Lucky for the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Donn Roll is not a clumsy person.
Roll, the museum’s exhibitions coordinator, is the guy who preps a gallery before a new exhibit is installed.
He oversees and assists the museum preparators in hanging fragile and invaluable pieces of art. Using a stud-finder, ladder and hanging wire, Roll and his staff secure the frames and fabrics that accompany special exhibits, making sure the vinyl text is the right shade, shape and size for each show.
He’s the guy you call in the middle of a construction project, when you need to move a model of John Ringling’s houseboat from out of the Cà d’Zan kitchen into the Cà d’Zan sunroom.
Roll, 42, is a former art-gallery owner, art collector and part-time art-history teacher at State College of Florida. Not only is he a handyman, he knows the cultural-and-social significance of almost every artwork he moves.
On a Friday afternoon, as hordes of senior citizens wait outside the visitors pavilion for their tour bus to arrive, Roll is inside the Circus Museum trying to figure out why the nighttime lights won’t come on.
It’s a dead-battery issue and a quick fix, a small undertaking considering the six stone sculptures he moved recently — two sphinxes and four lions — to make room for the expansion of the Tibbals Learning Center.
In addition to preparing for exhibits, Roll is also responsible for shuffling around Ringling’s permanent collection whenever a new construction project breaks ground.
“The staff here has been dealing with these kind of issues for years,” Roll says. “We have experts thinking about how things should be properly moved, the stress on an object and where would be the most practical place to pick something up. We’ve got it down to a science.”
He reaches for his jeans pocket and pulls out a pair of gloves. Worn and coated with a coarse, rubbery material, the gloves, which Roll uses daily to move artwork and sculptures, are one of several tools of the trade. He goes through about four pairs a season.
Strolling through the cavernous Rubens Gallery, Roll is quick to point out that not everything is moved with brute force. Many pieces are simply too heavy or unwieldy to lift. For big jobs, Roll’s staff uses a forklift.
Gesturing toward the gallery’s vaulted ceiling he says, “Try changing those light bulbs without a crane.”
Inside the gallery’s Searing wing, Roll explains the technicalities of installing a special exhibit. Up now through April 4, “Gothic Art in the Gilded Age” is a collection of John Ringling’s medieval and early Renaissance art. The exhibit includes sculptures, metalwork, furniture and ceramics and was one of the museum’s more elaborate installations.
Using old photographs, curators designed the exhibit to mimic the way it looked when it was first installed in Ringling’s home. Roll had to hire subcontractors to build walls and shelves strong enough to hold heavy tapestries and statues.
“It’s a fascinating process,” Roll says, pausing to remove his watch before adjusting a glass case filled with cameo pendants. “If we do our jobs right, the art is what you focus on. We work really hard to not be seen.”
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ROLL’S TOP 3 TIPS FOR EXIBITING ART
1. Rearrange often.
“One of the things I do consistently is move artwork around. If you move something to a new location, you look at it anew.”
2. Your 55-inch flat screen isn’t art.
“You have to look at your TV like you would a window. It’s negative space. Work around it. Think of it as a void.”
3. Art rules are meant to be broken.
“Art is about personal taste. It’s your home and your art. Put it where you can see it and don’t worry what other people might think.”