Special Delivery

When priceless works leave the Walker Art Center to travel to other institutions around the globe, Heather Scanlan accompanies them—to protect and preserve

THERE’S AN UNEASY feeling in the air. Heather Scanlan is darting around her home, attending to final details before leaving on a weeklong trip as her sons—Colin, 2, and Cormick, eight months—watch. Scanlan’s husband, Joe, whose birthday is today, is less than thrilled. Heather is going to Europe today with the kind of guy that mothers warn their daughters about: unshaven, unclean, chin raised defiantly, a cigarette lodged in the corner of his mouth. Plus, he’s nine feet tall. From the collarbone up.

The Walker Art Center has agreed to loan Chuck Close’s Big Self-Portrait to the Reina Sofía art museum in Madrid. Scanlan, the Walker’s assistant registrar, will escort the popular painting to make sure it arrives intact.

Scanlan, who has big eyes and a wide smile, calls herself a procrastinator, but she’s as efficient as Mary Poppins. Still, the trip ahead involves three legs and is likely to be more grueling than any of her previous journeys. She and the crated work, more than 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide, will drive to Chicago, fly to Paris, then drive to Madrid.

Scanlan reviews her carry-on one last time. Passport. Check. Paperwork. Neck pillow. Dramamine. iPod. Check. She’s missing only one thing. She needs to stop at her office to pick up Courierspeak, the international courier’s bible, where such phrases as “Do not touch my crate” and “I need a seat next to my artwork” are translated into French, Spanish, Russian, and Japanese.

At 10 a.m. that Sunday, the phone rings. The driver of the moving truck coming from Chicago asks Scanlan to be ready early. The temperature is falling and I-94 has become slippery, slowing traffic. To make the planned flight, the crate needs to be at the airport four hours before departure. (Too big for a passenger plane, the crate must fly cargo. Madrid doesn’t accept cargo planes, though, so the work has to go through Paris. Since there are no cargo flights from Minneapolis to Paris, Scanlan and the painting must fly from Chicago.)

Museums loan paintings in a mutually beneficial give and take, though certain works are so closely associated with a particular museum that they rarely go out. Close’s Big Self-Portrait is such a work. The artist was a fledgling painter in 1969 when the Walker bought the piece—so early in his career, in fact, that it’s actually signed “Charles Close.” It was the cornerstone work at the Close retrospective that opened the expanded Walker in 2005, and in the past four decades, it’s left the Walker only eight times for traveling exhibitions. The main reason it’s going to the Reina Sofía is that Close asked the Walker to send it for a three-month exhibition being hosted by the Spanish museum: “Chuck Close—Pinturas 1968-2006.”

It’s Sunday afternoon when Joe loads the boys into the car and drives Scanlan to the Walker, where a 51-foot tractor-trailer waits at the loading dock. Also there are the two drivers who will accompany Scanlan and the painting to Chicago. Scanlan’s eyes well up as she kisses the boys and Joe goodbye.

The drivers follow Scanlan into the cavernous Walker elevators and down to the basement, where the crated Close has been waiting to be taken to Spain for more than a week. The first thing Scanlan does upon encountering the crated painting is remove the tag that identifies the work. Whenever she travels with pieces from the Walker’s collection, curious cargo workers ask questions—What’s in the box? What kind of work is it? Who’s the artist?—questions Scanlan never answers, though customs agents at both ends of the journey know from the paperwork what’s in the crate, which has been cleared in advance.

Among the most common questions is what the cargo is worth, an inquiry Scanlan deflects by pretending she doesn’t know. She does, of course. Experts estimate that, if sold at auction, Big Self-Portrait would fetch a price far exceeding the current record price for a Close portrait: around $5 million, for a painting sold by Sotheby’s in 2005. Yet there’s a good reason for such subterfuge. Art thieves are notoriously brazen and cunning—brazen enough to remove a painting like Munch’s The Scream from a museum wall in broad daylight, and cunning enough to snatch a Goya masterpiece that was in transit last fall between the Toledo Museum of Art and the Guggenheim in New York.

Chuck Close, Big Self-Portrait
1967-1968, acrylic on canvas,
Collection: Walker Art Center,
Minneapolis; Art Center
Acquisition Fund, 1969

Strapped to the side of the oversized truck, the crate looks like an index card taped to the side of a shoebox. The truck doors are secured with an oversized padlock hooked to an alarm. Scanlan signs to attest that the work is on the truck, then hoists herself into its commodious cab: two seats in front, bunk beds with clean sheets and a television in back. As the truck drives through Wisconsin on I-94, cars are clustered in ditches. Two hours into the trip, traffic comes to a halt. A tractor-trailer has split open, strewing noodles all over the highway.

