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Home / Articles / Arts / Arts Valve /  Buried Treasure
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Registrar Gallagher Roberts poses alongside some of the New Mexico Museum of Art’s underground treasure.
Enrique Limón

Buried Treasure

A bevy of artistic masterpieces lay in state at the NMMA’s vault

October 1, 2013, 12:00 am
“This is the non-sexy space that visitors don’t get to see,” Michelle Gallagher Roberts says as she leads the way to the New Mexico Museum of Art’s sub-basement. It is there that a treasure trove of art belonging to the state’s oldest museum is archived, preserved and kept.

“This is where the magic happens,” she continues, as she opens the museum’s 1,200-foot main storage room. As chief registrar for NMMA, it’s Gallagher Roberts’ job to oversee the collection—some 20,000 pieces strong.

“There are about 2,500 in here,” she points out, making her way into the warehouse-like facility. The basement is dominated by two rows of rolling, compact storage racks filled “to the max space,” where surplus artwork is temporarily housed.

“The number one thing is that we’re here to take care of the artwork for the foreseeable future,” Gallagher Roberts says. “This system allows [for] all the artwork to be stored safely and in an organized way so that we can have access to it.”

The space was renovated six years ago to be climate and light-controlled. It constantly remains at 70 degrees, with 50 percent humidity. “The thing about artwork,” Gallagher Roberts says, “is that it doesn’t like dramatic changes. Dramatic changes cause a lot of stress, and stress causes damage—so ‘stable’ is the name of the game for us.”

“You come here, and it’s a resource,” says Merry Scully, curator of special projects.

The underground holding pen currently houses rare pieces by Fritz Scholder; salvaged murals from the old Santa Fe Country Club; a Salvador Dalí; and an early, untitled Georgia O’Keeffe, which features her niece Claudia (right).

“It’s not something you would ever look at and say, ‘Oh that’s a Georgia O’Keeffe,’” the registrar says. “It’s one of the earlier pieces she did, when she was in college.”

Some uncharacteristic student studies from Joseph Henry Sharp that veer from his quintessential Southwest style and emulate Goya are also stored in the vault. Other, older pieces in the collection that were donated as early as 1915—prior to the museum’s official opening—are currently on view in It’s About Time: 14,000 Years of Art in New Mexico.

“I am basically the caretaker of all the objects the museum owns or borrows—I deal with all the legal paperwork, the insurance and the coming and goings,” Gallagher Roberts says when asked to describe her job. It’s a unique position that, she explains, is different from that of a curator given that she’s responsible for the physical objects, and not their provenance or how they relate to history or other pieces of work.  

“It’s New Mexico’s cultural heritage, and we are its caretakers,” Gallagher Roberts says. The museum’s ability to accept new gifts and preserve that legacy, however, is in danger because of space and budget restrictions. “There’s never enough time, money or space,” she says in a matter-of-fact way. “Our number one problem right now is lack of space—and that’s directly related to the lack of money to build more space for storage and exhibits.”

Some paintings are temporarily placed on the floor, and sculptures and other objects in a second holding pen are stacked to the rafters. “We need to start expanding, or we’re going to contract,” Gallagher Roberts muses when asked about the perils of her job.

“You’re taking on something for forever,” Scully says. “You want to get key pieces; something that’s representative. People always say, ‘You don’t show all your collection.’ Well, sometimes, the significance of something is later—or sometimes, there are pieces that would be lost otherwise.”

Gallagher Roberts intervenes: “We have collections that are for research, that might not be seen. The bulk of our collection is works on paper and photographs –that consist of about 16,000 works of art, right there out of the 20,000—those works are light-sensitive and have a finite lifespan.”

Making sure the collections are shown on a revolving door of exhibits and properly stored and taken care of in the interim, she says, is key to ensure a piece’s longevity.

“One percent of our collection is on exhibit at any one time, but that’s standard for museums for that very reason,” says Gallagher Roberts, who has worked at the museum for close to eight years. “This is the now, but we have to look long-term. If we had used up all of a piece’s life 100 years ago, it wouldn’t be here today.”

“The MoMA and the Met, they have six or seven registrars and six or seven collections managers,” she says. In contrast, the NMMA’s department consists of one preparatory, a collections manager and a chief registrar.

Locally, Gallagher Roberts’ position seems to be in the up and up, as the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture and the New Mexico History Museum are both hiring; and the International Folk Art Museum is set to have their first full-time registrar since 2008.

The shift, Gallagher Roberts hopes, will again put registrars on the map, and ensure that invaluable pieces of art are properly kept in preserved for future generations.

“We’re a little bit of an endangered species,” she says. “But we’re coming back!”

 

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