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Arts / Museums

The Art Whisperer

This Guy’s Paid (Well) To Hang Your Paintings in the Perfect Place

BY // 11.04.16
photography Dinah Whistler

Marley Whistler hangs art. But it’s not just a hammer-and-nail ordeal. He hangs masterful works in the complex salon style, a classic old-money look popular among art collectors and interior designers, to display a grouping of disparate works, such as photography and paintings from different periods, and often in different style frames.

To do it well, you need an instinct for placement, and that’s where he excels. “Salon style is the hardest, but it’s where I pride myself,” says Marley, whose clients include contemporary art collector and consultant Rebecca Bruder, UNT Galleries, and the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth.

Marley has been immersed in art since age four or five, when he hung out at father Barry Whistler’s art gallery during shows and on weekends. But a career in art didn’t come until much later. He spent his teens and early 20s touring with rock bands. (He plays bass guitar with post-punk group Burning Hotels in off hours.) Marley’s training as an art preparator launched at Artemis Fine Art Services in Dallas, where he spent five years driving 35-foot trucks full of art cross-country, crating and packing art, and learning how to hang works without damaging walls or the art.

Once he felt confident, Marley began hanging work for his father’s gallery. “So much of art installation is finesse,” he says. “It’s knowing what setting to put your drill on, or when to stop when you’re sharpening your pencil.” For a Sol Lewitt exhibition at The Modern, where he’s a part-time preparator, it was Marley’s job to precisely sharpen and bundle colored pencils for the Lewitt Foundation team, who used them to reproduce a massive Lewitt masterpiece on a wall.

Working in conjunction with curators, artists, and other preparators, including his boss Tony Wright, Marley has helped install some of The Modern’s most elaborate exhibits, such as Mexico Inside Out, which required hanging hundreds of pieces of small works, including 365 framed magazine covers depicting drug cartel violence, which Marley artfully arranged on a massive 15-foot-high wall, while standing on a scissor lift.

“I’m usually the guy that tackles the complex installations that involve math,” he says. “I’ve had some intense projects, where it’s just me in a room by myself for days with a laser level and the art.” During the past six years, he’s worked on every show at The Modern, and most recently, it’s been all hands on deck. Many of the pieces in the Frank Stella retrospective, which closed in September, were so gargantuan they took as many as 20 people to hang.

He’s in the midst of helping install The Modern’s upcoming show, “KAWS Where the End Starts,” which involves two-story high sculptures requiring cranes, hoists, and straps.

In the end, it comes down to intuition. Both Marley and his father like to hang art about five inches lower than most gallerists and museum curators, because it gives the work more intimacy. “I learned a lot about placement from my dad,” he says. “If you take time to find out what doesn’t look good, eventually you find out what does.”

Marley Whistler

Age: 34.
Occupation: Art preparator.
Tools of the trade: Tape measure. 3M blue tape. Pentel mechanical 0.7 pencil.

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