A Conversation with John Sudolcan, Director of Operations
This interview between former Chief Curator Carol Togneri and Director of Operations John Sudolcan first appeared in the Museum’s Summer 2010 Newsletter.
Carol Togneri: You came to work at the Museum in the late 1970s and were involved with the merging and installation of Mr. Simon’s objects into the former Pasadena Art Museum space. What was that like?
John Sudolcan: Whenever Mr. Simon was installing works in the galleries, it was exciting. He would go against conventional practice and place art from different periods and styles side by side just to see what it would look like. In those days the Museum was closed three days a week, yet this was barely enough time to make all the changes he required. I can remember many times hearing the security staff announcing that we were now open to the public, and having a paint roller in my hand.
CT: Many years later, you played a big part in the renovation of the galleries by Frank Gehry. What can you tell us about that process?
JS: I loved it. Frank wanted to see the space after we had removed everything, and I mean everything. We removed the floor, the concrete deck and the ceiling to the metal roof deck, and all the walls to the cinder block walls. All electric, plumbing and mechanical devices were removed, so that only the basic shell was left, and that became Frank’s canvas.
CT: And the Sculpture Garden renovation by Nancy Goslee Power?
JS: Like Frank, Nancy is a very visual person— she likes to see things on site and life size. At one point, she learned of several granite blocks that had been cut from a quarry nearly a hundred years ago (possibly for use in repairing buildings after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake) and had been abandoned in a field in Fresno. Nancy and I went there to inspect the blocks in hopes that they could be used as sculpture bases. This was in the middle of summer, so we had to beat back bushes and avoid rattlesnakes in this field in order to see them. They were stunning, and needless to say, it was no small feat getting them to their current locations.
CT: Your staff is busy seven days a week, but it’s on Tuesdays, when we’re closed to the public, that you and the preparators do the most work in the galleries. Can you describe a typical Tuesday here, if that’s possible?
JS: Tuesday is my department’s busiest day. If a painting needs to be moved, or a gallery needs to be repainted or rehung, it happens on Tuesday. We also inspect for lighting issues, which means relighting a whole gallery to get it just right.
CT: You have hands-on experience on a daily basis with some very precious works of art. What is the most difficult piece in the collection to move?
JS: Each piece has its own set of challenges, but sometimes the smallest pieces of art can be the toughest to move. For example, Clodion’s sculpture Bacchante Supported by Bacchus and a Faun has hands and arms and feet and legs and hoofs sticking out all over the place, and it is over two hundred years old and very fragile.
CT: Finally, what is the best part of your job?
JS: Without question it’s working with the artwork. Even after 35 years, I get goose bumps when I am with an unframed work—Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, for example. I really feel the history of the painting. The opportunity I have to develop a hands-on relationship with some of the world’s greatest works of art is something not many people have.