Wisconsin's Canvas Ceiling
by Gary John Gresl
It was only about 1983 that I began figuring out how the regional art
market in Wisconsin operated, how it had evolved…and what its
positives and negatives were. It seems to me that it has taken me too
long to comprehend how small and limited our region is in every regard.
One of the first impressions I recall from the 80’s was an almost
stunning realization that local collectors I met were not as sophisticated
or evolved as I assumed. Too many of them were willing to swallow whole
the opinions of the established taste makers associated with the some
high profile entities (museums, critics, publications)…who themselves
swallowed whole the opinions of the supposed taste makers from elsewhere
whose imprimaturs determined what went into the history books and what
was touted and placed on pedestals.
To the point, it seemed to me that there was an apparent lack of regional
independence in judgment, but rather a happy consumption of what the “experts
from out of town” thought. Additionally there certainly was a smaller
percentage of the local population paying attention to visual art than
I had vaguely assumed.
In the course of time I gained a broader view of the regional art venues,
from Kenosha to Wausau, to Door County to the Madison Museum of Contemporary
Art, Milwaukee’s MAM, the Charles Allis, the Haggerty…and
the private and nor-for-profit galleries associated with colleges around
the state from Beloit to Rhinelander.
Eventually my slow witted brain began to recognize that building an exhibition
record in this state, in hopes of gaining some sort of success by reputation
and sales, is like continually bumping up against a rather inflexible
canvas ceiling. There are moments of achievement, with some stretching
of the canvas surface…but in the end, merely exhibiting in Wisconsin’s
range of venues over and over again only results in that canvas surface
settling back on to its inflexible stretchers while we once more leap
from our earthly footing to bump against it.
To be sure being part of an important exhibit in one of the few major
Wisconsin venues can help raise the level of one’s success, but
for regional artists to make a wider impact …or even to get more
focused attention from the likes of the Milwaukee Art Museum or the Madison
Museum of Contemporary Art…one must have gotten the attention
of those previously mentioned experts from out of town. Those would include
museums and notable galleries in larger cities outside of Wisconsin,
large circulation print media and critics, and other national broadcast
media. If it is found that one’s art somehow fits into a national
movement that has been touted outside of Wisconsin’s boundaries,
one might also pick up some notice.
Location! Location! Location! Population! Population! Population! Media!
Media! Media! Reputation! Reputation! Reputation!
There are many examples of artists who grew reputations, exhibit and
sales success, not merely as a result of their genius (if they had any
in the first place) but because of the publicity and subsequent cascading
response to that publicity. Like newscaster attention to some politician’s
faux pas or perceived controversy, stories get into news cycles and are
repeated ad nauseam until some other topical and titillating story appears.
And once a name or event makes its way on to the national media stage,
in some respects at least, it remains forever.
Will the emerging Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend help play a role
in elevating discussion about Wisconsin’s artists to a broader
regional and nation level? Well…it already has, though as yet
in a limited fashion. It has been able to gain some purchase as an institution
of some international significance due to the German history in our state,
and the museum’s historical collection which includes notable German
academically trained artists. And by its announcement of expanding its
facility into a progressive modern one exclusively dealing in the art
of this state, it has begun to gain attention regionally, unlike it had
when it was called the West Bend Art Museum. At some point, when the
new facility is finished, the MWA should become an important focal point
for Wisconsin’s art culture. Depending on its exhibitions and success
in garnering attention, it should help in raising the national visibility
of regional artists…especially if at a national level there is
less of a blind dependence on other regions to set the pace. But, that
is for the future. It will take much time for Wisconsin to grow as an
important generator of publicity for its own regional artists.
Right now there are real limits due to our location, our population,
our media, and the support that stems from politicians, business, economics,
education and the citizenry. The canvas ceiling exists and will continue
to exist, and it is not easy to admit that perhaps the only means of
escaping its effect is to circumnavigate it. Each of us has limited time
and energy and cannot merely keep bouncing back and forth between a canvas
ceiling and a callous ineffectual foothold. Artists must take matters
into their own hands and not depend on our local media, critics, galleries
and museums to do our work for us.
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