At MOMA, a Multi-Ton Moving Day The Museum of Modern Art is setting up a Richard Serra retrospective — which means getting his immense steel structures into the building.
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At MOMA, a Multi-Ton Moving Day

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At MOMA, a Multi-Ton Moving Day

At MOMA, a Multi-Ton Moving Day

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

If you've ever tried to carry a sleep sofa up a stairwell, you know that moving day is no fun. Well, now imagine what it's like for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. All this month, they are hoisting massive sculptures into the buildings, some of them weighing 200 tons, for a retrospective of artist Richard Serra.

NPR's Robert Smith stopped by to watch.

ROBERT SMITH: On 54th Street in Manhattan, it looks like a supertanker has dropped from the sky. Plates of curved, rusted metal, some the size of billboards, litter the lot next to the museum. The tourists don't know what to think.

Mr. BILL MONNIG (Tourist): Originally, we thought it was the start of a big tank or something.

SMITH: Bill Monnig from Cincinnati snaps pictures as a crane hoists one of the steel plates over the wall of the museum courtyard. Then we rushed inside to see it being set into place.

Unidentified Man: That's to the left, just a touch.

SMITH: So they're lowering it just the last inch and they're moving it so slowly. Wait a minute, listen, listen.

Unidentified Man: Lowering it.

SMITH: And that's it. It's 100 tons steel plates just get set down with no sound, no clink whatsoever. They put it down like a baby.

Sculptor Richard Serra is kneeling next to his baby, making sure it's in precisely the right place.

Mr. RICHARD SERRA (Sculptor): These are pieces that are detailed to their millimeter and when you are moving hundreds of tons around, you can't be off, so we're not off.

SMITH: Have they ever dropped one?

Mr. SERRA: No.

SMITH: Have they ever nudged something, crash a car?

Mr. SERRA: No. Very early on in my career in Minneapolis, there was an accident. It wasn't my crew. It was a different crew. I wasn't even there. They had put the piece up while I was taking it down. But there's no need to go into that.

SMITH: In the early 1970s, a worker was killed in Minneapolis from one of Serra's artwork toppled over on him. Now, they take no chances. Not only is Serra present for every step, but engineers even designed the new MOMA buildings specifically to hold the weight of the 200-ton sculptures.

This week, the museum knocked out a series of walls on the second floor and opened up the side of the building to get some of the works indoors. All of it is supervised by Joe Velardi. His rigging company usually installs boilers and massive air-conditioner units. He's the only man Serra trusts to lift his art.

Mr. JOE VELARDI (Contractor): This is a piece of steel, but we treat it like glass.

SMITH: As Richard dreams up more and more ambitious works of art, do you ever go to him and say look, it can't be done. We can't move that. That can't go anywhere.

Mr. VALARDI: That's what I've said to him a few times, we've reached our limits there. You know, we can't go any bigger, we can't go any longer, but somehow we always figure out a way.

SMITH: Although he said there is always some glitch.

(Soundbite of hammering)

SMITH: On this day, they're having trouble removing the giant clamps that are used to hoist the artwork. So a guy with a sledgehammer goes to town on it. The tourist from Cincinnati, Bill Monnig has a suggestion.

Mr. MONNIG: They need a big bottle of WD-40 is what they need to loosen this piece up.

Mr. SERRA: I'd like to see a work of art that's not fragile, right?

Mr. MONNIG: Right. Exactly.

SMITH: One more bang and they get it free.

Mr. SERRA: Oh, there we go.

(Soundbite of applause)

SMITH: And the crowd didn't even have to wait for the official opening in June to see the big show.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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