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Kicking a Dead Horse to Measure it's Distance and Velocity . . . The Milwaukee Art Museum Wisconsin Programs

by Gary John Gresl

In the past issue of Art in Wisconsin, I reported on the panel discussion given at the opening of the Wisconsin Artists Biennial, held at the Haggerty Museum. There Curtis Carter, James Auer and Russell Bowman each presented views on the state of Wisconsin art and artists.
 
Russell Bowman, Director of the Milwaukee Museum of Art, mentioned that he saw a “lack of focus” related to the condition of Wisconsin art. Well....while I do not mean to be disrespectful to Russell, I simply have to say that it is likely that he, and the Milwaukee Art Museum, are in good part to blame for a deterioration in this focus...for there once was a place creating a central locus, a gathering place, an objective to be reached, a core of energy and attention, now obliterated by actions taken at the Milwaukee Art Museum. 1995 was the fateful year of actions by MAM, AKA Russell Bowman.
 
There was a time that Wisconsin artists had warmly felt that they had their “own” public gallery, in the most prominent art museum in the state of Wisconsin. That was the small, but vital, Cudahy Gallery in the Milwaukee Art Museum. Not only did this public place have ongoing displays of art created by Wisconsin people, it also was managed by a specialist, someone I believe was titled Assistant Curator for Regional Art. For years that person was Jane Brite, followed by Janet Treacy. And, the Director of MAM, oversaw it all...
 
This gallery space, easily available to all visitors to the Milwaukee Art Museum, was a central point at which artists felt they were being supported by this fine institution. It was a gathering place of sorts, usually exuding energy and providing contacts, and almost always showing quality art from persons from within the State’s boundaries. It organized the important semiannual juried shows for anyone from the State to enter, and there were curated shows of individuals deemed appropriate for solo or small group shows. Slides of work were available there, and sales could be generated thru its activities.
 
But, there was something else lost when the Cudahy’s programs were eliminated. Particularly with Jane Brite as the most prominent personality involved, it is likely that the influence of this gallery space extended prominently into the general PUBLIC CONSCIOUSNESS.  As but a single example, it is remembered that one important exhibit organized thru the Assistant Curator for Regional Art was a truly community oriented display. Do you recall the exhibit that truly reached into public spaces, utilizing business and very public places for the installation of art works for a highly publicized show? There was Al Blankshien’s neon dripping from the 314 Building on Wisconsin Avenue, Jill Sebastian’s installation at the Milwaukee Antique Center, a large
                                                                                                         
sculpture created and displayed by an individual at Charter Wire Co., and many other art works placed at other varied spots around Milwaukee and suburbs capturing the attention of the public and gaining publicity for art and artists. This sort of energy and potential, and other far reaching opportunities and successes, emanating from the Milwaukee Art Museum, were lost when the Cudahy Wisconsin Programs and its management were eliminated.
 
Additionally, thru the attention given by the Assistant Curator for Regional Art, or the manager of the Cudahy Gallery, artists were directly involved within the Art Museum, participating and organizing programs such as The Artists Forum Series, which arranged for presentations by prominent artists and art related professionals covering topics that ranged from The Talking Heads to artist workplace safety. Many meetings took place between Jane Brite and/or Janet Treacy with artists and their organizations, in the museum and in the community, meetings that allowed artists to feel they were really a part of the process, for indeed they did play a role thru their participation.
 
At some point in the 1980’s, some member(s) of the Milwaukee Art Museum staff saw, not the potential and positive optimism generated by the Cudahy’s programs, but instead judged that the Cudahy was a “ghetto” of sorts, in some way a negative manifestation and an undesirable presentation in the Museum. Jane Brite was “let go” early on for reasons not entirely made clear to the public (she had been called a “loose Canon” in a James Auer newspaper article and there were reports of “personality and power conflicts”), the semiannual juryings were eliminated (ostensibly because of the cost, manpower and lack of room), and soon enough Janet Treacy, who replaced Jane Brite, was eventually removed in 1995 as manager of the Cudahy Gallery as well. The Cudahy programs all were killed by the end of that year.. 
 
