CMA Thinker
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CMA Thinker

Before the Debut of an Art Exhibition

Preparing for Picturing Motherhood Now

By Beth Edelstein, CMA Objects Conservator

CMA Staff members with curators Nadiah Rivera Fellah and Emily Liebert looking on as The Nest is installed.

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes in preparing for a new exhibition? This fall is full of exciting new shows, and Picturing Motherhood Now, an exhibition that brings together works by a diverse range of contemporary artists to narrate an intergenerational and evolving story of motherhood has given the #CMAConservation team a lot to think about.

As in every exhibition, we collaborate closely with our colleagues in many different departments in the months and weeks leading up to installation. Let’s look at a few highlights.

Louise Bourgeois’s The Nest (1994)

The Nest, 1994. Louise Bourgeois (American, 1911–2010). Steel; 256.5 x 480.1 x 401.3 cm. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Purchase through the Agnes E. Meyer and Elise S. Haas Fund and the gifts of Doris and Donald Fisher, Helen and Charles Schwab, and Vicki and Kent Logan the Agnes E. Meyer and Elise S. Haas Fund and the gifts of Doris and Donald Fisher, Helen and Charles Schwab, and Vicki and Kent Logan 98.193.A-E. Image courtesy of

For this exhibition, Curator of Contemporary Art Emily Liebert and Associate Curator of Contemporary Art Nadiah Rivera Fellah have brought together new work from fascinating contemporary artists complemented by some familiar work from pioneering women artists like Louise Bourgeois and Betye Saar. I’m especially looking forward to seeing two of Bourgeois’s monumental bronze spiders make their home in the open space of the CMA’s atrium. I always liked her spiders’ unsettling aspect (and other works of hers), but learning that the artist connected the protective and resourceful character of the spider with the memory of her own mother makes them surprisingly comforting too.

Installation of The Nest in the CMA’s Ames Family Atrium

I have never seen any of the spider sculptures dismantled or installed, so it was helpful to meet with my CMA colleagues in collections management and exhibition design for a video chat with two of our counterparts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the institution lending the two large spiders to the exhibition. One silver lining of this past year of enforced virtual communication is an increased ease with this type of meeting; it’s ideal to prepare for the arrival of unfamiliar artworks by talking directly to the people who know them best.

In this conversation, we learned that the legs of each steel spider detach from the body, and that the various spiders have different means of attaching the legs to the body — some slide over rods welded to the body (below) while others have plates that bolt together. We also discussed how the series of spiders in The Nest must be gently coaxed together in the proper alignment to each other so that they form a twisting spiral, rather than a straight stack, according to Bourgeois’s intentions.

Detail image of The Nest, courtesy of Nancy Arms Simon, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
The Nest in the Ames Family Atrium

Carolina Caycedo, Nuestro Tiempo (2018)

Nuestro Tiempo / Our Time, 2018. Carolina Caycedo (Colombian, British, b. 1978). Hand-dyed artisanal fishing net, metal chain, palm mat, wool charm; 121.9 x 71.1 x 45.7 cm. Private Collection. Images courtesy of Blum & Poe

Though artist’s intentions are central to our work in every area of the collection, working with contemporary art means that the artist is often available and very involved in how their work is presented. In the case of Carolina Caycedo’s Nuestro Tiempo, the artist’s original instructions were to use real flowers placed within a hand-dyed fishing net, and to allow the flowers to dry and darken before replacing them. This cycle of decay and renewal, together with the tambourine and Saharan bead holder attached to the net, communicates the cyclical nature of time.

Nuestro Tiempo / Our Time, 2018 (detail). Carolina Caycedo (Colombian, British, b. 1978). Hand-dyed artisanal fishing net, metal chain, palm mat, wool charm; 121.9 x 71.1 x 45.7 cm. Private Collection. Images courtesy of Blum & Poe

Nature’s decay processes, though, are often accompanied by nature’s composters — insects! Though their activity can be beneficial in many environments, museum galleries full of textile, leather, and wood objects aren’t one of them. Fortunately, Caycedo is familiar with the restrictions on organic materials that most museums adhere to and supports the use of beautiful silk flowers instead of fresh in this work. Materials are important to all stakeholders in the creation and sharing of contemporary art; finding solutions that satisfy sometimes incompatible goals is one of the fascinating parts of our work.

Andrea Chung, Pure (2017)

Pure, 2017. Andrea Chung (American, b. 1978). Black soap, dry sink, towels, candles, scissors, pitcher, bottle, and jewelry; 121.9 x 61 x 50.8 cm. Private Collection. Image:

Materials that may seem ordinary are transformed into an emotional and thought-provoking experience in Andrea Chung’s installation Pure. The composition of a water basin with everyday objects — a pitcher, towels, mirror, scissors — is brought out of the ordinary by the hands made of soap that reach out from the wall above the basin. The hands are cast from Chung’s own mother and mother-in-law, and are meant to evoke those of Jamaican midwives like her own grandmother. The gestures of the hands tell stories of bringing life through physical contact, giving these everyday objects a moving intensity.

The poetry in these objects speaks to me, while at the same time as a conservator I am thinking prosaically about these items and how to best protect them in a busy exhibition space. In preparing for this installation, we are consulting with our mount-making team to discreetly secure the spindly legs of the dry sink to the floor, considering whether a child might try to pick up the sharp scissors (there’s motherhood for you!), and discussing who will be responsible for keeping the water in the basin fresh over the course of the exhibition.

Video artworks

Video Project Room

Sharing responsibilities for maintenance of contemporary artworks across departments is crucial to our conservation mission. Preserving video art is a particularly collaborative endeavor, and the CMA has a time-based media team that pulls together collections management, conservation, and digital department staff members. For video works in temporary exhibitions, there is extensive behind the scenes communication between collections management and the artist or lender in acquiring the best quality files and considering what type and size of screen they require; our production team installs and wires the equipment and our digital team keeps everything running smoothly.

In addition to the videos shown in the main exhibition space, be sure to stop by to see the new selections on view in our 2nd-floor Video Project Room. My favorite, Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance, layers images of her mother with text and audio of letters and conversations between mother and daughter during a time of physical separation, when the young artist was alone in London while war broke out in her home city of Beirut. The emotional connection and sense of loss expressed in these words speak to everyone who has been separated from someone they love.

And many more. . . .

Picturing Motherhood in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Gallery

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the beautifully made and thought-provoking works by Wendy Red Star, Rose B. Simpson, Alison Saar, and many more wonderful artists in this exhibition. Picturing Motherhood Now opens Saturday, October 16. Purchase tickets today! FREE entry for CMA members. #MotherhoodNow



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