Gordon Wilkins, Robert M. Walker Associate Curator at the Addison Gallery of American Art, Shares Experiences as Museum’s Art Courier

Gordon Wilkins, the Robert M. Walker Associate Curator at the Addison Gallery of American Art, recently returned from a trip to Denmark to collect the piece “Summer, Sea, Window, Red Curtain” by Marsden Hartley, which the Addison had lent to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. The painting was acquired by the Addison in 1944, and according to Wilkins, the painting’s history is vivid.

“[‘Summer, Sea, Window, Red Curtain’] has a really interesting story behind it. It was purchased by our director at the time, Bartlet Hayes, who was a judge at a competition at the [54th Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture 1943]. Marsden Hartley—this was painted a year before he died—was living in poverty, and he died before the grand cash prize for this show could be delivered. It would have been a very significant amount of money for him. So our director bought this painting out of the show,” said Wilkins.

Wilkins said that the Addison finds all sorts of art from domestic and international institutions to add to their exhibitions. He also noted an increase in loan requests from European institutions because of heightened interest in American art. According to Wilkins, these connections provide incredible exposure to the Addison, which would be difficult to get from the town of Andover alone.

“Since we’re out of the way in a suburban environment, [when] lending things to larger museums, people read the label and they think, ‘oh, what is this high school art museum?’ if they didn’t know about us. So they go on our website and find out that we have these amazing things. It’s also great to contribute to the furthering of the field… [Being] able to add our works into these amazing exhibitions can only really benefit us because it’s a new scholarship on works in our collections,” said Wilkins.

In addition to lending out pieces, the Addison also frequently borrows from other institutions to expand their installments and collection. Wilkins explained that one of the Addison’s major missions is to find ways to better represent the communities it serves, and that consistently looking for new pieces and working on new projects is crucial to his work.

“We’re looking now at really broadening the narratives that we’re able to convey through our collection because our collection is, as is the case in most museums, one that was shaped by white bourgeois to upper-class males, for the most part. We have, over the past decades, increased our efforts to acquire work by African American artists… Asian American artists, Latinx artists and we’re actually acquiring a significant [piece of] work by a contemporary indigenous American artist…We have been exploring the idea of ‘What is America?’ through our programming, and to not have native voice represented in our collection I think was just not sustainable,” said Wilkins.

The physical process of transporting the pieces between museums usually involves the work of couriers. Wilkins described couriers as members of the museum staff who travel with the work of art to a new location. In the case of the Addison, many of the curating staff double as couriers.

Wilkins said, “We don’t always send a courier. We tend to send a courier… with a work of art if we’re sending the work internationally. Also, if the work is of extremely high value or if the work has difficult installation requirements, if it’s complicated or tricky to install, we’ll send a courier.”

When loan requests are being fulfilled and a piece begins its journey, it is taken out of the courier’s hands, and they then do mostly supervision and administrative work.

“Essentially, you have to wait for the crates to get to one place then you put it on a metal palette… you can’t actually approach the crate as the palette’s being loaded, so you watch everything get put on the crate or on the palette, watch it all get loaded, wrapped up, make sure it’s okay. Then you wait on the plane and you do the reverse on the other end,” said Wilkins.