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culture

I Want Your Job: Sherry Phillips, Art Conservationist

The AGO's conservator of contemporary and Inuit art talks art, science, and giant hamburger sculptures.

I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.

In her work as conservator of contemporary and Inuit art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Sherry Phillips is part MacGyver and part…well, let’s just say that right now she’s working on touching up a giant hamburger.

“This was the first [public art] intervention of significance,” explains Phillips, whose restoration of Claus Oldenburg’s 1962 Floor Burger sculpture is currently taking place on the gallery floor, where attendees can see it as it happens. The burger—which, for copyright reasons, can only be seen in public and not in a photo at the top of this here edition of I Want Your Job—will be heading off to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the spring.

But art conservation, according to Phillips, is a lot more than just restoration. And, unlike the AGO’s current live-restoration burger exhibit, it usually happens behind closed doors, in a laboratory hidden within the belly of the museum. We got a look at all of it.

Our interview with Phillips is below.

Torontoist: So, the age-old question: how did you get into art conservation?

Sherry Phillips: I was doing my undergraduate in science and I fully expected to go on to a career in research. Then I had a summer job actually doing research and I really didn’t like it. I hated it. So I had to rethink everything that I was doing. I went through one of the government-sponsored programs for recent graduates—like career-counselling stuff—and I came across this little information packet about art conservation.

All of a sudden, I started putting things together in my head, like, “Oh, that’s why I always skipped genetics labs to go to the ROM or the AGO!” I always took art courses to go along with the science, but I never put two and two together.

I talked to a whole bunch of conservators. The painting conservator at the ROM at the time gave me a break. She took me for six weeks or something, and I fell in love with it. Then I went back to school and did art history and art studio for a year, and then they accepted me into the program.

What do you do from day to day?

It’s different every day. In this institution, it tends to be driven by loans or exhibitions. So, getting artwork ready for those. Something like the burger, for instance. We’re lending it to MOMA, so there was more incentive to bring it out of storage and get it on display because of that loan we agreed to.

Part of having conservation on display is the promotion of what we do, and [our] preservation efforts. I’m pleasantly surprised by how popular it has been. Usually, we’re behind the scenes.

Some tools of the trade.

What’s the actual process of restoring artwork like?

We approach each artwork as an individual piece. The treatment of an artwork is always an individualized plan. Nothing is ever the same.

So, you have to research each piece?

You research the artwork, and you research the materials. There’s lots to consider with each artwork, and even some paint layers. I sent some paint samples [from the burger] to the Canadian Conservation Institute and they did analysis on them for me to determine exactly what kind of paint the artist used, the pigments used, the binding mediums that were there, and so on.

You do contemporary conservation. I imagine your experience is very different from that of those who focus on older works.

In a way. I find with contemporary, I tend to borrow techniques and ideas from all the different disciplines. Because I might have something that has paper, metal, paint, and all these different things on it. Then there’s time-based media, which is a whole other discipline in itself.

It’s more than just restoration. It’s the preservation of artwork. We promote, we advocate, and we safeguard the artwork. Every aspect of how this artwork is stored, or exhibited, or handled in transportation, we have say and involvement in that. So, if I can use the burger for example, yes, I’m treating it so that the paint layers will be stable to travel. But I’m also intervening in the stuffing, to redistribute it slightly so that it looks better as a burger. But I don’t want it to be too perfect because it’s a 50-year-old burger. That just wouldn’t look right.

How do you know where to draw the line?

I work with a curator. The two of us stand there and we have images from the ’60s, and we go back to those images.

So, you’re trying to make it consistent with how it’s always looked?

We’re trying to make it consistent with how it should look. It’s a soft sculpture, so it’s always shifting. But some of that movement has gone to an extreme, so we have to reverse that.

It sounds like very nuanced work.

In many ways, it is! There’s a huge aesthetic component to it as well as the mechanical stabilizing aspect. You kind of do the mechanical first, knowing that the aesthetic component will come. But your treatment plan is always multifaceted. It’s never very simple.

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