It’s a hot and muggy day in D.C. The kind of day that’s so warm it feels like your feet are melting into the sidewalk. In comparison, the Phillips Collection is a little slice of heaven. With its lights dim and its AC on blast, walking through the doors of one of D.C.’s best museums is like walking straight into paradise. Even without the AC bliss, you can tell that Collections Care Manager Laura Tighe feels right at home. As we walk through the half lit galleries and carve out a space to chat about her hands-on work at the Phillips, she explains her history with the museum.
“I’ve actually been coming to the Phillips since I was two years old,” she says. “My great grandmother immigrated here in 1912. She lived in Foggy Bottom her entire life and we used to go on outings.” While that’s impressive on its own, Tighe’s deep, almost familial relationship with the museum doesn’t stop there. “My mom’s first job, when she was working in catering, was at the Phillips, at an event,” she adds.
All those connections make it feel like fate, but Tighe’s passion for the Phillips is entirely her own. She’s a hybrid, simultaneously working in art conservation while also helping to manage and execute the museum’s many exhibitions. Everything from mounting projections to couriering art around the world is part of her purview. There is a person behind the paint on the walls, the lighting in the galleries and the frames around the art. Laura Tighe, with her boundless energy and careful consideration for art, is one of those people.
What was your first job?
My first “job job” was at an ice cream shop, but my first art job was at an art gallery in Georgetown called Galerie Lareuse. Ironically enough, I haven’t seen my first boss in maybe five years, but my mom turned 60 this weekend and I saw him. We reenacted the glory days of serious dysfunction. It was a very funny entrée into working with art. It wasn’t a very standard atmosphere.
Did you always want to work in a gallery?
No. I actually think I fell into that by just wanting to be close to the profession and still paint on the side. I studied studio art, so by training or by interest I’m an artist, a painter. I think the more you surround yourself with how these things work, the more you pick up. And it’s good for your practice as well. It was a good first job.
I think the gallery atmosphere wasn’t conducive to my personally. You have to be really bubbly and you have to focus more on the sales aspect of art, instead of purely enjoying it. It can take the life out of it for you. While I was at Galerie Lareuse I also interned [at the Phillips Collection].
When did you start painting?
Immediately. I used to make a lot of clay figures, too. Essentially, I’ve always liked to work with my hands. My ideal day is a day when I’m actually working and moving and not sitting in a meeting or planning.
I started painting young and I studied art by default in school. I’ve never enjoyed academia, so I fell into the arts thing. Then I magically found a way to make a studio art degree work. I’ve never applied for a job that required a studio art degree (as opposed to art history, etc.) and this one did. It’s totally meant to be.
I’m glad you’ve mentioned working with your hands because I don’t know much about the nitty gritty of the job. How much time do you spend building things and being in the galleries versus conceptual planning for a show?
As of recently, the planning aspect has eaten into the time that’s just building, but it all goes hand in hand. The planning is something that’s collaborative, everybody is putting in what they need for this exhibition, what their responsibilities are, and you’re just trying to figure out the best way to get it done.
I think that for a show like The Warmth of Other Suns that is so incredibly important, everyone wants it to go off perfectly. Especially because it’s socially relevant and it’s crucial to us as an institution. The planning is just as important as the execution.
I would say it’s 60-40. Obviously, it took an incredible amount of time to actually do, and we built a lot of the things here. We had a lot of things fabricated locally, which was really cool to involve the community.
How long was the set up process for The Warmth of Other Suns?
Usually as soon as one exhibition goes up we start discussing installation for the next, though the planning begins quite some time before that. This exhibition was unique in that we had less time to plan for a show that’s three times larger than what we’re used to. In general, however, it’s usually three to four months, which seems very quick. You put all this work into it and three months are up and it’s time for the next.
So you’ve already started to plan the next show?
Yes we have. We’ve already had strategic planning meetings and we’re already preparing for the framing needs because it’s going to be a very different show. To us now, it seems quite simple. The artwork is also, ironically enough, coming from very close by and is all in one place, so the transport is not as logistically difficult. The Warmth of Other Suns has over 70 artists coming from many different places in the world.
I think one of the most interesting things that I’ve learned here is how much goes into the transport of these objects that we place so much importance on. Shipping, handling, the intricacies of the actual devices that people build to move things. Paintings seem easy now.
You also work in conservation. How much of your day is spent in that world?
