Works worth millions of dollars are often fragile. When it comes to keeping them spotless, a duster-waving cleaner is what you need.
New York’s New Museum is closed to the public on Mondays but for Christine Navin it’s the busiest day of the week. She picks up a soft blue cloth from her cleaning kit and presses it to her nose. “I want to be sure there isn’t any Windex on it,” she says.
The household glass-cleaner is a key part of her toolbox as one of the museum’s four-strong team of dedicated art preparators, whose job is to keep the exhibits clean. Windex, it turns out, is good for glass but bad for acrylics, the primary material of the sculpture that she is about to freshen up. “There’s no formal training,” she says of her job, which she has done for the best part of a decade. “It’s just an accumulation of experiences that gives you a unique set of skills.”
As the value of contemporary art continues to climb, this job has become crucial. “I don’t have vacuuming on my résumé,” says Navin, laughing. “But in a gallery only the preparators are allowed to do the cleaning; it’s to make sure that the art stays safe.” One of Navin’s many tasks sees her ensuring that the imaginative and colourful ceramic figurines of sculptor Daniela Ortiz are as glossy and dust-free as the artist intended. But she must also make time to tend to the playful photography of film-maker Song Ta – which captures the moment recruits to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army are tipped off the apex of a rollercoaster – and make sure that the images are just-so in their disposable cardboard frames.
Cleaning equipment ranges from the everyday to the hyper-specialised: the supple bristles of a fine-wool brush are best for scooping up tiny particles of dust on flat surfaces, while the vacuum cleaners used here have been specifically engineered to maintain a moderate level of suction so as not to pull over any parts of an artwork. “[Cleaning art] requires diligence and eyes on the ground,” says Ian Sullivan, the New Museum’s director of exhibitions. “Maintenance is more hands-on, particularly as artists use different materials or mediums that aren’t common, such as liquids, oils or moving parts.”
As the gamut of what constitutes contemporary art has diversified and become more eclectic so have the methods of keeping it clean. “You have to solve problems on the fly,” says Navin, dusting-cloth in hand. “But it’s fun when there’s a more challenging exhibition and you have to access a unique set of skills. You have to rise to the occasion.”