At any given time, roughly 5% of the IMA’s permanent collection is on display in our galleries or at other institutions on loan. This means the remaining 95% of the collection is tucked away in our on-site storage. But that 95% doesn’t just idly sit there. A portion of it is moved and managed by the IMA’s Registration, Packing, and Storage Departments.
The IMA has roughly 20,000 square feet of space dedicated solely to the storage of its encyclopedic collection. About 4,000 square feet accommodates our prints and drawings collection. The remaining 16,000 is for paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, textiles and more. 16,000 square feet of space may sound like a lot of room, but for a collection of over 55,000 objects, every inch must be utilized.
The IMA has taken measures to maximize its storage areas. One of those ways is employing high-density storage technology like the kind we have for our textile and painting collections. The textile collection is housed in custom-made Delta Design cabinets, which store the collection according to the needs of each individual piece. Is it a carpet that needs to be rolled? Is it a dress that needs to be hung? These cabinets move along tracks that allow the user to have access to the collection one aisle at a time.
Here is a video showing how the storage system works:
A good portion of the IMA’s vast painting collection is hung on suspended rolling racks. These racks are hung at close proximity to maximize the space allotted for painting storage. In addition, paintings are hung on both sides of each rack. This doubles the amount of usable space.
I took some time to talk all things storage with Jesse Speight, the IMA’s Supervisor of Packing and Storage. Jesse likens the artworks in the IMA’s collection to individual patients with needs: their health is important and requires constant checking. Are they exercising? (Is the artwork on display regularly?) Do they brush their teeth? (Have they been dusted, cleaned, polished?) Are they resting? (Adhering to IMA’s rotation policy for fragile objects?) Are they getting too much sun? (How long has the artwork been under gallery lights?) If they are diagnosed with an ailment, do they need surgery? (Is a trip to Conservation necessary?)
All these things are taken under advisement when storing an object. It’s Jesse’s job to make sure that each and every “individual” in the IMA’s collection is stored in the best way to optimize its health and longevity. There are several ways of doing so. One way is to house the objects in specially designed containers.
This can mean trays for smaller objects:
Or customized enclosures for small sculptures:
Another way to optimize individual health is to take materials into consideration. This can mean understanding the materials that make up the artwork itself as well as using the appropriate materials to store it. For example, you would not want to store an African object made with animal hide alongside a silver tea set. The object made with animal hide, no matter what precautions are taken, is in a state of decay and will emit gasses over time. If stored in the same cabinet, these gasses would eventually cause the silver to tarnish. Therefore, objects with different material makeup are generally stored in separate areas. For this same reason, the materials used to house our artwork are always archival and inert. Even the cabinets themselves are coated with a baked-on enamel rather than a gas-emitting paint.
For me personally, when I had my first internship at the IMA, it was our Art Storage that sold me on wanting to work here. It’s overwhelming yet organized. It’s still and quiet, yet alive and breathing with history. And perhaps best of all, the enthusiastic people that work within its walls are not without a little bit of humor: