Monday, September 5, 2011

Remembering ten years of Milwaukee Art.

“The Calatrava” is ten years old this year. To mark this anniversary of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s famous new wing the Journal Sentinel’s art critic, Mary Louise Schumacher, is asking her readers to comment on a series of questions about the last ten years. Here are some of my random thoughts. (The complete set of questions is below and on her blog at Art City. If you are as inspired by them as I was, please go to her blog and give her your responses.)

Is Milwaukee’s art scene as exciting…? Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Excitement, I’d suggest, is an equally subjective response to a set of circumstances. For me Milwaukee’s art scene has become more and more exciting in the past ten years. If I am projecting…, well, I hope my excitement is infectious.

First, let’s get the bad news out of the way. The political trends of the last ten months threaten to overwhelm ten years of building optimism. Among the most ominous developments have been the decimation of arts programming in schools along with what seems to be a deliberate dismantling of public education in general.

Regarding architecture, Calatrava and the museum threw down a gauntlet ten years ago. That building is still pretty damn exciting, if you ask me. I rarely drive by without thinking it’s a miracle that it was built and that I am seeing it right here in Milwaukee.

What is missing? No similarly bold architecture has been built in ten years. A Calatrava design proposed for a pedestrian bridge over the former North Avenue dam site was scrapped for a less expensive alternative. A clumsy attempt to mimic the Art Museum’s tour de force at the adjacent Discovery World was wisely reconfigured.

Park East corridor
The excitement generated by the demolition of the Park East freeway, which made national headlines, has long dissipated, its still largely vacant corridor a constant reminder of untapped potential.

Sixth St. Bridge
Two architectural developments that come closer than most are both in the Menomonee Valley, which itself qualifies as having had a pretty exciting ten years. They are the twin Sixth Street bridges, ushering visitors into the revitalized Valley, and the remodeled Intermodal Station.

Which artists represent Milwaukee’s avant-garde today? Why the emphasis on “avant-garde”? I’m all for “forward-looking,” if that’s how it’s interpreted, but skeptical of the merely unconventional. Novelty devoid of content or relevance is vacuous. What is most exciting is the vigor of the art scene and how deep is the bench, both in visual and performing arts.

Lenz: Wishes in the Wind
I hesitate to begin a list of individuals because so many good artists are working in the region today that I would inevitably overlook many of them. So, I’ll pick just one: David Lenz. Avant-garde? You choose your definition; he fits mine.

What experiences have changed your perspective about the power of art? First, I have never doubted the power of art. Second, my experiences here and elsewhere have continually reinvigorated my faith. Here are a few things that I managed to dredge from my memory of the last ten years:

Staab: Nature Belle
Eyes Wide Open: TheHuman Cost of the Iraq War, at the then Midwest Express Center (2004). Roy Staab’s Nature Belle, a delightfully kinetic environmental installation in the Menomonee Valley (2005). Chris Jordan’s billboard sized photographs called Runningthe Numbers at the Union Art Gallery (UAG) in 2007. The UAG also had an exhibit that included an installation of a freeway ramp; can’t recall the title, definitely recall the bold use of that unique gallery space. Alverno College hosted a powerful exhibition of art by cancer survivors. Riverpulse, art and science combined to make the health of the Milwaukee River visible – an installation underneath the Holton Street Bridge (2007).

Of course, Milwaukee’s most famous public art piece of the past ten years is the one that was rejected, Oppenheim’s “Blue Shirt.” Much has been written about this early victim of then County Executive Scott Walker.

The performing arts scene is every bit as vibrant and deep as the visual arts. If I had to pick a single play from the last ten years, I think it would have to be the Milwaukee Rep’s production of Angels in America. And the whole idea of Combat Theater, which is just incredibly exciting.

I don’t get out to see dance as often as I’d like, but I’m sure glad I caught Wildspace’s use of the Chimney Park in the Menomonee Valley (before the Chimneys had to come down!)

What impact has MAM had on the art “ecosystem” here? MAM always will be the 800 lb. gorilla in Milwaukee and, although some have criticized its programming as not living up to the standard set by its new architecture, I think it has hosted a number of excellent exhibitions in recent years. (If you still haven’t seen Summerof China, get there before it closes this Sunday!) However, MAM should showcase more WI artists.

Fortunately, MAM is not the only alternative, nor the only one that has grown. The Latino Arts Gallery expanded into a larger and more beautiful space. The Wustum in Racine added the RAM. The rebranded Museum of WI Art in West Bend is poised for its own exciting expansion. The Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan provides more consistently excellent major exhibitions than any other museum in the region, in my humble estimation. And MU’s Haggerty also punches above its weight. “Current Tendencies,” which just opened there to a packed crowd is testament to the vitality and popularity of Milwaukee’s contemporary art scene.

Lynden Sculpture Garden
I knew I couldn’t keep this short! Quick hits: Bucketworks! Redline! MIAD’s senior thesis shows every May. MARN. Sharon Lynn Wilson Center. The Lynden Sculpture Garden opens to the public! Have the last ten years been exciting or what?!!

Final comment: If you are an artist, have you had formative experiences in Milwaukee lately? To do this question justice I would need at least a whole new post, but I will mention one influence for which I am grateful: it was Mary Louise herself who prompted me to start blogging. Thank you!

Here is the survey:
  1. Is Milwaukee’s art scene as exciting today as it was 10 years ago? Why or Why not?
  2. How would you describe the health of the art scene today? Are there missing ingredients?
  3. If you were to assemble a list of people that represent Milwaukee’s avant-garde today (in terms of visual culture), who would you include?
  4. What experiences at local galleries, museums or other venues have you had in recent years that have changed your perspective about the power of art? How do they compare to the experiences you’ve had in previous years (if applicable).
  5. If you are an artist, have you had formative experiences in Milwaukee lately? In other words, what exhibits or talks have opened your thinking?
  6. What are the greatest opportunities for change/improvement for Milwaukee’s cultural scene today?
  7. If critical (but informal) dialogue once centered around places like Pumpkin World and UWM’s film department and people like David Robbins, what or who are the driving forces today?
  8. What impact has MAM had on the art “ecosystem” here (i.e. galleries, artists, collectors, etc.). How should that change, if at all?
Except for David Lenz's "Wishes...," all photos in this post are mine. I found the Lenz image at

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