Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Tales of an Expat Registrar - by Brandi Pomfret

For those who I haven’t met yet, I’m Brandi, and I’m an British-American Collection Manager and Registrar who, after being born and raised in the US, moved last year to London in order to try my hand at the art world on this side of the pond. 

I’m sure all Registrars across the world can name the ways in which we are similar, despite our geographic locations – arranging transport of loans and exhibitions, confirming the packing of artworks are up to a universal standard, and, of course, metaphorically holding the hand of panicked couriers – but what has struck me since relocating is how different we are as well.
The easiest and most obvious is of course our terms for items of our daily life.  Growing up with family members from opposite sides of the ocean taught me at an early age of things like pram/carriage, pictures/movies, and aubergine/eggplant, but not until I had worked in galleries and museums was I introduced to Registrar-specific differences like skate/dolly, lorry/truck, and boot/trunk.

Non-surprisingly this has been the easiest hurdle to overcome, whereas perhaps the most complicated would be the role of the Registrar (and note for ease I will include Exhibition Managers in this term “Registrar” as well, since in my vernacular it references working with collections or exhibitions).
In the US, the Registrar is, among other things, responsible for all condition checking and packing of works.  Though I and my former colleagues are used to being questioned by UK lenders as to why the Registrar (rather than Conservator) would be condition checking a work with them, the full extent of how much Registrar responsibility is allocated to Conservators in this country had never fully sunk in.  I even heard recently of private collectors arranging a house move with a Conservator rather than a Registrar; having them arranging the packing, shipping and relocation into storage is truly baffling to my US senses.  It’s perhaps for this reason that I’m finding less occurrences of contract Registrars working on museum exhibitions, and with private collectors and foundations, whereas it is near standard in the US.
In my now 7 months of direct experience with UK trucking, I can assuredly say that couriers here are blessed with their required overnight stops (as opposed to our 3 day non-stop journeys from California to New York), as well as having lorries driven by members of the company you contracted for the job, not the usual husband and wife (and sometimes dog) teams you get in the US!

I doubt the idea of National collections not insuring their works will ever cease to give me heart palpitations, especially when lending between institutions, and that’s not to mention the concept of “non-national” and “designated collections”.  In the US, all collections are commercially insured, even those we deem our “national” collections.  Our other option - US Indemnity - is a lengthy, arduous process that occurs twice a year for exhibitions, not for temporary deposits or long loans in.  Please be kind to those US Registrars asking you seemingly crazy questions while they work on their applications, because they’re well over 100 pages and I can guarantee that no one enjoys doing them.  I’d take a UK indemnity application in a heartbeat compared to the alternative, though in a similar vein, the UK’s export licenses (for those works not covered by OIEL) are complicated and completed by Registrars, whereas the customs brokers complete these on your behalf in the US.  So perhaps it all balances out in the end!

At the recent UKRG conference in Edinburgh, we listened to a talk about changes in property laws, and I was amazed to hear that the UK didn’t have a procedure in place for deaccessioning portions of collections.  The United States has long standing laws governing museums and their collections, with specific information on deaccessioning (  In the past decade, many states have individually addressed the issue of undocumented and abandoned property as well, outlining their requirements for disposing of these works which have long languished in institutions. It is a complicated process – many times involving posting ads in newspapers and strict timelines for attempting to locate owners – but it does exist.
I’m sure I could expound endlessly on my experiences thus far, but in all honesty, I feel I’m only just beginning to understand the intricacies of working in this amazing country.  My friends and colleagues here in the UK love to laugh about some of my American phrases (I apologise now to anyone I’ve confused or bemused by “reaching out” to you via email), but I’m grateful because each time it serves to remind me how even the smallest differences register to a Registrar. One thing I know for sure: the US and UK are better places because of us.

Brandi Pomfret is the owner of Echelon Arts Management and currently a maternity cover Collection Registrar at the National Gallery.

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