“It is possible to make a life in the arts and to live in the world of ideas as an intellectual,” says Bruce Guenther (’71) when reflecting on his 50-year career as a curator, artist and educator. For Guenther, who retired in 2014 after serving 14 years as chief curator for the Portland Art Museum, it was the SOU faculty who provided inspiration and opened the door to a larger world.
Guenther grew up in Medford and attended what was then Southern Oregon College as an Honors Program student. He seized on every opportunity to learn and engage with the campus, the art department and the community. “I was editor of the Honors Journal of creative writing for two years. The encouragement, attention and challenges kept me engaged and hungry for more,” Guenther said.
Guenther attended college in the late 1960s, the height of student protests around civil rights, poverty and the Vietnam War. For Guenther, SOU’s faculty members were grounding; they expected excellence and served as a “moral and ethical compass in the sea of change that was the late 1960s,” he remembers.
“Betty LaDuke in the art department, poet Lawson Inada, and Charles Ryberg in English were faculty who lived and taught their passion with an embodiment of moral authority and political engagement that has been a beacon for my career,” Guenther said.
Guenther also recalls serving as the student representative alongside faculty members and the French philosopher and journalist Jean Francois Revel for a symposium discussion of Revel’s book,”Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution Has Begun.”
“It was my first successful lesson in public intellectual sparring,” he said.
Guenther also participated in the arts club, performed in student plays and took part in organizing anti-Vietnam War events on campus.
SOU’s art department was modest in size when Guenther attended, but the faculty were strong academic and moral leaders.
“The seriousness of the art faculty for their majors was real and important developmentally,” Guenther said. Their commitment taught Guenther what was possible, and his involvement with student activities taught skills he used his entire career.
“From the art projects I undertook to the extracurricular activities, I learned valuable lessons and skill sets,” he said.
Serving on the Britt Student Union Board introduced Guenther to the world of cultural programming, budgeting, fundraising, ticket sales and press relations under the guidance of Marythea Grebner.
“All invaluable for the planning of exhibitions and plotting collaborative projects across art disciplines, which has been one of the hallmarks of my career as a curator,” Guenther said.
Guenther delayed his own graduation by a year so he could serve with Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), where he worked with migrant agricultural workers and in community organizing in Colorado.
“I came back a different person, a true adult,” he said. The time in VISTA crystalized his own thinking about the power of art in the political world.
After graduating, Guenther pursued a career as an artist, teacher and design consultant. His big break came in 1973 when he earned a position as a curatorial intern at the Portland Art Museum.
“I was a bright-eyed kid when I first walked through its doors and discovered a world beyond the parameters of the place I was living,” he reflected. “It was the first museum I remember visiting as a child, and I had a sense of obligation to make it better, to leave it better than I found it,” he remembers.
Although it would be nearly 30 years before Guenther would be given the opportunity to realize fully that obligation, the intervening years were filled with curatorial experiences throughout the United States. As curator of contemporary art at the Seattle Art Museum, Guenther had administrative oversight of 70 percent of the exhibitions during his eight-year tenure. He also expanded the museum’s permanent collection, adding works by Leon Golub, Robert Ryman, Gilbert and George, and others.
When he moved to Chicago in 1987, Guenther became chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was there that his mandate included the introduction of multicultural perspectives as he planned and coordinated the museum’s exhibition program. Each new curatorial challenge broadened Guenther’s view. When he joined the Orange County Museum of Art in 1991, Guenther’s responsibilities expanded even further. With newly renovated museum space, he orchestrated the presentation of 100 years of California art in nine new rooms.
In 2000, the Portland Art Museum had just completed the state’s largest fundraising campaign by a cultural organization. A major renovation of the Hoffman Wing had added more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space, and the museum opened the Grand Ronde Center for Native American Art as well as the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Northwest Art. It was a golden opportunity for Guenther when he became chief curator.
During the next 14 years, Guenther expanded the museum’s permanent collection, adding 5,000 pieces. He worked alongside museum leaders to envision and plan the museum’s future. Guenther’s expertise was critical as renovations to a former Masonic temple transformed into the Mark Building, which opened in 2005. The renovation added 28,000 square feet of exhibit space for Modern and Contemporary Art—making it the largest exhibition space for modern and contemporary art in the region.
When Guenther retired from the PAM in 2014, colleagues in the arts community, artists, historians and community leaders showered him with praise. He had indeed left the museum in a better place than when he arrived.
Reprinted from the Fall 2017 issue of The Raider, SOU’s alumni magazine