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How secrecy shielded priceless paintings on their journey to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art

Judy Frauenholtz, preparator, and Sean Ulmer, museum executive director, lift oil painting
Judy Frauenholtz, preparator, and Sean Ulmer, museum executive director, lift oil painting “Hollyhocks,” by Mary Heister Reid, from its crate as museum registrar Jaci Falco looks on at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. “Across the Atlantic: American Impressionism through the French Lens” opens Feb. 1 and features Impressionist art from the Reading (Pa.) Public Museum. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — When fine art is shipped from one museum to another, considerably more precautions are involved than draping the work in a towel and wedging it in the back seat.

Officials with the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art started planning more than three years ago for their latest attraction,“Across the Atlantic: American Impressionism Through the French Lens,” to be transported cross-country in time to commemorate the museum’s 125th anniversary.

The show opened Feb. 1 and will run through April 26.

Curator Kate Kunau said she and her colleagues knew they wanted to do “something special” to celebrate that milestone, and the 76-work traveling exhibit, owned by the Reading, Pa., Public Museum, fit the bill because impressionism was the dominant art style in 1895, when the Cedar Rapids Art Association formed.

Getting the paintings to Cedar Rapids nevertheless was an undertaking, Kunau said.

For starters, museum preparator Judy Frauenholtz said, “There might be conservation work that has to be done in advance to make sure the work is stable” and able to be transported — which some museums do not permit for some “immovable” iconic pieces.

125 years in the making:What began as an art clubbecamethe Cedar Rapids Museum of Art

Motorists unknowingly might have driven past the art collection in January, as it quietly was transported approximately 1,200 miles from its previous location, at the Appleton Museum of Art in Ocala, Fla.

The paintings were packed with utmost care in 33 specialty boxes, wrapped in poly — a plastic wrap — and suspended with foam, and transported in a 72-by-53-foot fine-art truck, with temperature and humidity controls, additional shocks and inside panels, to which the boxes can be strapped.

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Even for some of the smaller paintings, Kunau said, the crates’ width can exceed 5 feet — the largest is around 8 feet by 6 feet.

“The art shippers are very good at Tetris-ing all of those crates into the back of trucks,” she said. “It’s a very efficient use of space.”

Multiple layers of security were baked into the shipping process to ensure the art remained untarnished, as well as safe from Thomas Crown wannabes seeking to pilfer the paintings while in transit.

“Shipping trucks with fine art, they’re completely gassed up before they pick up the crates,” said Jaci Falco, registrar with the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. “They actually can’t stop for 200 miles. ... As soon as it leaves, they can’t stop for gas or food or whatever unless there’s an extreme emergency for 200 miles.”

Among the details Falco said are kept confidential include the identities of the truck drivers — who travel in pairs so they don’t have to park the art outside a hotel overnight — and the respective dates the vehicle will depart from and arrive at the lending and receiving museums.

Also undisclosed are specific financials involved, including the costs of shipping and required insurance, and the value of the paintings.

“You don’t want people to know the value of what you’re spending on anything because it can sway what they think about (the art), and it’s dangerous with people who want to cause harm to something of high value,” Falco said.

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Trading Edward Hopper for Grant Wood

Upon their arrival in Cedar Rapids, the “Across the Atlantic” works were uncrated over a two-day period, during which Hannah Wagner, curatorial assistant with the Reading Public Museum, inspected them for damage.

If Wagner found any new defects on a painting, Falco said, an insurance investigation could ensue to determine which party is liable.

The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art has followed a similar process when it has loaned some among the roughly 8,000 pieces it owns to museums across the country.

“We get requests all the time and we’re pretty discriminating about what we’re going to let out of the building and who we’re going to loan it to,” Kunau said.

The museum does not charge a borrowing fee for its paintings, she said, though in one “moment of collegiality” in 2018, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City loaned the Cedar Rapids museum 14 Edward Hopper works in exchange for 27 Grant Wood pieces.

Arranging to receive traveling exhibits can be a competitive process for museums, said Wagner, of the Reading Public Museum, which had five “slots” over approximately three years for institutions to display the “Across the Atlantic” pieces.

Afterward, for preservation reasons, she said the paintings must be stored for a time — usually six months or longer — before they can be displayed again.

“When they get back to the (Reading) museum, we’ll give them a really thorough looking-over, see if any need to go to the conservator, and then they’ll rest for a while,” Wagner said.

Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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