Gallery technician lives his passion

Kristen Grimmer

When most people walk into a museum they don’t wonder how the art came to be on the walls, instead it’s almost assumed that some magic is responsible for setting the exhibit up. For the Mulvane Art Museum Michael Hager is the sorcerer who wields this magic behind the scenes.


Hager is a man who enjoys a good conversation, especially when it’s about what he does every day: appreciate art and make it possible for others to do the same. He’s been working at Washburn University as faculty and at the Mulvane Art Museum since 2007 and although he teaches sculpting and print-making, he also carries the titles of exhibition preparatory and gallery technician.

“This isn’t a job, it’s a way of life,” Hager said as he was standing in the upstairs gallery. While he fished sculptures out of a large packing crate he talked. “Viewing it that way makes coming to work natural,” he said. “The level of commitment that you have to put into it, especially teaching, if you only see it as a job then in six months you’d be burned out.”

Hager carefully unwraps piece after piece of Ken Butler’s travelling exhibit called Hybrid Visions. This exhibit consists of sculptures themed around musical instruments and will be open to the public from Sept. 26 through Jan. 24. Ken Butler will also visit Friday, Oct. 2 from 5 – 8 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 3 from 1 – 4 p.m.

Cindi Morrison, director of the Mulvane Art Museum, said they got this exhibit on its way back to New York from a museum in Portland, Ore. She looks down at the array of artwork lying on the floor that are each made from something different but that resemble banjos. She said she had met Ken Butler back in 2005 and heard his show before. When she had talked to him again he had suggested she get Hybrid Visions before it got back to him.

Hager said that the show of photos he just took down were all prepackaged and labeled. All he really had to do was slip them back into their boxes and put them in the storage facility in the basement, but Hybrid Visions is different.

There’s a sense of chaos in the gallery with all the packing crates and bubble wrap cluttering the floor, but Hager is slowly bringing a sense of order wherever he works.

“With myself, Carol and Cindi there’s three sets of eyes, so if I miss anything they’ll pick up on it. We make a great team,” he says. It’s easy to see how well they work together as they move around unpacking boxes.

Hybrid Visions doesn’t have pictures to look at of each piece of art that most exhibit packets come with when they are sent to the museum weeks before the actual art arrives.

Hager says that those packets are crucial because they give the dimensions for each piece of art so that the museum knows in advance if they are able to house it or not.

Carol Emert, curator of collections and exhibitions, says that they do have some slides and she holds up a laminated page containing a set. The overhead light shines through the pictures vaguely and the tiny sculptures portrayed inside each slide are visible. Unfortunately there are not pictures of everything in the exhibit.

Hager says that the show came to the museum through a special service that only transports artwork and is the best way to send a collection across the country. The crates were delivered and the unpacking began on both floors of the gallery after the old exhibits had been taken down.

“Each show is its own monster, but the great thing about this job is that nothing repeats,” Hager says.

Blankets are spread across the floor and as Hager continues to unpack he lays each piece out so it’s easy to see what’s there. He finishes with the big crate and walks over to the bench where his bag is resting. He’s pausing with his work now. He reaches into the bag and brings out a coffee cup and a thermos and pours himself a cup of hot black coffee.

“This can be tedious work, so you have to take breaks,” Hager says as he sips his drink. He also says that if you’re too careful or if you don’t respect the art you break things and that’s why it’s necessary to change it up now and then.

He’s a tall man at 6 feet 1 inch tall with silver hair and black rimmed glasses and is dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up over a T-shirt.

Hager sets down his coffee and goes over to another box to start the unpacking again. This time the box is long and rectangular but not very deep. This one is a piano that is in three main parts: the body and two legs. Together he and Carol start cutting the tape that binds the cardboard. They discuss the best way to open it and the lid finally comes back.

Inside there are two long rectangle pieces of Styrofoam on top of each other with various small objects, such as a playing card and part of a scroll that once belonged to a string instrument, fitted into grooves carved into the Styrofoam. How the piano will fit together seems baffling, but Hager is already seeing the completed piece in his mind.

Together Hager and Emert gently lift the piano out of the box and set each part of it to the side. By the end of the week they will have put all of the pieces together and have put them up onto the wall.

