From Laguna Beach, CA. – Devon Nowlin

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From Laguna Beach, CA.

Oct 4, 2017

One year and five courier trips into my new role as a museum registrar and I am starting to understand why, upon accepting the job, a couple of people told me “you could write a book about those courier trips.” Since that time, ideas of a starting a blog have been on my to-do list for my downtime on trips such as this. I find myself tonight in a small cottage-style hotel one block away from the Pacific Ocean in Laguna Beach, CA. As I describe how I arrived here, my hope is that you are interested in learning about an art courier’s work and perhaps gain some practical travel tips along the way.

The logistics of a courier trip begin when a museum requests artworks from the collection of another museum, and in this case, I describe my experience as a registrar at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, TX. An approved loan request sets in motion a process that involves curators, conservators, registrars, preparatory staff, contracted fine art shippers and agents, as well as the registration staff at the borrowing institution. A courier is recommended to travel with artworks for a variety of reasons, and in our museum there are a number of people who are qualified to act as couriers. I always regard it as a great responsibility and professional opportunity when I am appointed for this duty, but it can be a valuable travel and personal experience as well.

My most recent trip began on a Monday morning, when a large climate-controlled tractor trailer pulled up to the museum to transport me and my inanimate travel companions to the Laguna Art Museum, 1,400 miles away. As typical for such trips, I prepare two personal bags for travel: the first is a backpack containing essential items that I expect to access during a 24 hour truck ride, and to act as my personal carry-on for the plane trip home. The second bag is clothing for three days in Laguna Beach which would be stored in the trailer and not available for access until our arrival. It will also fit in the overhead storage of the plane on my return flight home, or on occasion I check it for free at the terminal. 

What are the essential items in my backpack for the truck trip?
Healthy snacks (fruits, nuts, sandwich), a small bottle of water (restrict fluids!)
Basic toiletries (toothbrush & toothpaste, deodorant, lotion, wet wipes)
Basic medicine kit, just in case
Plastic bag for trash
Book
Headphones and earplugs
Trip itinerary with partnering registrar’s contact information

To begin the trip to Laguna Beach, we were loaded and on the road at 9:30 am and George was the first driver as we started out. Kurt immediately retired to the lower bunk in the cab to rest because he was to be the overnight driver. George told me that I had to really slam my door to close it, at which point I wondered if this was the same truck as my first trip to St. Louis earlier in the year. That suspicion was confirmed a little later when I recognized the random d-rings that were screwed into the molded panels in the back of the cab (to hang an impromptu clothes line?), and saw that the same snap enclosures on the sleeper’s port windows were missing. The partially snap-closed covers still blocked the light, but conveniently allowed for a quick peek out of the window in the middle of the night to assess whether we were slowing in traffic or pulling into a truck stop. An important distinction to be aware of!

Somewhere in west Texas

I lucked out with George as the first driver. He was courteous to others on the road, not very talkative, and he smoked, which meant that we stopped every 2 – 2 1/2 hours and I didn’t have to ask once for a pit stop. I stayed in the passenger seat in the cabin and was able to watch the landscape, read, and listen to a couple of podcasts. George drove until about 7 pm, at which point we stopped for 30 minutes for Kurt to wake and ready himself, to clean the bugs off the windshield, and to ponder how we had only just made it to El Paso. Texas is freakin’ huge! I took a small coffee at this relatively late hour because I wanted to see the New Mexico landscape at night. I also wanted to observe the night driver’s habits before retiring to the back of the cab to sleep, if I could.

Now wired on truck stop coffee, Kurt and I traded stories about moving art around and some of the tougher jobs we’ve had. We agreed that yes indeed, this was the same truck that took me to St. Louis, and I learned that Rick and Jr who I first travelled with were no longer with this company, having moved as a team to a different line of driving. I was sorry to hear this because Rick and Jr were a very nice team for my first courier experience, trucking quietly overnight, but ending with some stress when we arrived at our destination the next morning. They completely rutted-up the median of the main avenue leading to a university museum while trying to back into a difficult dock, maneuvering back and forth over the curb and into the grass, trying not to get stuck between a light post and a tree, causing the ire of the university police and backing up traffic for a good 20 minutes. I really felt for those guys! They handled themselves with calm demeanors, and the environment of the artwork was never compromised, but the driving there in the end was in poor form.

Back to the Laguna trip: I bid Kurt goodnight and climbed into the upper sleeper bunk at about 10:30 pm, but because we had already crossed two time zones it was actually 12:30 am for me. I stayed in the bunk until about 5:30 am, but I only had about 3 hours of continuous sleep. The ride is very, very bumpy up high in that upper bunk.

I awoke to sunrise over the mountains in Jacumba, CA on the border of Mexico, which was like a scene from the Richard Misrach photographs of the “Border Cantos” exhibition that the Amon Carter hosted in the fall of 2016. The morning was spent marveling at this extreme landscape and wondering how anyone could safely traverse the Mexico/California border. And questioning how the spotty, haphazard trailer inhabitants of the mountain communities get fresh water to begin with. This recognition, coupled with the reflections on my earlier St. Louis trip felt like a full-circle sort of experience after my first year of this new work. The wonderment was short-lived, for it wasn’t long before we were in early morning rush hour traffic in San Diego. We made a brief rest stop before reaching the museum, where I was able to change shirts and freshen up a little, but I couldn’t help but feel that I had the mess of hair of a four year old just waking up. The registrar who was to greet me at Laguna Art Museum would surely understand.

Laguna Art Museum

It was 10 am on the dot when we arrived to the museum, and yes, it was right on the Pacific Ocean. We unloaded and my host registrar walked me a couple of blocks up the Pacific Coast Highway to check in to my accommodations. After a couple hours of catchup sleep and some exercise in and around Heisler Park, I settled in to write this post and make a website update so that I make the most out of this “working vacation,” you could call it. I returned to the museum the next morning to oversee the unpacking and installation of the Amon Carter loans, taking care to ensure that they travelled well and are safely placed in their new environment for the coming months of  the exhibition “California Mexicana.” I won’t get to see the full, complete exhibition, but I am proud to be a part of an institution that can contribute important works to a comprehensive and historical review of the early cultural exchanges between Mexico and California. And, it is really, really beautiful here.

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