On the Other Side of Fine Art, Among the Crates and Barrels

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Mark Planisek drives a forklift and spends his days with the likenesses of American legends such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Theodore Roosevelt. As a collections handler for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, he has traveled with George Washington's portrait to museums on both coasts.

"My main job is to keep the collections safe and keep [them] from getting damaged in transport or installation," Planisek said. In 12 years, "I've had close calls -- and I'll leave it at that."

His job involves physical labor, pushing crated paintings onto trucks or pulling them out of storage. At least once a week, he hauls a truckload from storage in Largo to the museum downtown.

Installing a new exhibit can be especially demanding. The current show about the role of Spain in the Revolutionary War has 100 paintings. Hanging them took the Portrait Gallery's three art handlers and 10 contractors a week.

A graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Planisek was a commercial illustrator for 17 years. "I wanted to experience the other side of art, the fine art side," he said. He paints and shoots photos on the side, and feels his Smithsonian job "frees me up to express myself the way I want to."

In 1995, he joined a contract art moving and installation company Artex, where he learned the ropes. (The work pays $20 to $40 an hour, depending on experience and venue.) After a stint at another museum, he joined the Portrait Gallery in 1999.

He likes working with curators, art historians and artists. Recently, he was putting out an array of old movie posters for the curator to review.

He said, "They'll ask me, 'What do you think?' "

-- Vickie Elmer

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