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Installing Speed Museum's 24-Foot Aluminum 'Wishbone' No Small Task

J. Tyler Franklin

When you need to move a 24-foot-long aluminum wishbone, you call in the professionals.

The Speed Art Museum is nearing the end of a massive $50 million renovation and expansion project, with the reopening several months away. While the weather is still mild, museum staff is working on the installation of several large outdoor pieces in what will become a new art park, on a slice of lawn along Third Street, near the entrance to the original 1927 building at the University of Louisville's Belknap Campus.

On a recent afternoon, sculptor Mark Handforth's "Wishbone," wrapped in blue tarp, was being held up by heavy chains connected to a large crane. Two workers had removed part of the protective covering and were welding two of the pieces together.

"It came to us in parts, with its legs separated," said Miranda Lash, curator of contemporary art at the Speed. "They’ve built concrete pads for the wishbone to sit on, and now we’re using a crane to calibrate the exact location of the wishbone.”

Lash, along with the artist and other Speed museum staff, carefully considered the placement of “Wishbone,” even making a full-scale wooden mockup of the sculpture to see how it might look once in place. The legs of the wishbone are closer to the museum, with the long tail facing the street.

“We wanted to create the impression of a surreal creature crawling towards the museum,” Lash said.

The Speed is working with Methods & Materials, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in transporting and installing large-scale art and artifacts: things that can be fragile, unwieldy, expensive and irreplaceable. Roger Machin started the company in 1990, and he came to Louisville to supervise this installation. Since "Wishbone" was transported in pieces and welded together on-site, Machin was planning to check with the artist to make sure the particular style of weld was correct.

“Actually he’s in Hong Kong right now, so when we get to a certain stage, I’m going to take some pictures and text them to him, so he can say, 'Yeah, that’s good' or 'No, that’s not good,'” Machin said.

Some artists are more willing to think about practical concerns than others, he said.

“There are certain artists who are very understanding of the building process, and there are other artists that seem to be totally unaware of what it actually takes to build and move something — so they are the ones that are the most difficult to work with,” Machin said.

In many ways, moving a huge sculpture is not too different from moving other large objects: You’ve got to protect it in transit.

“We wrap moving blankets around it, and tape, and actually this is industrial Saran wrap, the very same type that you would use to wrap a boat or a car in transit,” said Lash.

There are plans for other large-scale outdoor works to be installed here, and the dust and gravel on the ground now will be replaced by grass-covered steps. Speed wants to get most of the outside work done while the weather is still mild. Lash said it’s exciting to see the works of art coming into place after so much planning.

“I work with floor plans for a living, and I’m used to drawing floor plans, working with digital floor plans, and you never know what a work of art is going to look like until it’s there,” Lash said.

The Speed's official reopening date is March 12, 2016.