Morrison unfolds a large piece of paper and spreads it out onto the floor. It has a diagram of a group of small sculptures and how they can be placed on the wall. She says this is a rare item to come with an exhibit and that this will make things easier because all they will have to do now is spread the paper up on the wall where they want the cluster to go and put the nails in the wall. Something like this diagram can help to speed the process of putting the exhibit up greatly.

The plan for the rest of the day is to finish unpacking everything and to get the boxes moved into the basement so only the artwork will remain.


By the time Thursday comes the gallery looks like a completely different place. The packing materials have disappeared and various sculptures are resting against the wall. Some have been hung but now there are two pianos, one is resting on the floor still in pieces.

Morrison is working to put the finishing touches on the piano she has just put together. She has used toothpicks to keep everything in place and to make it sturdy.

Hager and Morrison start working on the next piano and use art clips to hold the legs onto the body.

“I have dozens of these clips in my office. They’re an artist’s best friend,” Hager says. The clips hold the legs in place and together they turn the piano over so the lid can be opened.

Hager places the platforms for the pianos and Morrison carefully judges the placement for both pianos.

“Museums have different goals than galleries do. We focus on education,” Morrison says. She also says that when they place the art they’re not trying to sell it but let it be appreciated for what it is.

Morrison says that the most important things to worry about when setting the art in place is first the public’s safety and second the art’s safety. “We have to watch for traffic patterns and making sure that when people turn around they won’t bump into things,” she says.

With the pianos in place on platforms in the upstairs gallery it’s time to go down and put together the last free-standing sculpture, another piano. This one will be a little more difficult because there’s no picture showing how it should look once it’s put together.

Morrison and Hager start by making sure the legs are attached and then setting it on the platform. The lid is in layers and each one must be held apart by small pegs that need to be glued in place in order to fully appreciate the piano. The piano itself is only a frame of thin wooden pieces carefully constructed to keep the weight distributed equally enough so it won’t collapse.

“We have one peg left,” Hager says when they’ve finished opening the lids, “and I’m not sure where it goes.”

Morrison, Emert and Hager examine the piano again looking for where the peg could possibly go.

“It’s like making an atomic bomb and finding one screw left over after you’re finished,” Hager says.

Emert laughs and shakes her head, “Or like putting together a parachute and finding some leftover string when you’re done,” she says.

Morrison says that they’ll figure it out eventually, but sometimes you have to take a step back and really look at the art.

They do find where the peg goes in the end, but not without some interesting suggestions.


The last work day spent on the exhibit is for putting on the finishing touches. Emert is putting up the wording over the exhibits and Morrison is posting placards next to each piece.

Hager, however, is working with another set of skills he possesses as he starts lighting the art. He’s trying to spotlight each sculpture and keep one piece from being too dim when compared with the others.

“Aside from moisture, UV rays are the worst thing for art. That’s why the lights here in the gallery all have UV filters. They’re also only 45 watts so I can easily touch them when I need to take down the extras,” Hager says.

He first turns off each individual spotlight instead of using the master switches so that he can relight the exhibit piece by piece. There are three tracks on the ceiling in the gallery downstairs and as he walks around the exhibit focusing lights on different sculptures.

“When people tell me you did a good job installing the show I feel like it’s a dubious compliment because I’d rather someone say the art looks great,” Hager says.

He tries to make sure that when he puts lights directly on a piece he doesn’t set them too high up because making the shadows disappear as much as possible in order to let the art come forward is what’s important.

“All shows can be seen as a work in progress. If I see something later I don’t like I’ll come back and fix it,” Hager says.

He also has to watch for the reflection of the light from the walls and floor and says that having wooden floors in a museum is almost against the rules because the light doesn’t get soaked up.

About halfway through he takes a coffee break and talks about the exhibit itself. “I think this exhibit will hold my interest for a while because I like the three-dimensionality of it and there’s a playful intellect that appeals to me. Also the fact that he will visit on the first Friday and actually perform makes it even better,” Hager says.

He finishes placing the last light and turns around. “Well, now you’ve seen me put up a show,” he says.

The Mulvane Art Museum encourages everyone to come and appreciate Hybrid Visions by Ken Butler and see him perform Friday, Oct. 2 from 5 – 8 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 3 from 1 – 4 p.m.