Wisconsin Regional Art Junkie

by Gary John Gresl

This is the first in a series of articles dealing with visual art in the State of Wisconsin: articles that will be unapologetic to those who perceive the Midwest and Wisconsin as provincial, while hopefully remaining realistic in observing conditions here. I will from time to time mention historical events and figures, as well as living artists. There will be references to the broader theme, “regional” art -- art that exists in geographic areas even outside of Wisconsin. Some of my statements will be the result of actual experience, personal observations, mere anecdotal evidence and humble speculation. I am neither scientist or trained sociologist.

This ongoing series is intended to open discussions about interpretations and realities of producing and promoting art in this state with a hope that our regional artists gain more recognition and exposure. That improvement must begin right here at home…among our fellow artists, collectors, art writers, critics, art professionals at all levels and places, art educators, their school boards, the silent citizenry, business people and politicians who should be concerned for the public good, our quality of life and the economics of this region.

These articles are not intended to bemoan our largely ignored status in the eyes of critics on east and west coasts. Rather, it is my intention to furnish ideas and substantiated facts to support the belief that visual arts in Wisconsin are of high quality, in good part unique and not all derivative or provincial. It seems to me that it would be helpful in many ways if artists living and creating here, away from influential and “big league” art markets, were celebrated as relevant in the warp and weft of our national art fabric; as important as those artists who by talent, skills and plain old good luck make a splash in major cities, publications and museums.

Chauvinism Outside the Heartland, Insecurity Within

I can relate experiences that suggest, or prove, that there are persons from outside our region who have definite prejudices and expectations about what kind of art is produced here. Such chauvinism ranges from mere hypothesized images of conventional landscapes, cows and wildlife art, to local feeble, retarded attempts at Modern and Postmodern expressions. Sure…while there is unskilled and anemic art being made in all regions, there is also meritorious art that goes overlooked due to lack of study and exposure by publicists and the influential.

Let alone the fact that there might be exceptional thought and idea that is behind the creation of landscapes, cows and wildlife art, there are those critics, including gallery owners and museum personnel, who will not even take a look at the art produced outside their own limited cultural environment. If our area’s artists and our champions do not go to them, they will not come to us. Sadly, there are some persons living along side of us who feel the same way, which is that our regional artists are not of sufficient worth to pay attention to.

One might argue that by merely bringing up the subject of inequality in the media’s art reporting and general lack of attention by influential forces we reveal our own insecurities as artists and Midwest residents. Bah! Humbug! This is the reality. We have excellent artists here who, due to long standing social, cultural and economic conditions, don’t get the same fair shake when it comes to comparisons with art that gets a reputation elsewhere.

Some of us do not depend upon “finding our art” in the big city, we grow to maturity right here and then “take our art to” the city. After all, where would an actor prefer performing? On Broadway in Milwaukee or Broadway in New York City? Reputations are made by associations with places and celebrity. It would be a great thing if the local market recognized and supported local visual art at a much higher level than it does now, thereby enabling more artists to thrive here. When an acclaimed performer, artist or expert is in town, there a flocks of locals to attend to the appearance. The oft repeated story about the experts coming from out of town repeatedly comes to mind.

You want a bottom line? Find regional artists and supporters that you admire. Study what they do…look for their authenticity…compare them to artists from elsewhere who are getting attention. Praise them. Support them. Buy their work. Publicize and boost them if you find them deserving. A definition for “boost” is this: “A device for increasing power or effectiveness”. You are an intimate part of the device, the machinery that can hoist local art scenes into greater prominence.

We Seek the Supporting Marketplace

It has been the case in world history that quality artists from many regions in any place and time have had to go in search of broader viable markets in order to gain exposure, recognition and financial success. Wisconsin generally has not provided a large enough support system allowing artists to exist and thrive here, without additional income from a real job like teaching, etc. Perhaps that is true for most regions and for anyone. To become self sufficient as artist it is necessary to expand into the broader approving national marketplace in order to reach the necessary patronage. Perhaps it is only in the areas of larger human population that we can find a large enough percentage of persons interested and attentive that can support us.

It does not appear that the current marketplace in Wisconsin can do that, nor has it ever. The population is not of sufficient size to keep reenergizing and encouraging local artists; there is not a broad media that is sympathetic to reporting on the visual arts; the patron base is small due to lack of interest, lack of education, and lack of awareness. In addition the visual arts have to compete for attention and dollars with other facets of the culture which have evolved into stronger focal points for public attention, such as sports and the performing arts.

Sports and performances are physically and emotionally exciting. There is the entertainment value, gossip and the personalities, the media coverage of real time events that include championship races and celebrity. The thrill of competition and hoopla creates interest and enlarges the media reporting which builds on itself promoting a buzz.

The visual arts usually provide and require more contemplative quiet times, without the media coverage, without the discussion of championship races and broad discussion. Too often the visual arts, the quiet sister, will only gain public attention when there is something out of the ordinary, some oddity, a theft, controversy, record auction price or some outrageous action or personality that makes news. Then it is a one time reporting event and not a sustained level of activity that goes on for weeks.

Turning on Our Own Lights

Therefore, it seems to me, it is time for artists and supporters from this region to recognize that we ourselves must work harder here at home to establish our own regional visual arts identity, presenting our regional treasures as significant, valuable, and speaking to human issues in contemporary times. We must pay greater attention to visual arts education, art publicity, and we must endure for a long, long time.

Toward that goal, let me acquaint you with the 2006 list of Awardees of the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Awards, introduced at the May 7th awards presentation held at the West Bend Art Museum. This is the third year that these awards were given. Please visit the recipients from the first two years of these awards on the website, www.WVALAA.com . The names of Frank Lloyd Wright, Aaron Bohrod, and Edward Steichen are among those previously honored, and those getting the awards this year are no less talented or worthy.

Related Website: www.wvalaa.com