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Traversing Out Regional Art Geography; Seeking the Big Picture Through Small Images

by Gary John Gresl

1st Image...Rugged Terrain
 
At the time of this writing in 2001, WP&S was invited to meet with a representative of an art venue to discuss the likelihood of presenting the Wisconsin Artists Biennial there. The Biennial, in case you have been living in an Alaskan cabin for decades, is organized by WP&S as a juried exhibit of work by “any” Wisconsin artist...not just WP&S members. We have put a great deal of effort and planning into these exhibits...for the good of many. That Biennial was held at the Rahr-West in Manitowoc and traveled to the Anderson in Kenosha.
 
This particular venue had invited us to look at their facility, and we had strong hopes that we would be installing the 2003 Biennial there. However, after a meeting with a representative from the venue, and after a week’s consideration, we were told the following: The Biennial would not draw in enough of the public to make it worthwhile for the venue to present it. Perhaps, if the Biennial could somehow incorporate associated events...e.g. performers, musicians, actors...”something” to draw a larger audience...then there would be a chance. 
 
This is hardly the first time that exhibition choices have been tied to the potential attendance. Why do sponsors crave for blockbusters? Why do major museums publicize King Tut and the like? Obviously, attendance, for that means income, publicity, more potential support. There is a conundrum in this, however. If certain visual art venues are in need of creating exhibits that draw larger audiences than can usually be drawn by the visual arts, what are the solutions? Not every exhibit is going to pull in large crowds of people. There is no way that a gallery space can have large crowds attend each exhibition...where are the ongoing dynamic themes and magnetic visual artists going to come from to create these never ending well attended shows?
 
Well...WP&S has been a visual arts organization for 102 years. Visual arts are what we do. Creating art objects is our trade and passion. The performing artists, by their natures have been proactive, working not as individuals but as groups of individuals, putting the word out of their activities, seeking funding...and being entertainment. Their “product” is entertainment, and they must fill the seats for their performances, thereby seeing their efforts immediately satisfied...or disappointed. Perhaps we visual artists have not recognized that we are still on the platform waiting for the train. Maybe we need bells and whistles, jugglers and thespians...maybe we need controversy and unrest to get attention.
 
The visual arts have always been the silent sister, this sister perhaps being beautiful and intriguing...but remaining the wall flower, a bit shy and reclusive. Individual artists differ in ability and willingness to be active in promotion and networking, but by and large we have been retiring, unorganized and sometimes fractious. We have generally only recently recognized the need to reach out to other visual arts groups to unite in common efforts for the greater good. It appears that we have remained unaware, or unwilling, to demand media attention...being unorganized and unwilling to look for effective ways to reach the broadest public possible.
 
We have moved on in our search to find another welcoming art venue for the important Wisconsin Artists Biennial. But, the result of this experience suggests again the necessity that visual artists and their organizations must work with other visual artists for their own health and survival. Depending on non-artists to provide for us and to act for our well being will not get us very far...we must act for ourselves and our own best interests.
 
2nd Image...High Elevations
 
Back in the 1960s, Aristotle Onassis, shipping multimillionaire, married Jackie Kennedy, widow of President Kennedy. There was plenty of news about Aristotle, informing the American public about the man, a Greek marine shipping tycoon. Mr. Onassis was quoted in newspapers around the world...and one story remained with me. Here it is paraphrased, but it reveals the content.
 
He stated, “To become wealthy one must follow certain patterns. First, cultivate the friendship of the rich and influential. Second, act when others hesitate. Third, use credit.” There was more to this, but that much suffices for my purposes.
In the art cultures we partake of and witness, the first point that Aristotle mentioned also holds sway. During the past 6 months I have been active in the attempt to create the Wisconsin Art Forum and Gallery project, utilizing the Old McKinley Coast Guard building on Milwaukee’s Lakeshore. Those of us involved from the first day recognized that to bring this dream to fruition, we needed the support of persons more wealthy and influential than ourselves...art supporters to politicians. While having lots of artists and their organizations working with us is necessary too, in this major project involving the government, a substantial monetary goal, technical and legal areas of expertise, the wealthy and influential must be enlisted to assist in order to accomplish the tasks at hand. 
 
While I do not want to make the standard error of stereotyping artists, it does appear to me that in many cases artists are not inclined toward schmoozing and politicking. Perhaps it is the same with everyone, that the task of seeking favor of advantaged and powerful persons is low on the list of priorities. Am I wrong? Does the stereotype still hold true? Is this a quirk of visual artists manifest more in our breed, or is it the common experience for those of us not raised in higher social strata...and not trained in the fine art of networking, to be reclusive and fearful?
 
Whatever the reason for it, there are times we must overcome our timidity, set aside our sense of inadequacy and fear and jealousy, shake hands and explore the art of schmoozing with people who can help make a difference. As Mr. Onassis suggested, success may be tied to communication across social and monetary levels. 
 
3rd Image...Cave Formation
 
A recent email from a friend included reference to a fellow artist who made statements to the effect that the Milwaukee area artist community was in weak condition...perhaps not possessing a sense of unity. She stated how other cities had such thriving and energetic communities, and she just didn't know why this was the situation. When my friend mentioned the quality of the WP&S shows to this person, she displayed skepticism and an unwillingness to enter any herself. My friend is quoted here, “So.......there you have a lot of the problem--artists who complain, but stay frozen in their negative opinions and isolation.” 
 
One also can see that thru lack of contact by an artist staying in a self circumscribed little box, failing to walk out into the larger community, there will be continued apathy. If persons would be observant and willing to stretch more, they might discover what some of us have
witnessed.
 
 As an important example, during the past two years there has been a much heightened sense of community among visual artists in the Milwaukee area. There has been the establishment of the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network and the Milwaukee Visual Artist Roundtable. The efforts by another group, Visual Arts Milwaukee, have added a lot to the sense of community. Individual artist organizations have been exchanging members, speaking to one another, sharing efforts toward their common goals and aspirations.
 
Such efforts require that individuals do not merely gripe and grouse. Persons who truly care about the state of affairs in any field will have to make some effort...not just sitting on the duff...but actually doing at least a little. That “little” might be no more than attending some meetings with other artists. Maybe that “little” is getting out to view exhibitions in unfamiliar territory...taking a few risks...and keeping an optimistic point of view. Maybe that “little” means embracing a greater number of individuals or groups, not letting notions of quality and stereotypes get in the way of communication, and turning fears and prejudices into understanding and fraternity.
 
To be effective we cannot remain cave dwellers, isolationists and complainers. This is our brief time. This art culture geography has changed, and we must learn to adjust and contribute to it. While you may fossilize in your burrow, mountains are raised up and mountains are worn down. Let’s keep trying to see the big picture while being an active part of it.

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