Was Museum management embarrassed by the gallery? Did they interpret the energy level as a nuisance? Were Wisconsin artists not important enough, and pushed aside in order to concentrate on bigger fish from...oh...New York, or folks from “out of town”...you know, “the experts” and the “anointed”? Wisconsin artists who were not “making history” on a national level might have been deemed too unimportant to be displaying in and hanging around the Milwaukee Art Museum. Was there a surreptitious force behind Director Bowman’s decision to close down the programs, or did Russell Bowman make the decision on his own to shut it down? Did any Board, in its ethereal heights and far remove from the nitty gritty even recognize what was happening to the Cudahy, and/or care? Was it merely money going to other programs? Was/is there some vendetta at work?
 
And, it is significant that Director Bowman’s favored Folk Art Collection, his personal baby, a large part acquired thru some legitimate wheeling and dealing with a private collector known to Director Bowman, was installed in that space. Gee! How long had that installation been planned and how long had that space been coveted?
 
Did the Wisconsin programs disappear, in part at least, because the folk art collection needed a home? Russell does favor and collect folk art, and with his commitment to that collection, had to find a place to display it when most of the rest of MAM had its space committed to more or less permanently standing exhibits.
 
Additionally, we must also recall that another Museum service which prominently featured Wisconsin Art at and thru MAM had also been eliminated, and that was the Art In the Working Environment program, AWE. Ginny Knight had managed this program for some years, selling the art of Wisconsin artists to businesses and individuals thru the auspices of the Museum, with proceeds going to aid the Museum in its operation. This was dropped due to publicized conflicts with private galleries, especially in Milwaukee, who felt that they were facing unfair competition from this public and tax exempt institution. This loss seems more understandable, due to the private gallery outcry, but many artists felt its loss. That elimination, along with the loss of the Cudahy Gallery Wisconsin programs, provided a real blow to the visibility and focus for Wisconsin artists.
 
The phrase, Mainstreaming Wisconsin Art, became part of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s vernacular. Mainstreaming, according to Russell Bowman, was an ongoing plan to include Wisconsin art, wherever deemed appropriate, in the ongoing exhibits arranged by the Museum. Is Mainstreaming the correct word? How about watering down and diluting? It is curious that Russell can cite, as he did at the panel discussion, just the exact number of exhibits in which Wisconsin art was included since 1990. This is undoubtedly his prepared ammunition to offset some of the criticism about closing down the Cudahy Wisconsin programs. 
 
Some questions that can be asked about these “exactly counted” exhibits since 1990 include: (l) How many of those exhibits existed before the Cudahy was closed down in 1995? (2) How many of the exhibited works and artists were repeatedly shown and included more than once in the count? (3) How many exhibited works were from the Museum’s own “Folk/Naive/Outsider” collection shown in multiple venues, and now concentrated in the Cudahy space? (4) How many included in the count were 19th Century, or otherwise historical, and is some cases deceased? (5) Did the count include such shows as the exhibits of the high school competitions? (6) What percentage of these exhibited works were photographs, prints, paintings, sculpture? (7) And, importantly, how many FEWER LIVING WISCONSIN ARTISTS WERE BEING SHOWN compared to when the Cudahy Gallery Wisconsin programs gave people the opportunities? Undoubtedly, there are many dozens, probably hundreds, of artists who might have been incorporated into the Cudahy programs that will never again have the chances once available to them. And, the visibility, the locus, the central point is gone.
 
And, another thing concerning Russell’s statements during the Panel discussion...He stated that he hadn’t felt any “pressure” from Wisconsin artists, concerning their involvement. Well, if I must say, while I was President of WP&S, I and another member of the WP&S Board officially met with Director Bowman and Janet Treacy concerning the likelihood of Wisconsin artists potentially having some input into the planning stages of the proposed addition. (This was before the decision to close down the Cudahy was even announced.)  It was hoped that there might be some small space in the new addition for the display of historical Wisconsin artist figures, and ongoing displays of contemporary Wisconsin artists. Little were we aware that plans were already afoot to close down the Wisconsin programs entirely. Obviously, our meeting was of little significance.
 
