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Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors New Chapter Formation; Experience, Thoughts and Ideas Offered

by Gary John Gresl, 2008

NOTE: As this paper is being prepared the WP&S State Board is considering a change of name for the organization. Naturally this means that references to WP&S in this paper may be a replaced with a new name.

Historical Perspective and Instructive Events

Some historical background might be helpful in the event the possibility of creating a new chapter appears. It happens that the author of this paper was President of the WP&S State Board in the year 1990, the year that WP&S added its first ever new chapters and rewrote its Constitution to accommodate that reality. Over the past couple of decades I have also spoken with “old timers” from WP&S, as well as looked thru its archives dating back to 1900.

A. Ninety years with one chapter, the original State Board

Prior to 1990 WP&S had operated with one State Board with representatives on that board potentially drawn from any part of the state. This had been the way since the organization was formed in the year 1900 as the Society of Milwaukee Artists, exhibiting in various venues, until if reformed and changed its name to Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors in 1913. It held its first exhibit under the new name in March of 1914.

WP&S history is outlined by Janet Treacy in the catalog of the 2000 Centennial Exhibit held at the Museum of Wisconsin Art (then called the West Bend Art Museum.) FYI, most WP&S records are archived in the collection of the Milwaukee Public Library, Main Branch, Wisconsin Ave. The earliest hand written minutes of meetings from 1900 are included there, (and WP&S records are to be added to that collection annually if possible). The Museum of Wisconsin Art archives also has WP&S membership records collected by historian, Gene Meier. References to WP&S history can also be found in Peter Merrill’s book, “German American Artists in Early Milwaukee”. There have also been references to some WP&S materials being in the collection of the Smithsonian, though I am not aware of anyone inquiring into this matter.

B. WP&S new chapter formation in 1990.

Monthly drives to attend meetings in the Milwaukee area was taxing for outlying members. In 1990 it happened that in the Madison area there was a critical mass of WP&S artists who desired to more easily meet and engage in local activities. In the same year, and some months later, WP&S members in the Green Bay/Appleton/Fox Cities area came to the same conclusion. To facilitate that possibility, separate meetings were called in Madison and Green Bay. I personally attended these meetings, spoke with the potential chapter organizers, and together we determined there was sufficient interest and numbers to do this in both regions.

Soon thereafter I met with the pro bono WP&S lawyer, Fred Safer, to rewrite the WP&S Constitution thereby allowing chapters to be formed. Changes restructuring the State Board, delegating responsibilities and policies were part of this process. These constitutional changes were ratified by the membership of WP&S thru the required voting procedure. Chapter Chairs and other officers were selected by the new chapter members. Meetings were established and programs implemented. There are no constitutional reasons preventing additional chapters from forming. Voting majorities and/or methods must be refigured, depending on the number of chapters making up the State Board.

C. Troubling episodes and lessons learned.

Some years after the establishment of the two new chapters in 1990, there was an ill advised change of the Constitution that eliminated the State Board officer positions, giving the three chapters some supposed greater autonomy while the State Board became a poorly defined entity. In my opinion this had more to do with friction between individuals than a real need for constitution changes. But Fred Safer and I were again called upon to rewrite the Constitution in this new format, and the membership ratified the changes. Though the organization operated briefly in that manner the system was found to malfunction. Without individuals having designated responsibilities and authority at the State Board level it was recognized that the new system basically weakened statewide unity and the hampered the ability for WP&S to function.

Therefore the State Board agreed that the constitution should once more be rewritten (again by me, Monique Isham and attorney Fred Safer) to reflect the earlier stable state of affairs in the 1990 example, with state officer positions being reestablished The revised Constitution was again approved by the membership. The current Constitution (as exists in 2008) remains as the now proven structure of the state organization with chapter and state boards implemented as intended in 1990.

At various times since 1990 both the South Central and North East Chapters came under threat of collapse due to the failure of individuals to step forward to take Board positions and assume responsibilities. However, this weakness and fragility was not only a problem with the new chapters, for it had also been apparent at times history when there was only the original State Board of the organization prior to 1990.

This fragility had/has to do with the fact that all the WP&S features and functions were/are dependant upon volunteers, and these volunteers had/have different skills, personalities, styles, philosophies and energies. Disappointments, overwork, burn out, fears and personality conflicts could and will present problems, weaknesses and even potential collapse. This is a common quality of many, if not all, volunteer organizations.

Practical Considerations Concerning the Potential Formation of New Chapters

A. Reasons for individual chapters around the State.

The primary goal of creating a new WP&S chapter is to fulfill social, exhibition, educational and personal artistic needs of an existing artist population that is not otherwise sufficiently served. Access to the experience of others, networking and communication are important features to affiliation. Potential chapters might be established in areas that are underserved by either currently existing WPS chapters or by other already existing artist organizations.

It is possible that preexisting artist groups not affiliated with WP&S could become chapters of WP&S while maintaining much of their organization, as long as such groups can adjust and accept their place within the broader statewide structure. Affiliating or aligning with the century-plus old WP&S organization can have positive ramifications, including some elements of prestige, history, publicity and networking. It is even possible that new WP&S chapters formed from existing organizations could retain preexisting names, such as the “Northwoods Artist Guild” (fictitious for purposes of this writing), but would be designated in this fashion: “The Northwoods Artist Guild, a chapter of Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors, Inc.”

B. Practical considerations and obstacles.

Basic matters of sharing membership fees and attending quarterly State Board meetings are among potential obstacles, as are some other aspects of autonomy relative to policies and finances. There may be problems that are not recognized or understood until they are faced in actual experience.

While at first blush working toward a goal of creating a new chapter may seem exciting and simple to persons without much experience in organizational volunteer matters. Those involved must recognize that it is crucial that any new WP&S chapter must be able to endure for a long time. An obvious requirement of creating new chapters in areas of the state not within reach of existing chapters is the potential ongoing populating of a chapter.

While a chapter might be created with as few as 10 members (a minimal number needed to fill out the chapter’s official officer positions and create basic committees) it is unlikely that this small number would be able to sustain itself for more than a few years. If a chapter was to start up with such as small group, the first members must be seriously dedicated to enlarging the membership. The chapter must be capable of reproducing itself on an ongoing basis.

Though experienced and long term members are the useful memory and ongoing support of the organization, new members provide fresh energy, strength and manpower to conduct business, engage in meaningful activities and present new ideas. Ideally there should be a blend of resilient long term members and a continuous supply of new recruits to provide the endurance and memory a chapter needs to fulfill its mission over the long haul.

C. Hard work and accumulating wisdom.

Finally, the responsibility for creating new chapters will rely on the hard work of individuals in any local population. This is a task to be taken seriously, and with recognition that there will be difficult times that will require dedication, patience and understanding of human nature. From personal experience of over 25 years working within WP&S at various levels and on various projects, and learning a lot about the history of WP&S, I have witnessed the most serious problems arising from how people understand and deal with one another. Frankly, I can tell of angry confrontations, personal animosities, and even a law suit due to individual frictions and missteps.

Each group of people engaged in the formation of a chapter will face the same human problems, which include such basics as assuming and delegating responsibility, maintaining endurance and patience, willingness to work when others may not, and the real sometimes disruptive interaction of differing personalities. One must be willing to allow for the flaws in others, and oneself, and extend some grace as difficulties are presented and then surmounted.

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