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Please do not touch the art. 

If you’ve visited art galleries and museums, you’ve probably seen signs with this message. Most important is the preservation of the art, which is why touching the art, unless it is explicitly labeled as “interactive” is strictly prohibited. Even a tiny bit of pressure or grease on a finger can do serious damage to a work of art. 

But my job at the McNay Art Museum is literally to touch the art. While wearing gloves, part of my job is to touch the art in order to install, put it in storage, or transport it. Before I even knew what an art preparator was, I knew I wanted a career working in the arts.

My first exposure to fine art was as a youth while visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts. What had the most impact were the Detroit Industry murals Diego Rivera painted there in the early 1930s. Years later I would paint murals myself here in San Antonio. Until this day every time I work on a mural project, I remember seeing Rivera’s murals for the first time.

I started my formal training at San Antonio College, where I took painting courses and learned to build my own canvas stretcher frames for my paintings. To complete my bachelor’s in fine arts, I transferred to the University of Texas at San Antonio, where I mostly focused on painting, and murals, specifically the history of Mexican muralism.

On a 2015 trip to Paris, I saw employees at the Orsay Museum working directly with the art. They were conservationists and technicians, and they were working on the restoration of a large Courbet painting. They were enclosed in a glass cube and visitors were able to observe the process. I remember thinking, “How can I do that? How do I get a job in a museum?”

Employees working with art during Rhys’ trip to Paris in 2015.
Osray employees working with an exhibit during Rhys’ trip to Paris in 2015. Credit: Courtesy / Rhys Munro

After graduation, I immediately began working on both mural commissions and art preparator work that I was hired to do by the city’s Department of Arts and Culture. Building a reputation as both an artist and a professional art handler for the city galleries and private local collectors led to the installation manager of the McNay Art Museum reaching out in early 2018 with an offer to join the team as contract art preparator. In early 2020 I was permanently hired full time by the McNay.

One of the best parts of my job is uncrating incoming artworks on loan to the museum. When the crate arrives we offload it into our art receiving space, where we remove the bolts and then lift the lid to see what’s inside. It’s a thrill that never gets old. 

Museum visitors get to see the front of the painting once it’s hanging as part of an exhibition, but the back tells its own story. There’s often writing from the artist and gallery labels — some from over 100 years ago — documenting where the painting has traveled. These markings reveal the history of the artwork, like a passport for the painting. 

In addition to handling the art I, along with our installation team, do everything from prepping and painting the gallery walls, to making the labels, to transporting works of art. I enjoy visiting the homes of private collectors, who are almost always very gracious and will excitedly and proudly show us around to see other works in their collection. 

The first time I worked at the McNay was in the Spring of 2018 on an exhibition titled Immersed. The highlight of that was installing Yayoi Kusama’s Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity. The work is essentially a small room of floor-to-ceiling mirrors and lights that gives the viewer the sensation of infinity. The installation process was incredibly complex and detailed — and fun! As a lifelong Lego fan, this was like assembling the ultimate Lego set. Honestly, it was such a privilege to be on the installation team and part of that rare process.

Cherise ‘Rhys’ Munro stands inside Yayoi Kusama's <i>All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins</i>.
Rhys Munro stands inside Yayoi Kusama’s All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Like most of the world, the McNay closed temporarily in March of last year because of the pandemic. The installation team came back to work fairly early in June of 2020, before the museum was even open to the public. We tried our best to maintain a sense of normalcy and continued to rotate exhibitions in our galleries. 

At one point, I have to admit that it did seem rather fruitless to swap out works of art and install new shows. With the world at a virtual standstill, understandably resulting in low visitor attendance, we asked each other, “What’s the point?” But seeing even a few guests walking through the museum and taking in the art made it worthwhile. I appreciated that they kept coming in, and hanging onto a sense of normalcy through art. At the same time, it reassured me that I still had a purpose. 

I now have a new position as the museum’s conservation technician, which is still within the curatorial department. My new role involves the maintenance, preservation, and handling of works in the museum’s collection on view and in storage, including all outdoor sculptures. Every day I am thankful for the opportunities I have had. Even when I’m exhausted, with sore muscles from handling heavy art all day, it’s a satisfying feeling in the end to see a show come together and know I was a part of it.