I am also aware that at least twice since then, proposals have been presented to the staff of the Milwaukee Art Museum for exhibits involving Wisconsin artists, including finding room for the WP&S Centennial juried show and the Wisconsin Artists Biennial.   Somehow, after months of consideration (foot dragging?), the response from the Museum was “no”. Oh! Of course it seems possible that some folks there just have little regard for WP&S as a professional organization...or is it little regard for Wisconsin artists as a whole?
 
Also, during his panel presentation, he mentioned that members of the Art Museum staff are willing to make visits to artists home and studios. While I was aware of this, it was a clear surprise to almost everyone else attending the discussion. Somehow, such information hasn’t made its way to artists. So, you are all encouraged to contact the offices of MAM to arrange such visits...and, I must add this caution, find out just who and why someone will visit.  Is it to potentially show your work in the Museum? Is it to inform the staff of what is going on in Wisconsin? Is it for the staffer to do public relation work for the Museum, to appease the artists...to make it look like MAM is truly interested? To what end do any visits occur? 
 
I apologize to anyone offended by my bringing up this dead horse issue, Director Bowman included. Yes! The Wisconsin artist programs appear to be in the morgue, now too many years removed...but, the Cudahy Wisconsin programs once were extremely important statewide! Unfortunately, when the Cudahy was basically closed down to us, there really wasn’t much openly discussed about its demise...we Wisconsin artists hardly raised a stink, and the effects of the programs demise then could not be measured. 
 
Perhapsnow we can feel its loss and measure the effect of its departure? If it can’t be talked about at this time, why not?  Is it because we fear offending Russell Bowman, or other Museum staff? What can we loose? It seems almost frightening to consider the weak position of artists who tremble with fear at offending the Director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, artists who still expect some opportunity to show there, who still believe there is a chance that Museum management will find it in their plans to again draw upon the wealth of talent and energy of the many Wisconsin artists.  
 
I, the author of this article, feel in little danger from the anger of members of the Milwaukee Art Museum. I haven’t much of a “career” in art to worry about. I have become too jaded and cynical to believe that the Milwaukee Art Museum staff really
thinks it has helped Wisconsin artistsby actions over the past several years. Mainstreaming, indeed! I can’t let go...Wisconsin artists should be offended by the road the Milwaukee Art Museum has taken specifically concerning elimination of the Cudahy Wisconsin programs. In the eyes of MAM, we were too insignificant and too powerless...
 
Obviously, I hope, it is not intended to imply that the Milwaukee Art Museum’s mission is to merely concentrate upon Wisconsin artists, nor suggest that MAM fails in other ways. There are ongoing national and community programs enriching citizens. Greatly visible, of course, is the Calatrava expansion which will be wonderful and exciting...it has taken much of the Museum’s attention. But, in 10 or 30 years, when the building is tired and deteriorating, when there is new consideration of renovations and repairs, when Russell Bowman has moved on, there will still be Wisconsin artists adding to the vitality of the community, just as we have been doing in Wisconsin since the 19th Century. It would have been nice to believe that the Milwaukee Art Museum had maintained a greater partnership with us, and more greatly aided us in exposing what is made within the State’s boundaries, a part of the region’s riches.
 
Congratulations Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors organization, for holding on for a century, and to other artist organized and maintained groups. And, thank you to all those unaligned artists in all sorts of media, professional and amateur, publicly active and privately producing, for following the creative spirit despite setbacks, losses and cold shoulders, including those wittingly or unwittingly imposed by the Milwaukee Art Museum.
                                                       
OK! Maybe I am finally done...maybe I can let go...but just how far did that dead horse travel?
 
Gary John Gresl,
One of the Former Presidents of Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors
(And a once young fellow who recalls his first visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum...seeing art by Wisconsin artists...as important to him then as pieces by nationally known artists.)

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