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Art Jobs: Georgia Guenther, Exhibit Artist at the ROM

While doing some preliminary research for Canadian Art’s Art School Smart Guide in the Fall 2014 issue, art school websites were a fixture of my travels about the Internet. Almost invariably, these websites contained some kind of encouraging list detailing a catalogue of divergent and often niche professions, ranging from conservator to courtroom artist to taxidermist.

In an era characterized by starchitects and power curators, lists of top 100 collectors and best young artists, we’re accustomed to hyping the activities of certain professions while obscuring others. We’re often unsure about what many workers in the arts and culture industry actually do all day unless they happen to have a particularly charismatic personal brand. I wondered: what might Studs Terkel’s Working (or, for that matter, Slate’s Working) look like if applied to arts workers?

Understanding that many art-school graduates apply their training in unconventional ways, Art Jobs looks at those careers, and the working lives of the people who do them.

First in the series, I spoke last month with Georgia Guenther, senior exhibit artist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, whom I first met last year through my part-time work as a studio instructor in the ROMKids program. Having held her position for 36 years, Guenther is responsible for a significant portion of the ROM’s in-house reproductions of artifacts and specimens, as well as the creation of models and displays throughout the museum. She casts tombs and hand-models plants and animals, scales artifacts and specimens down to touchable, hand-held size, and custom-builds models and immersive environments for special exhibitions, with a canny combination of artistic and technical prowess and generalist museum expertise.

Alison Cooley: It’s always good to be reminded that someone physically made every consumer object we encounter—even if it’s produced in a factory, there’s an original somewhere that had to be designed by a human.

Georgia Guenther: Exactly. And that applies particularly to museum artwork, which takes an impossibly long amount of time to make and isn’t comercially viable in the outside world.

And then there’s the whole business of interpretation. I often illustrate things that no one has seen, so I have to figure out what is important to show. People say, “Just make it up!” But I think, “This is a museum and if I’m not showing something as accurately as possible, what’s the value of it?”

AC: There’s certainly the danger that if you make it up someone will take it as fact.

GG: Or else they’ll be disappointed that they’re not getting the accuracy they’re craving.

AC: How does a typical workday begin for you? Is there a typical workday? What is the first thing you do when you get into work?

GG: It’s routine in the sense that I commute to the museum every morning at the same time, unlike some other studio artists who probably have much more freedom in their day. My morning routine is to turn on the lights, turn on the computer, put my lunch in the fridge, turn on the radio, check my email and dive in to whatever it is I’m working on.

AC: Whatever you’re working on that day is dictated by whatever special exhibit you happen to be preparing for?

GG: I’ve probably already been working on what I’ll be doing. Even if I’m starting a new project, it takes a lot of lead time before you can even start doing something physical. There are lots of planning meetings and discussions.

AC: So how do you start? Is it a conversation with everyone involved, or do you start with two-dimensional images or your own independent research?

GG: All exhibit work at the ROM is driven on a project basis. Each project has its team, and that includes a project manager, a designer and an interpretive planner. Senior management has to have their input and lay out their expectations right off the top. There’s always a project brief, especially for a large project.

Everybody buys into the basic concept in the brief, and then that core team hashes out the individual concepts of the exhibit, and then they gradually whittle down to what we call the means of expression. That might be my entry level, and I have to negotiate, based on what we can actually do and what information is available.

AC: How do you decide what materials are most appropriate to work with for a given display? What dictates, for example, whether you’ll use paper or plastic to construct a model of a plant?

GG: It’s something that takes a good deal of consideration. For example, if I’m making something that’s going to be outside of a case and accessible for touching, then I have to think about it in a completely different way than something that’s going to spend its life behind glass.

If I have a fresh leaf, I can make a certain kind of mould from it that allows me to vacuum-form plastic sheet. If I don’t have the real leaf, then I might consider making it out of paper, because then I’m making it based on pictures or based on access to dry leaves. For some plants, I make leaves out of what I’d broadly call paper, but it might actually be made of shop cloth (like Tyvek), soaked in wax. It becomes like wax papier-mâché.

I’m not just a mould-maker. For a lot of things I am sculpting out of my head based on the information I’ve gleaned about the objects. I work directly in a lot of materials, and I am called upon to be creative in various ways, even though I’m representing something very literally.

That’s one of the fun parts of the job: constantly looking for alternate uses for materials. And if I don’t have an immediate need, then filing them away somewhere in my memory.

AC: Are there materials that are off limits? That you wouldn’t use?

GG: My choice of materials is based on multiple factors. One is health and safety for myself.

Another constraint would be whether or not the material would create any kind of off-gassing in a closed exhibit case where there would also be artifacts. That’s a very important consideration.

Durability, of course. The ability of the material to maintain colour. Those are important to the longevity of an exhibit. Flammability, of course. There have been some really large projects where they’ve had to be treated with fire-retardant.

AC: How did you become a museum reproduction artist? What training was necessary?

GG: Well, I have a kind of unique story: When I was a schoolchild, I came to the ROM on a school bus for a visit and I fell in love with it. It was the most amazing place I’d ever seen. I particularly fell in love with the life-sized scenes.

While I am an artist and I have real art training, my love of the ROM came first. I came to visit the ROM often and met the person that ran the art department in those days, who encouraged me to attend art college, because I would need the practical training.

I left university after one year and went to Ontario College of Art for four years. I chose my courses based on what I imagined would be useful. There didn’t seem to be any doubt in my mind that I was going to have a career at the ROM. The most remarkable part of my story is that, yes, it actually happened.

I had one week of classes left in my last year at the art college when I assumed my position as an artist at the ROM. I try to be sensitive in telling this story to young people, because although I want to encourage them to follow their dreams, I also realize what they’re up against in this economic environment. 

AC: What are the kinds of ethical decisions you have to make in your work?

GG: The most prominent ethical issue in peoples’ minds is how we treat other living creatures. I don’t do taxidermy work, myself, but I do make moulds from life forms. I work with dried and pickled collection material.

Another ethical question is how the ROM presents the fakes that I make. When it boils down to it, I don’t chose to call them fakes, because there are so many legitimate reasons we need to make museum reproductions. The ROM’s labeling is very clear about whether something is real or not. So I don’t really think that that’s an ethical issue either. 

AC: Was there a point at which you had to decide that you would either do this job or pursue your own creative practice? Or do you see that line as cut and dried? Are they mutually exclusive?

GG: I don’t have an art practice in the sense of exhibiting at a gallery as an artist. My day job is such a good fit with my being. It’s inseparable. My mind works in a certain way, and I apply that way to my work, but I also apply that way to all other aspects of my life. I think of it as a continuum.

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