The Visual Arts in Madison: An Introduction

by Doug E. L. Haynes

2005 was a landmark year for the visual arts in Madison, Wisconsin. The arts scene is being shaken up by changes driven by large gifts of two donors. These gifts to the Overture Foundation and the University, the two largest institutions in Madison offering programming in the arts, promise to change the landscape considerably.

In Fall of 2004 Phase I of the $200 million Overture Center opened in the 200 block of State St. For the visual arts this meant that The Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters moved into a new space on the third floor of the Overture center. That space, called the James Watrous Gallery, continues the Academy’s mission of exhibiting the visual arts of Wisconsin. Over the last 15 years the Academy has built a reputation for putting on challenging and diverse shows juried from artists throughout the state.

In addition, three community galleries have opened at Overture. These galleries exhibit works from a wide range of groups, some of which are very professional and others are exhibiting for the first time.

When Phase II of Overture opens in early 2006, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art will unveil it’s grand new space. Formerly the Madison Art Center, the curatorial staff at the MMoCA seeks to bring new ideas and cutting edge artists from across the nation. They are also known for the Wisconsin Triennial, a curated exhibit of contemporary Wisconsin art. Their permanent collection is strong in photography, works on paper and painting after World War II by artists of the region.

The other big news is a $20 million gift which will enable the museum to double the size of its galleries. The resulting name change, from Elvehjem to Chazen, which went into effect immediately, took a number of people by surprise, but the expansion is a welcome event. Currently the timetable calls for the new building to open in 2009. The Chazen has a comprehensive collection with strengths in European and American art as well as a very large print collection, with many Japanese prints which were originally in the collection of Frank Lloyd Wright.

When the Academy moved into their new space at Overture, they turned over curation of their Steenbock gallery at 1922 University Ave. to the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors. WP&S has put on a number of theme shows in that space selected from their statewide membership. WP&S is a professional artists organization which sponsors seminars, critiques and puts out this publication. Last Fall WP&S sponsored the Two Cultures: One Spirit Arts Exchange between Japan and Wisconsin. Twenty eight Japanese artists came to exhibit and demonstrate at three venues throughout Wisconsin. The venue in Madison which hosted a joint exhibition of Wisconsin and Japanese artists is the Wisconsin Union Gallery at the UW’s Memorial union . This gallery, which opened in 1928, was the first space in Madison to put on exhibitions. There are currently three galleries plus a hallway devoted to shows within the Memorial union and works from the extensive permanent collection are also hung throughout the building.

The University has other venues of note. Across from the Memorial union, undergraduate shows can be seen at the Class of 1973 Gallery in the Red Gym (note the building looks like a castle not a gym) MFA shows are often put on in the 7th floor gallery of the Humanities building which is just across the library mall from the Union. Another venue for MFA shows is Gallery 734 at 734 University Ave. Two programs operated by The School of Human Ecology are The Design Gallery and the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, both located at 1300 Linden Drive

Tandem Press is an interesting offshoot of the University. This venture invites established artists who have gained recognition in areas other than printmaking to try a hand at their presses. The staff at Tandem are master printmakers and the resulting collaborations are remarkable. Invited artists have included Judy Pfaff, David Lynch and Robert Cottingham. Tandem is located off campus on the near east side. www.tandempress.wisc.edu

Perhaps the greatest influence of the University is in supplying a college town atmosphere. Madison is largely populated by people who are over-educated and under-employed. It is a town that exists in its own special space. Conservatives like to say Madison is “nine square miles surrounded by reality.” It is a saying which may have some degree of truth in it, since people come to Madison to follow their dreams. Lots of people come to graduate school and never leave. Some people like the idea of living in a town that is friendly to gays or feminist thinking. Other people are attracted to the fact that this is a place where liberal causes and movements promoting justice, the environment and healthy living are mainstream rather than alternative. In that atmosphere one would expect that much of the art-making in Madison would be political in content. However, while Madison has its share of artists who want to make a statement, the work of artists from the city hit all kinds of notes and cannot be easily pigeonholed.

At any rate with a small population, much of which is underemployed, there are limits to the opportunities available to artists. Those hoping to transplant to Madison should have a business plan that includes selling in other markets. Of course there are plenty of coffee shops in town that are happy to show your work, but such ‘opportunities’ will sell few paintings. A more promising approach is to sell in one of the half dozen or so commercial galleries that show the work of local and regional artists. Some commercial galleries of note include Hue Gallery at 1934 Monroe St, Grace Chosy 1825 Monroe St and Fanny Garver at 230 State St. Another good venue is the Di Ricci Gallery at Edgewood College, just off the 2200 block of Monroe St.

One event that some Madison artists have used to promote themselves is the Madison area Open Art Studios a citywide event where artists open their doors for a weekend and invite the public to view art in the place where it is being made. The event is not juried so the quality varies, but it is superbly organized with a kick off event at a local gallery and abundant signs and maps to guide visitors.

Gallery night is a twice a year event which happens on the first Fridays of May and October. Typically over 30 venues participate.

A report on the visual arts in Madison would not be complete without mention of the Art Fair on the Square. This event which has been held for nearly 50 years is one of the top art fairs in the nation. It is held at the Capitol Square during the second weekend of July and attendance is over 200,000 for the two-day event. Applications are due in Spring and can be found at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Arts’ website: www.mmoca.org/ Typically around 500 artists in a variety of media participate. There is a second tier fair on the same weekend called The Art Fair Off the Square. The website for that event is; www.artcraftwis.org/afos.html. The organization which sponsors the Art Fair off the square also sponsors a Winter Arts Festival in the Monona Terrace Convention Center which will take place in late Fall

For those interested in learning more about the visual arts in Madison there are some helpful online resources. www.portalwisconsin.org has listings of cultural events including exhibit openings and announcements of opportunities. The Wisconsin Painters and sculptors site www.artinwisconsin.com also has a lot of useful information as does the site of the Wisconsin Arts Board: arts.state.wi.us/static. Once you arrive in Madison the free weekly paper Isthmus has comprehensive listings of what is currently on display.

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Artist’s News, a publication of the Chicago Artists Coalition,