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Regional ArtJunkie: What's Important, Remembering and Arts Writer - James Auer

by Gary John Gresl

I struggle each time when deciding which topics to speak about in these bimonthly Regional Art Junkie articles.  There are a lot of potential subjects, and the opportunity to write does not come frequently enough to allow an ongoing exploration of the many and varied subjects that might fit these monologues.  And then I always question my own expertise and point of view, knowing that there are always differing opinions, and even some people out there just itching for a contrary fight.  (It is also quite easy to recognize that few people actually read the Junkie so any sense of self importance is quickly squelched by the probability that what I may choose to address will have little impact.)

But for the two of you who do read this, let me ask pardon if I tend to be too didactic and plain old “preachy”.  After all, I am one who still appreciates platitudes in an age when so many events and ideas compete in rushed brief time and when meaningful conversation and ideas are so fleeting.  Give me a solid nugget of an idea to repeat anytime while around us we are bombarded by propaganda, diverse competing ideas and the never ending flood of commercial advertisements.  In these days we tend to ignore and protect ourselves from most of what is thrown at us, including that which is very significant.  As we hunker down and in order to protect our sanity we fail to listen well enough to all the voices. 

So…let me decide this time to speak briefly about a voice no longer with us. James Auer (1928–2004) former art critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a recipient of a 2005 Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Award, was a man who shared the center of our regional art culture.   WP&S still thinks of him as an arts figure important enough to have the Wisconsin Artists Biennial title its First Place award after him.  This was done to memorialize Jim and to repeatedly return our attention to someone who played an integral role in our State’s visual arts community.  Maybe repeated acknowledgments of him, and some others, will help us to focus on those around us today who figure importantly into our contemporary art affairs.

Jim spent most of his professional life in Wisconsin, and a good part of that in the greater Milwaukee area, tending to his deep interest in the art culture of our community.  If he had an agenda or preferences or biases, he did a great job of disguising them.  He not only pointed out art making that was progressive produced both within and without our state, but he also paid attention to the activities of the supporting enduring community of artists who form the skeletal structure of our cultural body.  He seemed to understand that the activities of our local artists and galleries were an essential part of the life blood that strengthened our art culture, which informed that community and which energized the essential underlying structure holding this body upright.  It should be argued that Jim was an integral organ of the community, not separated from it or imposed upon it.

I think he knew that the visible discussion of our regional art served him in an important way.  It helped insure that there was a body of readers who paid attention, who were convinced that there was an art community of importance, and it helped insure him of a job.

He often spoke about what some others might consider to be local and humble, including exhibits and artists that were not of obvious consequence, while he also informed us of exhibits from outside our regional comfort zone, pointing out new trends, discussing personalities and events that were topical and significant.  Jim had decades to learn from us, about us, and to inform us.  He knew us very well, and for the most part we believed he understood and respected our artist community.

Of course, what we remember now about him are the things that seem most meaningful in hindsight.  During his tenure we complained enough to him about lack of coverage and we expressed our differences of opinion.  On a couple of occasions I witnessed Jim’s frustration, and even some anger, when he was besieged by the many who wanted his attention, who wanted him to report on their exhibit and to champion their causes.  He said more than once that he would always be criticized because he was not everywhere doing everything we wanted him to do.  He simply could not find the time and column space necessary permitting him to follow up on all that stuff. 

But what we now see thru our 20-20 hindsight is that he did pay attention to “us” and write considerably about “us”.  He had an appreciation of our roles in the regional community, and he carried our banners to battle often enough.

Was he too close to us?  Did he fail to probe and prick and criticize and tell us where he thought we had gone wrong?  I think not, though to his credit, he was gentle with his words.  He meted them out carefully when there was something he did not find favorable, or he simply did not comment at all, this being a measure of his disinterest and disfavor.  He was no bully.  He was no bomb thrower.  He was a gentleman who understood the importance of a vital local varied art culture with its highbrows, lowbrows, characters and stalwarts.

Thanks to the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Award that Jim received posthumously, and the naming of the first award in the Wisconsin Artists Biennial in his name, we have a recurrent chance to remember and honor Jim Auer.  Hopefully, by memorializing him we gain a better sensitivity to those around us who are doing good things for our regional visual arts today.  By his example perhaps we are better able to compare and judge others who are currently involved in the art scene.

Unfortunately Jim was another case of not knowing what we have until it’s gone. 

To quote a member of the band for the famous country singer, Hank Williams, "A legend doesn't look like a legend when he's being made.  He looks just like people". 

I can’t say that Jim is yet a legend, but I can say he is missed by many of us who appreciated his attitude and how he carried out his role among us.

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