Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center – part 43

Part 43: Art is Never Finished, Only Abandoned

During March, 2016, I was given another directive from the CEO: he wanted me to identify a theatrical rigger to bid on the hanging of all the scenery. Although it might take up to five years, he was hoping to get a price break on the job in its entirety. I had initially encountered his approach of “bulk purchasing” when I was seeking a portrait artist to depict the various individuals for whom the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center spaces were named, such as Charlie Nelson for the Nelson Library.

The CEO had directed me to find portrait painter, and I stumbled across Joe Burns‘ website and a few newspaper articles on his neighborhood portraits. Here is a link to his work: (https://www.pinterest.com/joeburnsartist/). I immediately liked and admired Burns for both his fine art technique and community involvement. He had an interesting contemporary interpretive style, but some of his paintings harkened to an older tradition. Upon meeting and interviewing Burns, I realized that we had both received training from the Atelier during the early 1990s (Richard Lack’s studio in Minneapolis).

After contracting Burns for all of the portraits, the CEO wanted an additional painting – one depicting the entire facility. He asked me what I thought the price should be and I again explained Burn’s fine art formula based on the square inch. He looked surprised, and said, “Well, I have certainly paid him enough money and should get a steep discount on this next work.”

I am always fascinated when people believe that the price of art should be reduced if you order numerous paintings. They are attempting to parallel a unique artistic creation with office supplies from Staples. Does the discount apply after buying 5 or 25 items?

It is at times like these that I step back and reflect on past Masonic endeavors, when their lodge rooms included murals, beautifully carved woodwork, hand-painted tracing boards and celestial skies. Were the members looking for the cheapest version at the time? No, they were looking for something that would honor the spirit of Freemasonry.

At what point does any organization start to look for the cheapest artifact and stop caring about the artistry? Is it at the same time that quantity surpasses quality?

So, here we were less than three months before the opening and trying to hang irreplaceable artworks as cheaply as possible. I was reminded of the general director hiring a Ready Labor crew to move these same artworks into storage.

We needed the individuals who handled the Thomas G. Moses scenic art collection to do it with care for the inherent fragile state of a ninety-year-old artwork and understanding of its cultural value. We could not afford to hire “cheap labor” who didn’t have a clue as to what they were doing. This decision could ultimately destroy the entire acquisition.

The rigger, or rigging company, needed to understand that the drops were not mere backgrounds for a degree production; they were artworks that depicted a shifting aesthetic in both popular art and stage design. An artistic heritage of national significance. The collection was a small part of a much larger picture that identified a shared material culture between the general public and the Fraternity. I needed Paul Sannerud, Brandon Fischer, Ty Prewitt (BellaTex, LLC), Dan Culhane, or Rick Boychuk to be involved in this project as I KNEW that they each understood and appreciated the collection. They also understood that so much of this history had been lost over the decades; painted scenery is ephemeral in nature. Similarly, there are Masonic scholars across the country who are watching their own history being abandoned.

We all understand what is happening nationwide and we are scrambling to preserve something – anything – for future generations.

Had I saved an internationally significant collection only to watch it be destroyed during the installation? I hoped not, as it would truly be a loss of epic proportions.

To be continued…

Joe Burns holding a preliminary painting for the final portrait.
Joe Burns with his preliminary study and final portrait.
Preliminary study, small-scale design, and final portrait by Joe Burns.
Joe Burns and I on June 24, 2016 – opening day for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.

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