People installing a portrait of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley

Left to right: Jasmine Tibayan, Jeremiah Morris, Gerardo “Shorty” Arciniega, Edwin Menendez, Michael Price, and Davidra Jackson install Kehinde Wiley's portrait of Barack Obama 

Installing The Obama Portraits Tour and Black American Portraits: Notes from Two Groundbreaking Exhibitions

December 22, 2021
Kelsey Lacanilao, API Program Administrator

Before the installation of Black American Portraits and The Obama Portraits Tour, I walked through a large, quiet, empty white-walled gallery excited for it to be covered top to bottom in artworks centering on Black American subjects, sitters, and spaces: art that would celebrate Black legacies, magnificently displayed, their narratives and meanings wholly experienced. As the administrator for LACMA's Art Preparation and Installation department (API), I am often a bystander in the galleries. When present, I observe my team in constant awe, almost like a fangirl—of the art, yes, but of them too. A lot of them have been art handlers for years, but for someone with fresh eyes, witnessing my team work hands-on with art is such a beautiful thing. They’re focused and graceful, knowing that each piece they touch has a story and purpose. Preparing and installing art is a special craft, and especially watching them work on Black American Portraits, I felt a sense of pride being on a team who were the incredible stewards of this important show. 

Right before successfully and finally finishing the installation of Black American Portraits, my team waited for the arrival of the two crates carrying the Obama portraits. The excitement was buzzing behind their focused, professional demeanors. I watched them carefully unpack and carry both Michelle and Barack’s brilliant portraits by Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley with delicacy. While my team remained calm and focused on their precise moves and plan of action for getting them onto their dedicated wall, I stood to the side with bright eyes and squirms. I thought about my family, my community, and how much seeing this at LACMA would matter to them. It was a unique privilege to witness the production of this show. Below are some images and words from the amazing team who installed the exhibitions. 

Left to right: Edwin Menendez, Jeremiah Morris, Thomas Duffy, Michael Price, and Davidra Jackson after installing the life-size printed templates for the curators to determine placement

Jasmine Tibayan, Art Preparator I

In the lead up to hanging the artwork, I felt immensely responsible for being solely focused on the technical aspects of the installation of the Obama portraits. The only things on my mind were getting the hardware onto the wall using the measurements I had just taken of Amy Sherald's portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama, and, ultimately, installing both portraits safely with my team members.

When I finally had the chance to step back and be present in the moment, I felt relieved. Everyone in the room was energized with anticipation and excitement for the public opening of The Obama Portraits Tour and Black American Portraits at LACMA. 

Former President Barack Obama was a candidate on the first presidential ballot I could vote for. These are the first U.S presidential portraits I have ever seen in person. It was a profound experience both personally and professionally. It was an honor.

Left to right: Edwin Menendez, Michael Price, Davidra Jackson and Jeremiah Morris preparing the Barack Obama portrait by Kehinde Wiley for installation

Tom Duffy, Senior Art Preparator

It was an exciting day, one that we'd been anticipating for quite a while. It was an honor to be entrusted with the care of the works. Both portraits inspire. For me, the most exciting part was the involvement of Vee and Jeremiah, who are new to the field, had great interest in participating, and were afforded the opportunity to really contribute in the uncrating, handling, measuring, and installing of the portraits. I remember that we desired music to be played when a particular task went long, and one coworker suggested we “play Prince—he's Michael Price's favorite.”  Vee suggested “Adore” and Jeremiah followed with “When You Were Mine.” Michael Price was a standout, doing the lion's share of the work with the Barack/Wiley measurements. That is also true for Jasmine, who measured and installed the cleats for the Michelle/Sherald portrait. Edwin, as always, was ready to anticipate every need. I think we worked together well as a team.” 

Conservator Kat Harada examining Kehinde Wiley’s Yachinboaz Ben Yisrael II, 2021

Jeremiah Morris, Preparator Apprentice with The Broad Diversity Apprenticeship Program

It was an honor to be a part of the whole show. I had the opportunity to hang works by some of my personal favorite artists like Henry Taylor and Kerry James Marshall as well as other trailblazers like Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley. The hanging process of the Obama portraits felt almost like a ceremony I was a part of. Everyone was very quiet and focused on the task at hand. I spoke briefly with Liz Andrews, the exhibition’s co-curator, and she told me about the flowers in the background of Barack Obama's portrait and how each flower represented the places that made him. I was in awe of the detail in each of the portraits. It was a big deal to be a part of something that means so much to me. More Black bodies in museums, more representation for the kids who are younger than me who get to see these modern-day masterpieces. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to be a part of something like this.

Left to right: Liz Andrews, Kelsey Lacanilao, and Michael Price observe the Obama portraits after they are unpacked

Davidra (Vee) Jackson, Preparator Apprentice with The Broad Diversity Apprenticeship Program

It was an amazing experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I am grateful to have handled such great and timeless artists.

Edwin Menendez

I felt really proud to see Cedric Adams, our former colleague in API, show his art in Black American Portraits.

Cedric Adams, Just How I Feel, 1972, © Cedric Adams, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Kathryn Harada, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow, Paintings Conservation

It was such an honor to be involved with the installation of this powerful exhibition. To see all of these vibrant and dynamic paintings together is so much more than just a delight for the eyes. To have the opportunity to spend a quiet moment with each of the paintings as they were unpacked and installed was incredibly special. I am so grateful to you all for designing such a brilliant show, and to the registrars and preparators who made the installation experience run so well!

Left to right: Michael Price, Jasmine Tibayan, Jeremiah Morris, Edwin Menendez, Gerardo Arciniega, Thomas Duffy, The Obama Portraits Tour Co-Curator Christine Y. Kim, and Davidra Jackson

Michael Price, Senior Art Preparator

I was really proud to be a part of Black American Portraits, and it was a special honor for me personally to not only hang the portrait of Barack Obama, but also a portrait by my friend and former colleague Cedric Adams, who finally got his well-deserved entry into the permanent collection at LACMA.

Liz Andrews, Director, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art and Co-curator of Black American Portraits

Every day as I walked into the galleries, I asked the ancestors to work through us. I asked David Driskell for his blessing. I prayed that we were bringing something into the world that would make our grandmothers proud and would inspire the young people who visit the museum to be artists and want to know their histories.

As an individual who belongs to a diaspora, Black art matters to me. I felt so honored to be a spectator to the behind-the-scenes production of this exhibition, and on opening day, as I walked through it as a visitor with the rest of the public, my loved ones, and the L.A. community, I felt grateful for every person who had hands in making this possible.

The Obama Portraits Tour is now on view at LACMA through January 2, 2022. Black American Portraits is on view through April 17, 2022.