How’s this for a job title?


Devon Hugdahl of Port Washington has a unique job helping set up art pieces for display and getting them ready to be shipped or stored. Photo by Sam Arendt
Mitch Maersch
Ozaukee Press Staff

Devon Hugdahl of Port Washington isn’t a painter, electrician, welder, plumber, carpenter or engineer.

But he’s all of those things rolled up into one in the relatively unknown behind-the-scenes profession of art preparator.

It’s Hugdahl’s job to safely unpack pieces of art, create displays for how they will be shown and pack them back up to be shipped or stored. Preparators, he said, help bring curators’ visions for exhibits to life.

He has handled art with varying degrees of value, weights, shapes and sizes, but his philosophy is consistent, regardless of what kind of pieces are his responsibility.

“I treat it as a precious artifact,” he said.

While Hugdahl’s role is vital to the success of an exhibit, he is well aware of the anonymity of his career.

“It’s an interesting job because nobody really knows my job exists, and if I’m doing my job correctly it doesn’t look like I’m ever there,” he said.

What is actually isn’t there is formal training. Art preparator isn’t a college major, and few training sessions are available. It has one professional association called the Preparation, Art Handling Collections Care Information Network.

Hugdahl basically fell into the profession after leaving a dying one. The Madison-area native had been studying photography, studio art and art history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and worked as a technician in a photo lab, turning off the film processor for the final time.

“I actually got to watch that industry die,” he said.

But he had spent four years helping a couple of friends at Madison’s Firecracker Studios, which featured lowbrow art, and a coworker at the photo lab helped Hugdahl get a job at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. That’s where he really learned his craft.

“They told me how to do things, where to go and how not to do things,” he said.

It was at that Madison Museum where, while passing a shipment of art, his life changed. He handed a piece of art on a loading dock to a woman, and their eyes met.

“In the cold and diesel fumes, it was magic,” he said.

Within a few years, Hugdahl moved to Minneapolis to be with the woman and married her.

Pamela and Devon Hugdahl eventually had a daughter and wanted to move out of the city. Devon got a job at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, and the family moved. It was an adjustment coming from the heart of a metropolis.

“On Friday in Sheboygan, you can hear a pin drop,” Devon said.

Pamela completed her master’s degree in art from UWM, and got a job as director of the Cedarburg Art Museum.

The couple had their second child, Devon left his job in Sheboygan and the family moved to Port Washington.

Devon turned into a stay-at home father and picked up work at Gallery 224 and helped the Port Washington Historical Society with its latest exhibit.

Working with art is a fitting career for Devon, whose father studied art and architecture and did sculpture and photography. His mother, a teacher, exposed him to art, including taking him to all kinds of museums in the U.S. and when the family lived in Holland for a year. She even had flashcards with works of art, and Devon had to name each artist.

In the late 1990s, Devon saw a piece of art in a museum that was nothing but a pumping large bass speaker that emitted no noise. It was unsuccessfully used to deter riots in the 1950s.

“I walked in and it blew my mind,” Devon said.

He realized art doesn’t always have to be a painting. Putting the speaker on a pedestal made it a piece of art.

“Once you change its context, it becomes something else,” he said.

Devon enjoys discussing the issue of what makes something a piece of art, and he has worked with all kinds.

In 12 years as a preparator, he has filled countless holes with spackle and covered them with white paint and handled a wide variety of artwork, designing and constructing materials to put pieces on display and to ship them.

For a California artist who covered his entire home with paintings, Devon helped recreate the front, complete with the porch and windows.

On another job, it took a month to put 150 different life-size concrete figures covered in mosaic on risers.

He once drove a forklift to move a diving bell that weighed more than 1,000 pounds from a pallet to a display.

Sometimes, displays come with instructions. Other times, curators have to figure it out for themselves.

Devon once worked on a show for famous photographer Cindy Sherman in which someone else put the displays together and he helped hang pieces on a wall.

“She walked in and loved it all,” he said.

The goal, he said, is to make a piece look like it’s “floating on a wall.”

Other pieces offer more than a visual draw. Devon helped handle a huge tea pot urinal that would flush itself. He said he learned more about toilets on that day than he ever had.

Although Devon has avoided tragic accidents so far, sometimes they are out of his control. He once got a call to fix an exhibit of small clay TVs, one for each game Brett Favre played as a Green Bay Packer, after it was knocked over.

While art preparators aren’t highly paid, the benefits of the job make it worth it for Devon. He gets to meet artists and spend time with people with similar interests.

“It’s a labor of passion more than a labor of money,” he said.

Aside from constructing displays, Devon had to figure out how to safely ship art. He usually builds wooden crates out of plywood and pine with Ethafoam inside for cushioning. But different types of pieces require different packaging. The l50 life-sized concrete figures he handled each got strapped down for transport.

Storing art provides different challenges. Temperature and humidity must be monitored to keep art safe and in place. Devon said rising humidity can cause adhesives to fail, leading to pieces falling off their hinges.

His job has changed his perspective on exhibits. When Devon goes to a show he helped set up, he likes to take someone along to focus on the art. Devon only sees the tiny paint splatters and other imperfections.

He likes when people spend more than the average of 3 to 6 seconds per piece, and is intrigued by people who peek behind a piece to see how it is hung.

One of his favorite artists is Frida Kahlo, the famous Mexican artist whose paintings he was handling when he met Pamela.

He hopes his displays can help people be impacted by art the way he was in high school.

“I’ve always tried to figure out a way my job can make the world a better place in a small way,” he said.

“Somebody can walk into that space and see a piece that changes their life.”



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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