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Thems Fightin Wurds Ya Krusty Koledge Kurmudgin
On 100 Years of WP&S Existence

by Gary John Gresl

The events surrounding the Centennial Exhibit were invigorating, exciting and almost totally positive...with one exception. The first sentence in the juror statement from Paul Donhauser was this: “Any assessment made about the state of Wisconsin art through this particular exhibit would be very unfair because most serious-minded Wisconsin artists did not participate”. Most serious-minded artists....hmmmm. Well, Paul, in good natured response, consider these things.
He goes on to mention that he and his two fellow jurors “were very conscientious in selecting works that spoke with a distinctive voice in regards to idea, content, visual skill and craftsmanship. The best of these examples constitute this exhibition and the award winners represent a high level of professionalism.”  That is certainly a positive statement, was too late, as some damage had been already done by his introductory comment, which “suggests” some criticism of the group...or criticism of the intent of the exhibit.
But, you my opinion, Professor Donhauser was right that “most” serious artists in the State did not participate...however the statement was so obvious as to be hardly necessary, and certainly it was not tactful. It appears that in an attempt to warn posterity that this show was limited to a particular membership, not inclusive of all the art and artists of the state, he selected words that appear to sound critical of the WP&S membership.
He must have known that this exhibit could not represent the State in its entirety. It is not the Wisconsin Biennial, which we also sponsor, which permits entries from any person in the State. It is not the Madison Triennial which also makes selections from Wisconsin artists at large. The sheer weight of numbers of artists in this state has to support Professor Donhauser’s statement that “most serious-minded Wisconsin artists did not participate.” This does not mean that WP&S members are not serious...and if he did mean to say that, he is short sighted and needs to be removed from his college ivory tower. Indeed, consider this...not only did successful serious-minded artists not enter our membership show, but unsuccessful serious-minded artists did not as well.
We all have come to recognize that many artists who have found their niches in certain colleges and universities, and those who have established links with higher echelon galleries, don’t choose to associate themselves with organizations such as WP&S. Why? Let me guess.
First, there is the matter of fear...I have witnessed numerous of the WP&S organized Wisconsin Artist Biennials and their juror selection processes. Remember that the Biennials are open to all Wisconsin artists...not only WP&S members. While I will not mention names...though I could...I have seen professors of art from various prestigious institutions fail the juror’s cut. These artists don’t want this publicized. How many of them want their reputations sullied because a juror called them out? Better to not participate at all. 
Second, with WP&S being a “volunteer run organization”, there was a chance...slim perhaps... that they might be called upon to volunteer, and further expose themselves to loss of time and submitting themselves to potential embarrassment. Why bother, particularly if they are making a professor’s salary or are selling well thru notable galleries? Some professors have their own peer pressures too...and joining a membership organization like WP&S might suggest some sign of weakness.
Third, it is unlikely that a sense of brotherhood and altruism exists in the halls of academia in such abundance that the established, especially snobbish, would consider joining a service organization like WP&S. And, for those artists successfully showing and selling thru prestigious galleries, why would they want to also be exposed to potential rejection in juried shows...and how altruistic might they be anyway? Are they really inclined to offer any sort of help to artists who might be in competition for the gallery space and the patron dollar?
Fourth, college teachers and artists represented by notable galleries (not all, of course) have their own professional contacts and means of finding exhibition opportunities. Some can gain prestige and prominence thru their college associations, by dissemination of their reputations thru their students, and by gallery support and propaganda promoting sales. Such established and talented folk need not join membership groups and endanger their images by associating with artists who have not gained the same status. (Happily and thankfully, WP&S has had its share of college teachers, as well as teachers at other levels, who have not been fearful that their reputations would be affected...but who have actually gained prestige thru inclusion in our juried shows. Several of these have been our Presidents and Board members.) the implied suggestion that WP&S artists are not “serious minded”...well, certainly Professor Donhauser would have to face serious argument from us that the members are not “serious minded” about our work, about our thoughts and evolution in art making, and about our careers. Obviously, no matter what the nature of our art, we cannot all be situated on college staff and carried by prestigious galleries. Such exclusion is not necessarily a result of artist failure...but is likely a product of the job market and the limited art marketplace. How many artists in all fields of art, visual, performing and literary, have “real” jobs to help them pay the rent and buy clothes for their children? Most, I tell you...most. 
A conversation with members of WP&S concerning artmaking, its theories, history and philosophies, would not sound much different than conversations heard on college campuses and in fine art galleries. Indeed, perhaps the conversations would be more practical and applicable to the real world than those heard in the heady heights of university atmospheres.