When they finally arrive at the airport that night, a steel loading tray is waiting for them. Scanlan ensures that nothing liquid or flammable is placed anywhere near her crate, which is packed with other paintings and a box of x-ray bulbs. A cargo net, straps, and a tight plastic sheet are wrapped around the big bundle, which is put on a dolly and wheeled to the plane.

The pilots invite Scanlan to sit with them during takeoff. She hates flying, but after the plane is airborne she manages to get some sleep in a bunk behind the cockpit.

It’s Monday afternoon, local time, when the plane finally lands in Paris. After her luggage is x-rayed, Scanlan and the crate are driven to the Air France cargo warehouse and then to an art storage facility—a climate-controlled area manned around-the-clock by a security guard—in another part of the city. It’s 10:30 p.m. when Scanlan finally makes it to her hotel.

The next morning, a three-car caravan—a climate-controlled truck for the painting, a compact for Scanlan and her driver, and an unmarked French police car—drive south for 12 hours, through the snow-capped Pyrenees to the border. There, the caravan is greeted by Spanish police, who take over for the French and will escort Scanlan and the crate all the way to Madrid. At the border, the Close caravan also links up with three cars going to the Prado, Spain’s national art museum, which is located literally across the street from the Reina Sofía. The Prado truck, carrying a priceless Velázquez loaned to a French museum, has two police cars guarding it. (The works of the beloved 16th-century painter are like the crown jewels of Spain.) When the entire caravan reaches Bilbao, the trucks are parked for the night at a police station with a tall brick wall around it.

Few students imagine a job as an art courier. For Scanlan, the road to the career began during her sophomore year at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, when she wrote an art history term paper that impressed her professor. She decided to major in art history, which led to a semester studying the subject—and enjoying paella and sangria with friends—in Madrid. She went to work at the Walker not long after graduating. When she isn’t traveling or preparing works for transit, she’s coordinating rights and reproduction requests—about 200 a year—for the museum.

The Prado doesn’t accept deliveries until the museum closes, so Scanlan has time to kill in Bilbao, time she considers a reward for her endurance. At the city’s signature museum, the Frank Gehry–designed Bilbao Guggenheim, she wanders around an African art exhibit and Richard Serra sculpture gallery. But two hours before the caravan is scheduled to depart for Madrid, the drivers hunt her down to inform her that there’s unexpected snow ahead. They’re concerned about sticking together in the Madrid’s rush-hour traffic. As the cars make their way to the museum, police manage to keep traffic clear by activating their sirens.

At the Reina Sofía, Scanlan is greeted by the museum’s registrar. Because abrupt temperature and humidity changes can cause paint layers to crack, artwork that’s been moved is left crated for a day to acclimate to its new surroundings. The Reina Sofía, like all borrowing institutions, has agreed to the Walker’s conditions for protecting the work. It must be guarded 24 hours a day; hung in a gallery that’s at a consistent 72 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent humidity; and protected from any exposure to food, drink, and fluorescent and natural light.

Scanlan says goodbye to her driver and spends some time looking at Picasso’s Guernica—Reina Sofía’s most prized work—and dashes through the Prado, pausing at Velázquez’s Las Meninas, and Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. She pads the central plaza and back streets, visiting old haunts, pleased by how much Spanish she remembers.

The next afternoon, the Close piece is unpacked by five men in blue jumpsuits. The journey hasn’t raised any red flags, but registrars scrutinize every moved painting, practically at the molecular level. (Scanlan has lived the courier’s nightmare—a work damaged in transit. She once opened a crate containing a sculpture made of beeswax, resin, and wood and discovered it had broken into hundreds of tiny pieces. The piece was expertly reconstructed, but Scanlan drafted a memo for the work’s file stating that it should never again travel.)

Examining Big Self-Portrait, Scanlan notices an accretion of yellow glue on the bottom of the canvas—a portion that was concealed when she previously examined the work. Thankfully, it has been noted in a previous report. The Spanish registrar attests to the condition of the work, and the canvas is rested on blocks, waiting to be hung in the prime exhibition spot—the entrance wall—where it will be seen by more than 50,000 visitors.

The next day, Scanlan flies straight from Madrid to Chicago, then catches a flight back to Minneapolis. Joe and the boys greet her at the airport. Colin shouts with excitement. Cormick seems to have grown. The boys did well, and Joe survived. But Scanlan is already thinking about her next trip—when she will bring the Close piece back home to Minneapolis—wondering if she can fly and pack the painting in the same day. MM

Judy Kogan is a Minneapolis writer.