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Wednesday, December 12 Living

Bruce Museum director rolls up her sleeves before every exhibition

During more than 30 years as director of exhibitions at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Anne von Stuelpnagel has handled hundreds of art works, but none thrilled her as much as Johannes Vermeer’s “Lady Writing a Letter, with her Maid.”

For von Stuelpnagel that was akin to a mystical experience.

“It gave me goosebumps,” von Stuelpnagel says, 13 years since that fateful day when she uncrated the painting for the museum’s “Love Letters” exhibition. “There is nothing like it. It was a particularly sumptuous show where I really loved every single painting and that one in particular.”

Von Stuelpnagel has had many such career highs. Her role is much like a back-stage director’s who creates sets for a live production. In fact, at one time she thought she would “end up as a theater set designer.” But the Bruce put her on a different career path, one that finds her developing the settings for both art and science shows in three to four galleries, 10 to 12 times a year. She estimates she has overseen and installed close to 300 exhibitions.

Von Stuelpnagel came to the Bruce through a serendipitous affiliation with the Greenwich Art Society. That led to a volunteer stint for a show at the museum, which eventually blossomed into full-time work in 1987. Her first job found her painting the Seaside Center at Greenwich Point “in really hot weather.” One day she had to demolish the cages that were homes to Joe, a rhesus macaque monkey, and his mother, because they had found a new home in a zoo. Old-timers still talk about bringing their children to the Bruce to see the monkeys.

Born in Munich, von Stuelpnagel lived on a farm near the Baltic Sea in her native Germany and studied art as a young adult, aspiring to become a fine-arts painter. Her love of art is integral to who she is today. She once said, “I couldn’t separate art from everything else I do.”

Precious works of art, like the Vermeer painting, arrive in crates that must acclimatize for 24 hours before they can be opened. Unpacking instructions are studied and then von Stuelpnagel and her team, Daniel Buckley and Sean Murtha, take photos of how something was packed in a crate. Packaging is carefully removed and crates are checked for anything that may have fallen off an object during transit. All objects are carefully inspected by the museum registrar.

For the current exhibition, “Hot Art in a Cold War: Intersections of Art and Science in the Soviet Era,” von Stuelpnagel needed 16 gallons of black and white paints. She also needed to construct Plexiglas domes for objects that needed protection, like a positron-goliath metal orb and a handmade replica of the wooden guns Russian astronauts had with them in their space capsules. When an early space craft was off course and landed in the Tundra in Siberia, von Stuelpnagel says, the astronauts had no weapon with which to defend themselves from prowling wolves and bears. They spent the night in the capsule until they were picked up. Future Russian astronauts were better equipped, with actual guns.

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Before an exhibition is opened to the public, von Stuelpnagel goes over content for a show with a curator. She has to know what the content will be, how many pieces are involved and how many the galleries can contain. She has to understand the storytelling sequences of an exhibition so that the viewer is taken on a logical historical journey of the show’s theme. That’s what gives it character.

The job presents von Stuelpnagel with incomparable experiences, such as visiting the incredible Library of the History of Human Imagination in the home of Jay Walker, a business entrepreneur who founded Priceline. Suspended from the library’s ceiling and seemingly floating in space is an original backup of the first artificial space satellite, Sputnik, the Bruce was borrowing from Walker’s library for its exhibit.

One day during the installation process in mid-January, she gingerly climbed a 12-foot ladder to check the guide wires of the borrowed Sputnik suspended from the ceiling of the atrium in the main gallery. Her petite frame was dwarfed by the space, the ladder and the Sputnik itself, yet she was comfortable up high just as she is when jockeying ladders into position.

Adept at using woodworking tools, von Stuelpnagel wears a tool belt with hammer, scissors, nails and screwdrivers during an installation, not quite the stylish attire you’d expect to see in a museum. Virtually everything that has to do with an exhibition — from text panels, labels and case work, to color schemes, lighting and catalogs — requires her attention. She traces her dexterity in construction to her father, who was determined that his daughters could do anything a man could do in a home or at a campsite.

“We pitched tents that were more secure than those puts up by our male friends,” she says. In her Greenwich home, von Stuelpnagel and her husband, Cliff Abrams, built kitchen cabinets and a porch and put a new roof on their house.

Mounting paintings, drawings and the like, e.g., as in the concurrent exhibition of “Patriotic Persuasion: American Posters of the First World War,” does not require complicated skills. Some displays, however, need calm nerves. One installation she will never forget involved the permanent science exhibition, “Changes in Our Land.” An outside fabrication firm hired to do specialized work bowed out of the job. Von Stuelpnagel remembers carrying tools out back while guests arrived in the front door for opening night.

In her spare time, she gardens, takes long walks with her dog, makes woodcuts and visits other museums. Of course.

Rosemarie T. Anner is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts and Style.

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