"Janitor": The Fiberglass Rock Star of Milwaukee Art Museum
When the yearlong renovation at Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) finishes this fall, a famous janitor who has worked at the museum for more than 40 years will finally have his job back. However, the janitor isn't a living, breathing human being--but he sure is close to one.
A hyperrealistic sculpture, "Janitor" by American artist Duane Hanson (1925-1996) is a "Top-10" popular attraction, according to objects conservator Terri White. MAM acquired "Janitor" in 1973, the year Hanson constructed it. It arrived titled "Custodian" but somehow changed to "Janitor" over the years for reasons unknown. It is currently in storage until the museum’s permanent collection reopens in November.
Janitor sculpture at Milwaukee Art Museum.
Duane Hanson (American, 1925–1996)
Polyester, fiberglass, and mixed media
65 1/2 × 28 × 22 in. (166.37 × 71.12 × 55.88 cm)
Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Friends of Art
Photographer credit: John R. Glembin
© Estate of Duane Hanson/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
"Janitor" dons realistic polyester resin skin, human clothing and even human hair. The concept is simple: A gallery visitor notices from the corner of his or her eye the life-size janitor leaning against the wall and taking a breather. The visitor thinks little of it and continues on to more art. Something is odd, though. A double-take reveals "Janitor" isn't moving. The visitor has been duped. An onlooker laughs. The victim motions for a friend or family member to come over, continuing the deception.
When on display, "Janitor" spreads across social media by Millennials who have been fooled by its lifelike appearance and need a selfie to show their friends. White enjoys camping out in the gallery and watching people's "Candid Camera"-like reactions.
"It is a very popular piece, and I think a lot of it is because it's so easy to relate to. It's another human being," White said. "How often do you get to just stare at another human being and completely take them in?"
"[People] just want to interact with it even though they know it's not real," MAM chief conservator Jim DeYoung said. "They really engage it like it's another human being."
DeYoung said the frequent interaction that occurs with “Janitor” challenges MAM to strike a balance between having fun and being protective.
"People can’t resist trying to touch him," DeYoung said.
Grabby hands deposit skin oils on the sculpture. Oils break down the paint, creating an unnatural shine and spoiling the illusion of a real man. A line of black tape on the floor acts as a useful yet subtle "Do Not Cross" barrier that doesn’t destroy the illusion like a rope would. (A past attempt at installing an alarm turned into a game of how close people could get before triggering it.) A nearby museum guard monitors "Janitor" at all times. As long as the onlooker behaves, the guard will gladly snap a photo for him or her.
The museum has a responsibility to keep popular permanent collection pieces on display. But with the renovation underway and the sculpture in storage until November, the museum has received complaints daily from visitors who came just to see it, sometimes from out of state.
"You get an idea of how popular things are when they're out, but you really get an idea of how popular things are when they're not there," DeYoung said.
Other galleries request "Janitor," but DeYoung said he rarely lends it because it is brittle, and the requester may not have the security guards or proper temperature and humidity controls to care for it. "Janitor" probably will never fly to an overseas exhibition for fear that a bumpy plane trip would wreck it.
So is "Janitor" the rock star of MAM?
"Yeah, he definitely is way up there," DeYoung said, and not just among adults looking for a photo to put on their Facebook feeds. Busloads of schoolchildren arrive on field trips asking when they get to see the sculpture.
"Janitor" has been working long enough to retire, but it looks like he will have generations of visitors to please first.
Milwaukee Art Museum wrote extensively about how White and DeYoung restored “Janitor” in 2012. Learn about it here.