I think it’s helpful to be a hybrid because that way I don’t have to compartmentalize. If I’m always thinking from both an installation and conservation standpoint, it ends up helping everyone. If we’re thinking how to best move and preserve an object while it’s in our care, that’s what both positions strive to do anyway. We’re all here to do the same thing, which is to protect and display this artwork. I’ve been lucky to have training in both of these ways of thinking.
Are you more passionate about one than the other?
I wouldn’t say I’m more passionate about either one. I think collectively they build what I’m excited about, but my mind might be more focused right now on the problem solving aspect of installation. I think I’m more suited to do those things on a daily basis.
Plus, conservation is a very serious pursuit academically. You go to school for years to learn the types of treatments paintings and other artworks need. I’m more of a technician as far as conservation goes…I have been fortunate enough to start making frames for some of our paintings, which is super exciting. I love woodworking. We don’t have much space here, but we built a small wood shop. I built a liner, which is something that fits within a frame if the canvas is ill fitting, for a Matisse and it was so wonderful to do. Also, it can make a barrier between glazing, which is protective glass, and the painting. It’s a good long term investment to make sure nothing happens to these paintings and that costly treatments can be avoided.
It’s totally surreal to work with these things. When you strip them out of their frames, they seem tiny and no different than the types of things in your studio that you’re shuffling around.
BYT used to run a photo festival and the only time I’ve ever hung artwork was during one of those festivals. The fact that I got to hold a Sally Mann photo before I put it on the wall was such a huge deal to me. Do you still have those feelings?
Absolutely. Especially with the exhibitions when we’re cycling new artwork in and out of the institution. The Danh Vo piece… I’d actually seen his exhibition at the Guggenheim and it was one of the most impressive shows I’ve ever seen. His work is quite utilitarian and you can see that these are materials that are passed around in society and are not necessarily manufactured just for art’s sake. It’s very cool. That’s one very exciting thing, to have a piece of his in this institution right now.
Also, the John Akomfrah was the coolest thing ever to build. It was so exciting to work on that. And we built all of those screens in house. For us, I think we all take a lot of pride when we can build things in house, since it’s a very small staff. It’s quite exciting. It feels good to do things for art, especially when that art is making a statement.
You guys completely transformed that gallery into a movie theater.
Even beyond a movie theater, more so an immersive experience. It was very exciting because there were feasibility discussions as to whether we could do that. I was like, “Please! I swear I’ll do everything I can to make it easier and less expensive! I swear!” The paint that came for that room, we last minute had to change it, and we literally went to the Monarch Paint on Wisconsin Avenue and hauled 100 gallons of paint into our van and drove back here.
The artists have very specific requirements, as they should, because they’re seasoned and have very good experience knowing what reaches their audiences in the ways that they wish. It was a really detailed process and I had never worked on a show like that.
Do you prefer the woodwork, framing and old school kind of stuff over working with projections and tech?
No, I think they actually help each other. Programming the video is not easy by any means… It’s just something you can sort of figure out. But if you can’t mount a 50 pound projector in the ceiling and reinforce the ceiling properly to hold it and not kill someone… That’s equally problematic to the video being out of service for a day. They’re both important skills to have with the types of dynamic presentations we’ve been working with for this exhibition.
The Akomfrah, with that ceiling being 20 feet high, we had to figure out how to mount these very heavy, bright, serious, high quality pieces of equipment. Having carpentry and an understanding of hardware and our capabilities and the building’s capabilities, it’s just as important as having the technical knowhow.
I do hope that we continue to collect video art and things like this. In all honesty, while the execution is quite difficult, the fact that you can just send someone a USB stick or a Dropbox file seems really good for our planet. That’s not to say it’s simple to preserve this, but there are steps you must take to preserve digital media, just as there is for conserving a painting for hundreds of years. It’s arguably more difficult when technology is changing as quickly as it is.
Sure. File forms change. Floppy discs turn into CD’s into USBs.
Five years from now, if we try to do a show like The Warmth of Other Suns, they’re going to be like, “No no no, we’re using more high quality projectors now, destroy everything you’ve purchased.” Also, storing technical equipment is just as space consuming.
Basically we all work for art because we love it so much. It’s in no way simple to maintain a place like the Phillips Collection.
Oh, I haven’t even mentioned—when said artwork travels, we often get to travel with it. So that’s a major plus.
That’s so cool. When was the last time you traveled with some art?
Well, I’m actually leaving for Atlanta tomorrow and then I’m leaving for Australia. In February I went to Tokyo, which was insane.
