The Job: Paul Churchill

Artists Seek Out the Owner of Monarch Fine Arts Services for His Calm Competence and Inventive Solutions

Art preparator Paul Churchill doesn’t have the easiest job to explain in a jiffy.

“People ask, ‘What do you do?’” Churchill says. “I tell them, ‘Basically, I’m a preparator,’ and they say, ‘What is that?’ I go, ‘Well, it’s actually somebody who installs, packs, stores and ships artwork in a museum setting.

“A lot of times they say, ‘Well, you’re an artist then.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I can draw, but I’m not an artist.’ And then they say, ‘So you frame stuff?’ Still, no, that’s a whole other industry.”

If it takes a while to clarify his craft to new acquaintances, that’s fine by Churchill. The 54-year-old art-world entrepreneur, who began as a design student at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, will eventually get around to mentioning that for 13 years he was chief preparator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

“At the Nelson, I was in charge of their prep department,” he says. “We would do the installation, packing and storage of all of the artwork there.”

As owner-operator of Monarch Fine Art Services in the Winchester Caves since 2009 — and where the temperature is maintained at a fine-art-friendly 68-72 degrees — Churchill wisely and efficiently prepares paintings, sculptures and other artworks for the safest possible outcomes. Whether a piece is to be put in storage or custom-packed and dispatched for installation elsewhere, all manner of artists, collectors and museums have come to count on Churchill’s well-honed way of handling their art the right way.

“This is the only kind of job I’ve ever had, except for Pizza Hut in college,” Churchill says. “In fact, I stayed at KU taking just enough hours to maintain my work-study job at the Spencer Museum of Art, because I loved the work so much. It was exactly the right fit for me.”

More than 30 years later, Churchill’s careful focus and creative problem-solving skills continue to translate exceedingly well to the methodical work he undertakes daily. He’s happy to take his time, but only if that’s what the job calls for.

“Sometimes it takes a little more time and sometimes it doesn’t,” he says. “I’m here to help you with your artwork. I’m not here to take all your money to help you with your artwork.”

Susan White, resident artist at Studios Inc in the East Crossroads, sought out Churchill to disassemble and store her 17-foot-tall
thorn sculpture, “Rift,” which had to be taken apart in four sections.

“The separate components were awkward, but I could see his roots in design coming through in his elegant solution,” White says. “He suspended each section within its own skeletal crate, open on all four sides and kind of open on the top, so that I could access them, but they were still stable and secure.”

It’s almost a shame to have to remove the sections of sculpture from their ingeniously fashioned crates, “because they look like a new piece of artwork,” she says. “It looks like a collaboration with Paul Churchill. I’ve got a photo of it in my studio, because I keep thinking, ‘OK, so this is an idea.’”

Churchill is also adept at formally collaborating with artists on the presentational end of things, such as helping to install five monoprints for Lawrence artist May Tveit’s recent exhibition, “Drop Unit,” at the Greenlease Gallery at Rockhurst University.

“He just is a complete workhorse,” Tveit says. “He was running up and down a super-tall ladder and working in tandem with me to remove light from the space and then add light in. He was a complete, open collaborator.

“And he’s been around the block. He knows the drill. He knows how to talk to people and how to calm whatever trepidations they might have. He’s just constantly reassuring. And as an artist in an installation deadline mode, just having that calm energy was really welcomed.”

When the Steamboat Arabia Museum in the City Market reached out to Churchill for an especially challenging assignment, his tranquil vigor was needed more than ever. The seals had broken on one of the museum’s large cold-storage preservation containers, leading the artifacts inside to become dangerously covered in thick ice.

“They hired us to take everything out and move it into another working freezer,” Churchill recalls. “The entire thing at the roofline and into the shelves was encased in this ice. We just slowly chipped away, chipped away, chipped away.

“It was so exhilarating. I knew it was going to be a problem project. I knew I was going to be miserable for three days — minus 13 degrees with a fan blowing on you is nuts. But this is why I’m here. Because somebody can’t, and I know I can, I’m able to help.”

That professional dedication also extends to far more ordinary jobs, Churchill says, “like if somebody calls me with just a few pieces to hang.”

Still, he never quite knows what to really expect until he arrives on the scene.

“I’ve gone into a place where they said, ‘We’ve got 13 pieces to hang,’ and they actually had almost 80 pieces that they wanted to hang everywhere. They said, ‘Oh, we forgot about those.’ But if it’s important to them, it’s important to me.”

About The Author: Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shares his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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