Moving Masterpieces

Mike Bir doesn’t decide where you find LOVE—he’s the man who makes sure it will arrive safely, be protected, and look dazzling. And that the floor beneath it can manage its weight.

“I’ve moved LOVE six times in my tenure here,” he said. As director of operations, Bir is responsible for ensuring art is handled and displayed in a manner that not only shows it to its greatest effect but keeps it—and the Museum—safe.

When it came to the 2017 move of Robert Indiana’s monumental sculpture inside the Museum from the Sutphin Mall, Bir was ready for the challenges of moving 9,200 pounds of steel and the 18,000 pounds of equipment required to do so, but he was not prepared for what he saw when he looked up: condensation stains on the ceiling that meant repairs and repainting before visitors could again find LOVE. The sculpture now greets guests on Floor 2 in Pulliam Family Great Hall.

That’s the gig: whatever it takes to engineer measures that protect the art. It involves precision, he says, a strong sense  of physics and design, and an enthusiasm for “laying out all the perceived problems.” Like how to secure the massive cantilevered element of Roy Lichtenstein’s Five Brushstrokes, which arrived as eight massive elements to be installed in the scant three feet of soil above the parking garage. Or how to turn a sketch into the 450 pieces of rebar, spanning 15 arc types, that make up the Landscape of Light during Winterlights

“It’s one interesting challenge after another,” Bir said. “And it’s great fun.”

Bir joined the Museum in January 1990 as a mount-maker and has held many “art-handling” positions since. He holds a bachelor of fine arts from  Herron  School of Art and Design, and a master of fine arts degree in sculpture from Syracuse University. That background, he says, trained him to respect the art and gave him the visual acuity to ensure its optimal display.

It also means that he speaks “artist,” and a good thing, too, because he works closely with the artists whose work he handles—minimally.

“Conservation is always on our minds,” Bir said. “We engage with the art as infrequently as possible.”

It’s on the minds of Bir and his team, sure, but not necessarily on the minds of everyone required to move large pieces. He remembers reacting swiftly when consulting at another museum, where he stepped into an installation-in-progress to see riggers handling a piece unnecessarily: “First, get your hands off the art!”

“That was a real casual relationship to the art they were having,” he said. His mission is to prevent such relationships and especially to solve the problems of safe, pleasing display. Most recently, he prepared for the March arrival of Fletcher Benton’s Folded Circle Dynamics Red Phase III, a sculpture that's nearly 15 feet tall and just as wide. 

Bir began the work of figuring out how to move and display the piece last September. Because the sculpture has a kinetic element,  Bir’s problem-solving included how to add a conduit for electricity without disturbing the ductwork located below its new location. When it arrived, it found its home beneath the skylight in Pulliam Family Great Hall. Bir’s gloved hand helped guide it into position.