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Come Along All Ye Dreamers - Points of Comparison

by Gary John Gresl

I recently read a November New York Times article about the Chelsea district, New York City. It mentioned one street alone which has 60 galleries on it. Of course, then add the other streets nearby…as well as other arty blocks elsewhere in the city, and we should not be surprised that there are hundreds of galleries on the streets of NYC.

Fine art and enthusiasm for it in New York is a given condition…never questioned. Other cities that you can likely name also have a reputation for supporting and nurturing fine art, their venues and their artists. They take pride in their visual art culture and would feel diminished without them.
Fine art in Milwaukee and Wisconsin? How supportive and enthusiastic is this city and this state for art? Milwaukee is tiny in physical size compared to the Big Apple, and it also seems small in size when compared to interest in and support for the visual arts. Artists go to NYC seeking that support, and that is the spot where national reputations are made, where trends emerge, and where auction records are produced. We must also imagine that the city also crushes dreams and has a huge artist turn-over rate. While there is no model like New York, I say it is better to compare Milwaukee to similar sized cities. AND, it seems to me, we also must compare ourselves today to our own art history. Are we getting better than we used to be?

Here I offer the idea that too many in the Wisconsin public are and always have been relatively disinterested in fine art, visual art in particular. This is likely and simply due to lack of art education, art publicity (marketing), and art support from the multitudes, including the middle and lower classes in society; that goes along with a rather disinterested media. Wealthy and influential citizens have their prominent art causes, like the Calatrava and MAM, the Overture Center, the Performing Arts Fund, and notable causes in smaller cities which they support for a variety of reasons, including prestige, politics, networking, maintaining their self image by association…and with hopes that these major enterprises do benefit the larger population. Visit other states and the same process likely applies.

Aside from the important prominent art causes, it is often thru the efforts of a body of mid-level enthusiastic volunteers, venues and artists that the visual arts in our communities are sustained and feed the local art culture, producing signs of health and advancement. This is the core of art activism that is not often participated in by the wealthy and influential, and which unfortunately also goes on unnoticed by the great percentage of the working public. Furthermore I state that this largely hands off policy has been the condition here throughout our history. While I admit to having a limited working knowledge of Wisconsin’s art record, what I have seen suggests that there has always been a “general” lack of enthusiastic support from the citizenry at large. Wisconsin’s most prominent legacies include the Packers and various sports, the natural environment, farming and food production, manufacturing, and art gifts by the wealthy…but it has not seemed to be a hotbed for nurturing visual arts in the mainstream.

During the late 19th early 20th centuries there may have been a few decades of visual art florescence when immigrants, particularly Germanic, stirred up some hardy visual art interest in the state. This was thru those who were involved in the production of the grand Panorama/Cyclorama Paintings in Milwaukee around the 1880’s; the decorative and fine art work applied to freshly new buildings being built in an expanding population and economy; important art exhibits arranged by a few activist citizens, often women; the creation of the Layton Art Gallery in 1887; an influx of artists who sought participation in a growing culture; new organizations like the Milwaukee Art Students League and the Wisconsin School of Art; some associations with the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair; the Wisconsin School of Design, and the Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors organization established in the year 1900.

For several decades European academies proved the source of, and education for, many Milwaukee and Wisconsin artists. These professionals in turn taught local students and drew more attention to the visual arts. German taught artists such as Henry Vianden, Richard Lorenz, Carl Von Marr, and many more took students under their wings. Milwaukee was also a source of artists who spread into other Wisconsin cities to create public and private art, decorating buildings and recording people and places on canvas and photo paper.
While I was doing a bit of research into the archives of the West Bend Art Museum I found a newspaper article written in the early 20th Century by Louis Mayer. Louis was himself an important artist at the turn of that century, primarily known as a sculptor. He was the prime mover in the creation of the group that was to become the Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors organization. He was also an author and world traveler who eventually moved to New York State around 1913.

In that article he interviewed Wisconsin born Carl Von Marr, one of the most important and internationally recognized artists from this state. If you don’t know Carl, then you don’t know much about Wisconsin’s art history. Carl Von Marr was a highly respected local mentor and a successful artist with high achievement in the world at large. His remarkable work is on display at the West Bend Art Museum/Museum of Wisconsin Art.

In that interview Von Marr spoke about the conditions for visual art in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. He was not enthusiastic. In fact he seemed to emit a slight sneer as he suggested that it is foolish to depend on the support of the Milwaukee and Wisconsin marketplace. Von Marr was the Director of the Munich Academy in Germany. He traveled extensively and saw what real support for the visual arts was like elsewhere. Von Marr was a practical man, and one with abundant artistic and observational skill. It was his opinion that Milwaukee and Wisconsin had not displayed much financial or cultivating support for the visual arts.

So here we are, nearly 100 years later, still wondering where the strong and broad support of the Milwaukee and Wisconsin public is. If Chelsea has 60 galleries on one street, what do we have? Well…if one looks at Buffalo Street in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward, I suppose we do have six on a two block stretch. From Folliard Gallery on the corner of Milwaukee St. to the Marshall Building on the corner of Water, one can count six or seven, depending on how liberal one is in defining an art gallery.

Tellingly, though, we have had numerous galleries recently disappear as others have appeared, with outgoing examples like the long lived but troubled Michael Lord, to the brief Red Car and the daring KM. In fact, as I write this commentary, Artpost in Grafton has announced its closing after five years. Happily, a few new galleries have opened with fresh energies and hopes that still spring eternal.

Obviously gallery ownership ain’t easy…and one has to have strong financial means to stick it out for a long haul. There will be dry spells that tax one’s patience and monetary wherewithal, and exhibiting art that is practically salable is problematic for pocketbook and psyche. The towns of Wisconsin lack the population base, culture and enthusiastic art buyers that keep galleries thriving. While not-for-profit galleries/museums can be the hub of activity in most communities, when it comes to private galleries and their artists actually making a living, it seems nearly impossible. But, is it any easier elsewhere?


Does this make us a weak art state? Well! When the comparison is made with a thriving visual art culture in a major city, we do look weak. But that isn’t the only comparison we should be making. We should sooner look at the support that Wisconsin has given to visual artists in the past, compare that to our current state of affairs, and build on it, promote it…publicize, expand and market it all…historical, contemporary, ethnic, trained, naïve and Outsider. There’s plenty of art substance here, but too little study, exploration and promotion.

While we citizens can blame ourselves for an indifferent attitude, at least some of the nature of disinterest lies with the Wisconsin media. Television, radio and print publications are really marketing tools, and not just thru their paid advertising. The stories they run carry great weight in convincing the populace that something important is going on around here.
Yes! There is a bit of the “catch 22” in getting media attention, for if the media does not hear from citizens and advertisers that want to see more about the visual arts, the media will continue to ignore it. However, if an interested media believes part of its role is to improve the standard of living in this culture, to aid the economy, to inform an uninformed public, to acknowledge meaningful art production and cultural issues that have spoken of humankind for thousands of years, then more stories about the visual arts can educate, enrich and motivate the population. Tell the citizens about it, and I predict the stories will increase the public’s interest.

Like it or not, this is the culture hand that we have been dealt. We’ve got to understand and learn about it, talk it up…and improve it. Finding positive things to promote and speak of should be part of our daily instruction. What is…is! But what it is currently need not predict our future. The past and present situations are points of comparison and they comprise the already accomplished footing from which we can act.

And who must act? A Hopi Native American statement goes like this: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
Come along all you dreamers…

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