From time to time I have heard discussions about the general nature of the art produced by members of WP&S. The comments and thoughts expressed around me have further prompted this article.
First, despite exceptions, may I say that it is my opinion that the history of the membership suggests that members have been relatively conservative in their styles and themes since the inception of the organization in 1900. This is a broad statement, but I think an open minded view of past membership rolls would bear out this observation. Compare the work of notable and respected past members to what was happening in the more adventurous venues of the US at any point in the last 100 years. This relative conservatism does not suggest that WP&S historically has had low quality artists. The work of past members proves their quality, as well as conservatism.
Second, as a matter of natural evolution, it is clearly evident that the character of the membership has had to change, especially during the past 30 years as a result of alterations in the education and marketing of art and artists, not only in Wisconsin, but throughout the United States. These changes are not all bad. What was once a generally small pool of visual artists in Wisconsin, and those artists being more classically trained by their instructors preceding the 1960’s, became a flood of graduates from multiplying programs who were exposed to more liberal instruction. Many of these quality artists currently fill our roster in their serious attempt to show their work.
The art marketplace changed. WP&S members who were allied with UWM and the Milwaukee Art Center (now Museum) found options open to them for exhibition and sale of their works that had not existed in such quantity before. More retail galleries opened to accept established artists. Nearby Chicago increased its prominence in the art culture and history, drawing artists to it. Of course, further off, New York City grew as the center of progressive art production. The Milwaukee Art Museum gradually and unceasingly withdrew its support as it became a venue for exhibition of art recognized at primarily a National level. WP&S became less prominent and prestigious as a result of the loss of that Museum association. WP&S exhibitions were no longer focused upon as in former years, because other means of exhibition became available to some of the more prominent artists of our Wisconsin communities.
WP&S had always had a jurying committee to assess the work of potential new members, to judge the quality of the work and the nature of the artists’ professional and exhibition record. In the late 1980’s the Board of WP&S recognized that many talented artists were being turned away from joining WP&S because they had not established much of an exhibition record...this despite the work showing skill and promise. The persons who were turned away were advised that they could try again when they had established more of a record...but you can count on them being disenchanted with WP&S, perhaps angry, and not speaking of WP&S in the best light... to say the least. It seemed that WP&S was not completely living up to its mission statement, and was falling short of its altruistic goals of being a service organization, attempting to help artists grow and further the exposure of visual arts within our communities. 
After discussion and planning the WP&S Board decided to establish new levels of membership. First, there would be the already present Professional Level, which was for then current members and incoming new members who had demonstrated talent and professionalism in their work, as well as having a record of achievement...including but not exclusive to exhibition. 
Second, the level of Associate member was established. This level of membership would be for new members who clearly showed skills and talent, but who had not yet established much of a record with their work. Admitting these persons to the organization WP&S would give them the opportunity to jury along with Professional members, to demonstrate their interest, and to potentially show their work in the juried shows. They would face the same jury scrutiny as Professional level members.
Besides the levels of Professional and Associate members, the level of Student member was also created for artists still working on their degrees and studies. These persons would still have to be accepted by the membership committee of WP&S, but could join as a student and pay lower membership fees as a result. They could move up to Associate or Professional levels when they met the criteria.
Having Associate and Student levels available created benefits to both the artist and to WP&S which are plainly evident and important. Not only does this permit artists of talent an opportunity to grow and show their work thru the juried exhibits, but it allows in artists at the two new levels who create good will, spread the word or the organization, and who further fulfill our mission of assisting Wisconsin artists. I hesitate to mention also the benefit of additional fees to help the organization fulfill its goals.
WP&S goes on, and we evolve. We have a century behind us...who can match that? Our Centennial Exhibit is a statement proving the remarkable vitality of our organization, despite past hard times. The Centennial exhibit also proves that quality art is produced by our members.
Paul Donhauser has done a good thing...He has given of his time and judgment, along with the other two jurors, to select high quality art for the Centennial Exhibition. He has also prompted discussion and consideration, as evidenced in this article, and he has perhaps reinforced our resolve to be diligent and serious about our work and professional activities.
Amazingly and importantly, we have existed for a century, doing good all the way for artists and the greater community...and only because of “serious minded” artists, volunteers all, who have given much of their lives for this professional service “institution”, Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors. Be proud!

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