So when we lend, the borrowing institution asks that couriers come and oversee the safe transport of the artwork. That makes perfect sense because anything could go wrong. Someone needs to be watching the process of packing and unpacking and once the crate is sealed it goes through an entire crazy winding road of customs and getting through airport security and making sure that it’s loaded onto a plane or a truck properly. Essentially, if you’re there seeing every which way the work was handled, if something were to go wrong you can sort of pinpoint what may have been the cause. That’s important.
How much would you say working in this institution and seeing this art everyday affects your own personal practice?
I would think tremendously… I think that very deeply informs what I’m thinking about the contemporary art world and what kind of artist I want to be. It’s very exciting to me. I think it’s really good as an artist to always be saturated in what’s going on around you. Both aesthetically and logistically… Or not even logistically but logically. What’s actually happening. I think that how things happen is also important.
I’m a huge proponent of artistic process informing the final product in everything I put out there. So to see the process of moving art and creating things and objects that become obsolete after they’re used and discarded or the painting has no need for it anymore. I like to think about what makes something important. A box is a box, but this box, that’s made of wood that’s otherwise recyclable and completely not on your radar, is really cool because it touched or held up something that we put value in.
Sometimes I take discarded refuse from the museum and I recycle it in art exhibitions.
Are there any artists you would like to work with, but they haven’t come through the Phillips or you haven’t worked with their pieces yet?
It would be incredible if the Phillips could do something with Cady Noland – unlikely though, she’s quite reclusive. Her work on social identity and American culture is important to me and would be good for D.C.
I wish we had Twomblys. He’s dead, but I think he’s another incredible painter who would have done wonders with a full exhibition here.
In an alternate world.
Yeah. It’s so random though, because in Philly they have all these Cy Twomblys and I’m like, “How did they get them?” He lived in Virginia. He was born in Virginia. Why don’t we have a Cy Twombly? I don’t know. He may have been a little bit later, when Duncan Phillips wasn’t collecting as prolifically as he was when he was alive and well and running the institution. I think that’s probably why.
Do you collect at all?
I do, but as of right now I don’t take myself seriously enough to say I’m a collector. Of course, I appreciate the art that’s made by my friends and the people who are in the city. So yes, I acquire art. A lot of the things I’ve collected are definitely not framed, some are just objects and their importance has been situational. The importance attached to objects because of a certain nonexistent fleeting moment is quite interesting. Maybe someday I’ll be able to articulate that and make them into something. I also keep a lot of things with the intention of putting my own artistic addition on them. My contribution to the object.
I think that’s what my idea of collecting is at this point. Meech, my first employer, did not pay me, so he would give me pieces of art in the process. I do actually have two original Dalí lithographs from Dante’s Inferno. They’re lit properly, it’s dark. They’re in a dark room. Lilli, my conservation supervisor, would be quite proud of me. They will not be fading.
When it comes to the tech you use here, is there anything you specifically get very nerdy about?
I was really excited to get the new projectors. It was like Christmas morning. After we had gone through all the rigmarole of deciding which type… the actual thing comes and smells like fresh electronics and it’s very exciting. We get rid of the box, take it out and the first time you turn it on when it’s actually mounted onto the ceiling is inexplicably exciting. Even though it’s quite routine, it feels like an accomplishment because these things are ridiculously fragile and also heavy. It’s not a good combination at all.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Oh there are many. My favorite parts of the job are also deeply connected to what the challenges are. Working in a small institution there are limitations, but at the same time I take that as an impetus to do the most I possibly can. The best part of my job is being able to use my hands and my brain to work around things that get in the way. Using my hands on the daily is something… I feel so lucky.
The hands on aspect and being able to problem solve is the foremost benefit to being an artist who is working in any job. I think that satisfies a lot of my basic creative needs. I do constantly think about this job too. I’m happy about that. I’m happy I don’t have one of those jobs where I go home and drink a bottle of wine to turn it off. I’m happy to continue thinking about the questions and the challenges I have daily.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
At first it was difficult to be female in a hands-on environment. Proving you’re capable of working with power tools, building materials, heavy lifting, etc. can be intimidating (even if partially in the mind). It was something I became more confident with over time and with the support of colleagues who are always willing to teach.
What is your favorite piece in the museum?
The Joan Mitchell Rue Daguerre is pretty incredible. The Diebenkorn Interior with View of the Ocean. And… Okay this one is probably my favorite, but it’s really hard to get away from the Matisse Studio, Quai Saint-Michel. It’s a breathtaking painting and you can see in its color scheme – it’s bridging abstraction and realism. It’s a landmark painting as far as I’m concerned. And you can definitely trace its influence in some of the later painters.