.
The project coordinator, the HR coordinator, the director of field operations and myself continued to work from home. Worth noting, when a project is postponed, there is also work involved in postponing the project. First and foremost, the crew members, then the equipment rental, the insurance riders, the permit dates, the storage, and the tentative reschedule. At that point, rescheduling was not an option because no one could predict how Covid would change our lives.
Back before Covid, in October of 2019, Roger Machin, our senior rigger, had flown to London to oversee the installation of the Colossus sculpture as part of the King Tut exhibition at The Saatchi Gallery. The deinstall scheduled for May of 2020 was postponed, and then rescheduled, but this time Machin rose to the challenge of travel limitations to oversee the de-installation of the 8000 lb. Colossus statue via zoom, from his dining room table in Chicago, starting at 2am.
All seven previously postponed projects were eventually rescheduled and completed during the months of May, June, July and August. Corporate offices became super-safe indoor spaces, as nobody was present. Outdoor spaces were safe; Methods & Materials’ crew members were the only people allowed inside the construction zones.
Some projects originally postponed due to the shelter-in-place mandate, such as the Sculpture Milwaukee Outdoor Exhibition, were postponed a second time, due to protesters in the streets. Additionally, Milwaukee, Wisconsin was scheduled to be the site of the upcoming 2020 Democratic national convention and when the convention was cancelled another delay occurred. Later a decision was made to move forward with the outdoor exhibition.
Social situations impact art and culture, and often affect what we do. George Floyd’s cruel death by a Minneapolis police officer sparked massive protests. Civil unrest erupted across America and the debate over the removal of confederate statues was re-ignited. The statues in people’s communities across America were, for some, being noticed for the first time. For most citizens, bronze statues of men are mere decorations – objects we drive by on our way to and from wherever we are going. For others, the one-sided version of the story the statues present is, in itself, reason for their removal. These statues no longer represent the whole truth. Some tell a singular perspective and others in some way speak of the ugly truth of prejudice. This awareness, whether stewing or sudden, became something people could act on, and certain commemorative sculptures became targets of anger. This atmosphere led to a call which came at 3 o’clock in the afternoon from the mayor’s office requesting we immediately remove the oversized Christopher Columbus statue from Grant Park, in downtown Chicago, and another from Arrigo Park in another part of town. By that time our crew had already completed a 12-hour workday. We declined for safety reasons, hoping to be able to do the de-install the next day. The following day we were all grateful to read in the morning papers that both statues had been successfully removed and put into storage by city employees and resources. Their eventual fate would be decided at a later time.
We complied in March 2020 when we were asked to stay home, to wash our hands, and to always wear a mask. We’ve all been tested and re-tested and we continue to use our hand sanitizers and botanical disinfectant spray. None of us thought we would still be doing any of this a year later. Yet the calls for art installation, de-installation and restoration continue, and we are staying busy. The Covid pandemic has, in many ways, held a mirror to our life’s work, and reaffirmed that art is vital to a civil society. The services we provide within our society have truly been a great honor and privilege to orchestrate. We hope the vaccine fabrication and distribution process along with continued safety precautions of masks wearing and social distancing will bring us back to the ease of movement and socializing that we all miss.
Carmella Saraceno, Artist, Writer, Creative Entrepreneur, Co-Owner/CFO, Methods & Materials, Inc. www.carmellasaraceno.com
Volume 35 no 4 March – April 2021