For several decades, I have been observing the nature of Wisconsin’s
visual art venues. They have come and gone, evolved and devolved,
and many of them have been defined by the persons and personalities
that managed them. We all can look about us and size up the
complexion of the art facilities, making judgments about how excited
we might be if our works were hung in them. Over enough time,
as realities of the art marketplace come clear to us, there is
bound to come some disillusionment. All venues are flawed.
I have also listened to various artists speak good or ill about
some venues. Will exhibiting in this or that help or hinder
one’s professional status? What will people think if
we show in that one? Is the effort worthwhile? What benefit
is there to showing on the walls of a restaurant…or in the
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art? What good comes of showing
in Rhinelander vs. Milwaukee?
Are there opportunities to avoid, or is any opportunity to exhibit
before a formerly unreached audience good enough? How does
the prestige angle play into your exhibit record…and just
how many exhibition opportunities do you actually get?
What do you think? Do we have a large number of venues,
and how many can be termed high quality physical spaces? Do
you shiver or cower at the idea of exhibiting in some of them? For
example, how do you feel about showing in the local coffee house?
The Calatrava? The corridors of the Wisconsin Arts Board? The hallways
of a local retirement home? How about the smaller cities
of Wausau, Marshfield, Eau Claire or Beloit?
The SE Chapter of WP&S has recently been offered two Milwaukee
venues for shows, and the nature of these has brought about some
discussion. One of them is the first floor interior of the
Ruess Federal Plaza Building on Wisconsin Avenue, and the other
is the Uihlein Peters Gallery in the St. John’s retirement
home on North Prospect Drive.
Neither one is ideal. Neither one offers the highest prestige. Neither
will likely attract the attention of focused museum professionals
or high end gallery operators. They are not places for the
But, in their favor, some audience will be reached that would
likely not be exposed to our art…or any art at all. Both
have persons managing them that are interested in exhibiting good
quality art and enhancing the local culture, as well as their own
positive image. They do provide circumstances for showing
art that might otherwise be stored and/or ignored. They offer
some additional community involvement that may enhance the local
art culture and attract more attention to the visual arts.
Unfortunately, the Ruess building has a security system requiring
that those who enter go thru a metal detector, and the persons
one might interact with are security guards who may not be art
appreciators. (In fact, the guards might actually be hostile
to art.) But…the space offers a great view of the
displayed art, a color scheme that works well, good lighting, and
the exposure to an audience that may not see the art anywhere else. Professionals
and paupers alike will see the work.
The Uihlein Peters Gallery, basically a long hallway in a retirement
home, has a history that includes several reviews by the former
art critic of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, James Auer. Jim
was not usually snooty about venues. The nature of the art
was the most important aspect of an exhibit and the venue was secondary…whether
that was in a shaky edgy start up gallery, the Lakefront Festival
of the Arts, a raw space offered in a Third Ward shell of a building
on gallery night, or a designated corridor of a retirement home. What
is very interesting is that the Uihlein Peters provided the space
for a posthumous exhibit of Jim’s work. Had he been
alive, he would have been there and proud to have his work shown.
There are some professors of art and independent artists that
would not want to sully their résumé’s by exhibiting
in certain locations…or associate with artists they don’t
think are at their same level. These are persons very interested
in their own image and watchful of their reputations. They
are likely not the persons who would take notice of the lower levels
of their community’s visual art culture, nor care much about
helping those many artists who are more naïve then them, not
as advanced in their studies, perhaps not as talented…or
at least not as well known.
The basic reasons for making art, the worthwhile practice of expression,
emotional release and intellectual exploration are forgotten or
ignored by these very elevated and ambitious. They believe
that there is a big gap between them and those who they see as
inferior, lowly and undignified. So it is when they view
some art venues.
Over the years I have certainly been disappointed by some gallery
spaces that I had imagined as ideal, and which showed their flaws. Whether
one deals with a disinterested Milwaukee Art Museum staff, a highly
motivated curator of a small remote space, a high profile gallery
owner who ends up in jail, or a not for profit gallery that lacks
funding and skills. None are perfect.
So…for fun…how about creating a “visual art
venue rating system”? Give this a try. Answer
questions like these and rate them on a 1 to 10 system:
- Is the venue in a central location with access to a large population
that is art interested? 1 to 10?
- Is it an easy to find and access facility, with adequate parking? 1
- Does the venue do at least an adequate job of publicizing its
programs and exhibitions? 1 to 10?
- What is the reputation for exhibiting good quality art? 1
- Have people, writers, critics and the public paid attention
to the venue in the past? 1 to 10?
- Does the venue have a central mission of exhibiting visual
art, or is it a means of merely decorating the walls at the artist’s
expense? 1 to 10?
- Has it a professional staff having a good rapport with artists
and the public? 1 to 10?
- Is there a material physical space that is conducive to viewing
art, providing room to stand apart and to look at the works? 1
- Does exposure in the venue provide some greater good for the
local art culture, for fellow artists and those who may see the
artwork? 1 to 10?
- Finally, how do you intuitively “feel” about the
space? Think of this as
“your invitation to show”. 1 to
Will the experience satisfy you? Will you get some feedback,
positive or negative? Will the work simply “look good” in
this space? Will you have done some inherent good for yourself
and/or others? And…as with all activities, do you
have the energy and time to participate in this exhibit balanced
against your other professional and personal needs?
For most of us in most situations, art making is an action that
allows us a
freedom that is unlike many other aspects of living and interacting. However,
finding the perfect venue to share your work is another matter. In
is not much individual freedom for the artist, who is more likely
in the role of
supplicant appealing to venues to take on the work.
If in the final analysis you do take the opportunity to exhibit
in any venue, who will care other than you? How quickly are
these exhibits forgotten? Are you happy or not to be participating
in the basic fundamental action of communicating with someone else
thru your art? Do you even have to put the exhibit on your
Again, 1 to 10? Total them all up, and decide whether you
want to play or punt. However, do understand that there are
opinions other than your own about the values of showing in any
venue. Let us all be encouraging to our fellow artists, supporting
them in a difficult art market of which we are all a part.
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