Before coming to LACMA, I (Julia) was head preparator at The Broad museum, where I had the honor of hiring a team of art handlers to install the inaugural exhibition in 2015. It was this experience that caused me to investigate and transform my hiring process to reduce bias, and eventually led me to authoring the Diversity Apprenticeship Program (DAP). Having already spearheaded initiatives to diversify staff, LACMA was one of the first organizations to join as a partner on the DAP. I’m thrilled to continue my work on the program here. In 2015 The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey quantified for the first time how white museum staffs are, and frankly, the data horrified me into action. It showed that preparators are about 85% white and over 75% male, and though The Broad is in one of the most diverse cities in the country, our prep team did not reflect the diversity of our region. My hope is that through opportunities like the DAP coupled with the adoption of equitable hiring practices by institutions and by individual managers, museum staffs will better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.
The DAP is an initiative by The Broad to create career opportunities for people from underrepresented communities in the museum field broadly and the art handling and preparations world specifically. By underrepresented, we mean people who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color; women; immigrants; LGBTQIA+; people who were formerly incarcerated; and foster youth.
The DAP provides nine-month, full-time paid apprenticeships in art handling and preparations. Through the DAP, we help create tangible changes for apprentices and the communities they represent. The DAP approach, while representing new directions in the field, serves as a real-time springboard for the museum field to move toward more equitable workforce strategies.
The DAP has two main goals. First, to train apprentices to be art handlers. Each apprentice participates in one month of paid training and then continues to build on the skills they learned through eight months of paid hands-on work at partner sites across Los Angeles. Second, to drive long-lasting, industry-wide change. The toolbox is a key element of this goal, and we hope it serves as an example of an intentionally designed program. The hope is for it to be used to replicate the program, in part or in full, across the country.
The DAP Toolbox is part narrative—focusing on the DAP—and part handbook—sharing best practices, lessons learned, and tools and resources developed during the experience of implementing this program. Museums, galleries, fine art shippers, and private collections, among others, are invited to use this toolbox to create similar programs that foster and support a truly diverse workforce.
There are currently 18 partner organizations of varying sizes, sectors, and types—from small and large nonprofits to university and college galleries to commercial companies and government institutions. At LACMA, apprentices work with the Art Preparation & Installation (API) department and the Collections Management (CM) department. Apprentices work as art preparators and collections management technicians, unpacking, packing, handling, transporting, and installing art for exhibitions, loans, viewings, and storage. DAP graduates have been hired as staff at LACMA too, to work on the collection moveout (PACMA) with CM, and as art preps with API installing and deinstalling exhibitions. The following is a personal account of LACMA art preparator Jasmine Tibayan, who graduated the DAP in spring 2020.
Museums have always been a place of comfort and wonder for me (Jasmine). There is something special about wandering the galleries of a museum (or really any cultural or historical institution) to gaze at snippets of human history. I was always a curious kid, but nothing satisfied my curiosity quite like learning something new about seemingly ordinary objects—a pot, a book, a pendant, a set of dress clothes, or even a rock.
My eagerness to learn only deepened as I grew older. While I never developed a specific interest in art, I opted to get involved at a small municipal art and history museum near home. Smaller institutions are a great starting point for anyone looking for an introduction into the art and museum industry when they are accessible. I started as an unpaid volunteer with the intention of following my passion for anthropology through collections care and research. I never questioned how art was installed or even considered art handling as a career path. It wasn’t until after accepting a part-time position and being trained as an art preparator that I came to appreciate their role in cultural and historical institutions.
Preparators are versatile professionals in the art and museum industry. They could be assigned to any number of tasks including (but not limited to): handling and installing artwork; packing artwork into archival boxes or crates; fabricating display cases or pedestals; constructing walls; preparing galleries by patching, sanding and painting walls; setting gallery lighting; driving box trucks and transporting artwork; and mounting labels or wall didactics. I learned most of these skills while on the clock. Personal experience is one of the greatest teachers when manually handling objects and problem-solving around them in real-time. However, most of the practical expertise and methodology specific to our job are not necessarily written down step-by-step. Preparators often share knowledge, especially institutional or object specific information, by word-of-mouth between individuals. It was difficult to know where to start and how to continue to be successful as an incoming professional.
The DAP was a pivotal point in my career development. It was invaluable to access the DAP’s wealth of knowledge and resources through experienced preparators doing this work on a consistent basis. It was through the DAP that I met lifelong mentors who became my colleagues when I accepted my current position as an art preparator with LACMA’s API. While the apprenticeship played an impactful and life-changing role in my life personally, I am hopeful in how DAP and the DAP Toolbox will contribute to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in the art and museum industry. As an Asian American woman, I am used to being one of the few people (if not the only person) to look like me or come from a similar background as me in the role of an art preparator in a given space. It is my hope that as my career progresses this will no longer be the case. I am particularly excited about the DAP Toolbox is how the handbook will serve as a resource to individuals building, enhancing, or refreshing their art handling skills.
The Brief Guide to Handling Art that is included in the DAP Toolbox is unique in that it presents the same “Art Handling 101” training received by the DAP cohorts in digestible blocks of related material. There is a combination of audio, visual, and text components that create a multifaceted learning experience. Something that I—and, frankly, many preparators—can appreciate is the presence of lists in the Guide. During the early stages of my career, I regularly browsed discussion boards, forums, listservs, and websites of multiple institutions and professional organizations for this type of information in my leisure time. You will find lists identifying commonly used equipment and tools, essential skills for a preparator broadly and in the technical aspect of art handling, additional specialties that are helpful (i.e. carpentry), and even a glossary of materials. These were things I learned about in passing conversations or while working on projects with someone who did a similar installation with a different artwork. Communication, knowledge-sharing, and teamwork are inherent to safely and successfully installing artwork. There is ultimately no replacement for that aspect of the work we do, but the Guide will contribute a distinct starting point—one I wish I had back then—for art handling broadly. It’s a foundational resource that preparators, new and experienced, can access and reference again and again and again.
Art handlers and preparators are the unseen hands of the museum world. Across institutions large and small, far and wide, we are responsible for the installation, packing, and transportation of cultural and historical artifacts. Some of us pursued this career path intentionally, while others fell into the work by chance or were introduced to it unexpectedly. Not all of us are artists or history buffs, but we all take pride in the work we do as creators, builders, and trailblazers of our craft. If you like problem solving, designing and constructing things, working with your hands, partnering with others in achieving a collective goal, and seeing an assortment of really cool things—art preparation could be the career for you.