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A Bunch of Really Big Art Things; Our Pervasive Visual Arts Community

Gary John Gresl - 12/09/01

Our little art pond with its little art fish may seem relatively insignificant when compared with the larger art oceans and their impressive creatures. But this is our personal creative habitat, this Wisconsin and region, and we must make the most of what we possibly can.
 
We as artists have important opportunities here, and since the major venues outside of Wisconsin seek their own audiences, and are faced with huge numbers of artists seeking attention, let us keep a good part of our energy focused on our significant more local environs. There are places and opportunities around here which possess notable merit, which nurture regional art and artists, and which can assist us all as we seek to get our work to the public. 
 
Each of us as individuals, and each art interested institution existing in Wisconsin, should be encouraging, perhaps even promoting, all art related institutions, not just their own. Despite the necessary effort, organization, and energy, we all should be working around the lethargy and inertia that is the result of inattention, fatigue, fears, competition and jealousies. Yes! Of course, we know that is easier said than done. Collaboration and coordination are not easy things to do when the work load is already great. But where we can we must recognize and espouse shared rewards.
 
Within this Wisconsin realm we create and exhibit our art, we watch and attend the venues and museums within our reach.  There are art places that we ignore, that we don’t even know about, and which still contribute to the art culture of our environment. Wisconsin does have a rich visual art history, and it does have a currently active and vibrant visual art community. The places and people from small communities to large cities have goals in common, even if those goals require large or small   work forces and varied price tags.
 
The Blockbuster Hare and the Constant Turtles
 
Of course we have seen the glorious world class blockbuster Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, created largely thru grants and donations by entities and persons with really big pocketbooks. By MAM’s goal of presenting world class art from outside our region, the museum serves as a motivational and educational force. The museum brings attention to Wisconsin which serves both the regional public and area artists. It is wonderful. Congratulations to the movers and shakers and hooray for Wisconsin! This is a good thing for all.
 
However, let us not forget that there are lots of activities and events that are significant to the citizens and artists of Wisconsin which may not be blockbusters, but which are big deals and “minibusters” to many of us. Not all of us are well pursed nor in positions of power
 
I offer here numerous examples: We have the wonderful Kohler Art Center of Sheboygan, a world class institution itself with interest in regional artists. There is the West Bend Art Museum, recently renovated with a tradition of exhibiting artists from this region. RAM, the Racine Art Museum, a brand new undertaking, expands the mission of the existing Wustum Museum. In Madison there will soon be an arts district downtown near the notable Madison Art Center, and this district will include an enlarged gallery for the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters. The Madison Art Center itself is currently organizing its Madison Triennial, one of the few premiere venues for display of contemporary art from our state. There are numerous other public places for us to view Wisconsin and other visual art, including these: the recently new Fairfield Public Gallery and the Miller Art Museum in Sturgeon Bay, the Anderson Arts Center in Kenosha, the Wausau Visual Arts Center, Leigh Yawkey Woodson in that same town, the Neville of Green Bay, the Charles Allis and Villa Terrace of Milwaukee, the Paine of Oshkosh, Walker’s Point Center for the Arts in Milwaukee, Bergstrom-Mahler in Neenah, the Appleton Art Center enlargement in progress, the recently emerged Plymouth public art gallery called Gallery 110 North, and the Rahr-West Museum of Manitowoc, site of the current WP&S sponsored Wisconsin Artists 2001 Biennial.
 
Of course I have overlooked other notable venues, especially the many college associated museums and galleries such as the Haggerty of Marquette University, Elvehjem on UW Madison campus, the galleries of Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, the UW System, colleges such as Carroll, Stritch, Lakeland, Alverno, Edgewood, etc..  There are many dozens of exhibiting visual arts galleries in schools across Wisconsin, some not pretending to be much more than revamped waiting rooms, with others of very notable planned design.   We cannot overlook the several artist run galleries operated thru volunteerism and on shoestring budgets. These venues exist often without much press and fanfare, but each one is a supporting building block for our Regional visual art culture. 
 
A look at “artscene”, the new Milwaukee County brochure listing around 80 visual arts venues and organizations, gives a hint of the dozens of places, large and small, where visual art plays a significant role in Milwaukee County alone. This brochure was produced by MVAR, the Milwaukee Visual Artists Roundtable, an association of representatives from various art organizations in Milwaukee. Besides this relatively new organization there is also MARN, the Milwaukee Artists Resource Network, a largely electronically linked communicating device for artists and art interested people. These, and many other organizations, mostly operated by volunteers, are extremely important in our art regional art world. We should all give such persons attention and credit whenever possible.
 
Outside of Milwaukee County there are our dozens of statewide volunteer groups, including the venerable WDCC, Wisconsin Designers Crafts Council, the Wisconsin Watercolor Society, our 101 year old Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors, Inc., and so many other long existing artist operated organizations that infrequently gain media attention. These are important resources for the population of Wisconsin. Such entities often provide islands of art culture in broadly ranging small communities, and serve to link persons of talent and like interest across broader distances. At the very least, smaller local art organizations and venues can be the focus and origin of pride and achievement in their locales. 
 
Broadcasting Our Messages
 
What these many important smaller entities need is exposure. They need publicity. They need savvy and interested reporters, editors and broadcast media friends, and persons of influence nudging and cajoling the personalities of newspaper, magazines, radio and television. They need champions who spend energy and finances to spread the word of their good work.
 
AND...each museum and organization needs to be supportive of its fellow organizations and museums. There really is strength in numbers, and a much better chance to get the public’s attention when strength and size is exhibited. Overwhelming the media with news about the many visual art activities in many places can raise the visibility of our significant art culture.
 
All Grunt Together Now
 
Trying to convince you that there is no competition among visual arts groups, museums and public galleries would be foolish to do, for of course there will be an ongoing comparison of one venue and organization with another. There will necessarily be some competition for media attention, for funding, and for quality exhibitions. Certainly the influx of monies and notoriety given to the Milwaukee Art Museum has drained some sources of money and taken the media’s attention...and for the good of the visual arts in general.
 
But there is ample reason for smaller art places and people to join together as we all make an effort to increase public awareness of the benefits of the broadly disseminated visual arts in our State. Art production does not only benefit the artists, it benefits the average citizen thru an increase in pride, enrichment and education, enjoyment of life, thru increased associated spending of visitor and tourist dollars, and thru the spreading of an intellectual culture and ideas in our communities.
 
We are far from enemies of one another in this inland art sea. We need to unite whenever possible...and be vigilant to keep friction and lack of understanding at bay.   We have had horrible events occur in September 2001 on the national and world scene...perhaps giving some impetus toward recognition that the arts are one realm that can promote good fellowship, good will, understanding...and some healing balm for wounds.
 
Our region has visual arts resources and artists of merit, of substantial size and talent. Artists, organizations and venues are the fins and legs of this Wisconsin Really Big Art Thing. We need to find ways to promote ourselves and our fellows with good will and interest in the well being of all. 
 
To get back to that watery habitat mentioned at the start of this article, swimming upstream in sizable schools, joined by similar goals, will help get public attention. Come on...are you ready? Together? Swim! Let’s try to overwhelm them!

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