Putting together this exhibition has been such a point of pride and joy for me. When I first started working with my father, Tomi Ungerer, in 2010, one of my main goals was to put together great exhibitions in locations people might not expect to find his work.
Since Tomi had lived in New York between 1956 and 1971, it made sense to me to start there and see what options might be available. I connected with Claire Gilman, a curator at the Drawing Centre and she and the director, Brett Littman, were very enthusiastic about the prospect of putting together a retrospective of Tomi’s work.
It was to be the first time that they exhibited an artist most known as an illustrator.
The Drawing Center is a really unique place. It’s a museum without a permanent collection, dedicated to exhibiting modern and contemporary drawing – an art form that often feels as though it’s treated like the poor relation of other (fine) art forms such as painting and sculpture.
Furthermore, they consistently put together shows that challenge the expected boundaries of what we consider drawing to be. It was I felt, the perfect fit for Tomi.
Something that many people aren’t aware of is how long it can take to put together a museum show. By the time the curators become really at home in the world of the artist whose work they are selecting, the funding has been found, the selections of work made and all the logistical wrinkles ironed out, it can take about four years. Sometimes even more!
This can be frustrating at times because who doesn’t want to see their work on the walls, now!? But on the flip side, during that time, you can end up building wonderful relationships with the people you are working together with.
This exhibition, All In One, included work loaned from the Musée Tomi Ungerer in Strasbourg, France, The Tomi Ungerer Collection in Ireland (which we manage) and the Philadelphia Free Library to whom Tomi made a significant donation of original children’s book drawings in the early 1970’s.
Curator Claire Gillman worked extensively with me and with Therese Willer, the director of Tomi’s museum in preparation for the exhibition. And of course we worked together with Tomi, looking at work, going deeper into the selections and the context for his work.
We also had to examine issues pertaining to the conservation of the works – this was a show made up entirely of drawings and work on paper. Paper is notoriously complex when it comes to conservation and Tomi has always had a policy of working on very cheap paper only.
He has a longstanding preference for tracing paper in particular which is any conservator’s nightmare; it ages very poorly and can become extremely brittle over time. When handling it, even if you are being really careful, pieces can potentially just break off.
The Musée Tomi Ungerer is part of the Musées de Strasbourg so they have ready access to their own conservation service but in Ireland we needed to do some research to find a paper specialist.
Luckily we found out about Paul Curtis at Muckross House in Kerry who was a great help and also mounted all the works travelling to the US from the Tomi Ungerer Collection.
When the time came to hang the exhibition in New York, it was freezing cold January. I still can’t believe we managed to convince Tomi to make the trip in that weather! And of course, he didn’t expect anyone to show up to the opening. Well – in the end the Drawing Center was so full that people were actually being turned away. The exhibition catalogue also promptly sold out and the Drawing Center drew record numbers of visitors.