VESTIBULES TO PALACES, WISCONSIN’S ART VENUES

by Gary John Gresl

The Regional Art Junkie
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 snooty.

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 than 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:

1. Is the venue in a central location with access to a large population that is art interested? 1 to 10?
2. Is it an easy to find and access facility, with adequate parking? 1 to 10?
3. Does the venue do at least an adequate job of publicizing its programs and exhibitions? 1 to 10?
4. What is the reputation for exhibiting good quality art? 1 to 10?
5. Have people, writers, critics and the public paid attention to the venue in the past? 1 to 10?
6. 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?
7. Has it a professional staff having a good rapport with artists and the public? 1 to 10?
8. Is there a material physical space that is conducive to viewing art, providing room to stand apart and to look at the works? 1 to 10?
9. 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?
10. Finally, how do you intuitively “feel” about the space? Think of this as “your invitation to show”. 1 to 10?

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 this there 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 resumé?

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.