Wisconsin's Canvas Ceiling

by Gary John Gresl

The Regional Art Junkie

It was only about 1983 that I began figuring out how the regional art market in Wisconsin operated, how it had evolved…and what its positives and negatives were. It seems to me that it has taken me too long to comprehend how small and limited our region is in every regard.

One of the first impressions I recall from the 80’s was an almost stunning realization that local collectors I met were not as sophisticated or evolved as I assumed. Too many of them were willing to swallow whole the opinions of the established taste makers associated with the some high profile entities (museums, critics, publications)…who themselves swallowed whole the opinions of the supposed taste makers from elsewhere whose imprimaturs determined what went into the history books and what was touted and placed on pedestals.

It seemed to me that there was an apparent lack of regional independence in judgment, but rather a happy consumption of what the “experts from out of town” thought. Additionally there certainly was a smaller percentage of the local population paying attention to visual art than I had vaguely assumed.

In the course of time I gained a broader view of the regional art venues, from Kenosha to Wausau, to Door County to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Milwaukee’s MAM, the Charles Allis, the Haggerty…and the private and nor-for-profit galleries associated with colleges around the state from Beloit to Rhinelander.

Eventually my slow witted brain began to recognize that building an exhibition record in this state, in hopes of gaining some sort of success by reputation and sales, is like continually bumping up against a rather inflexible canvas ceiling. There are moments of achievement, with some stretching of the canvas surface…but in the end, merely exhibiting in Wisconsin’s range of venues over and over again only results in that canvas surface settling back on to its inflexible stretchers while we once more leap from our earthly footing to bump against it.

To be sure being part of an important exhibit in one of the few major Wisconsin venues can help raise the level of one’s success, but for regional artists to make a wider impact …or even to get more focused attention from the likes of the Milwaukee Art Museum or the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art…one must have gotten the attention of those previously mentioned experts from out of town. Those would include museums and notable galleries in larger cities outside of Wisconsin, large circulation print media and critics, and other national broadcast media. If it is found that one’s art somehow fits into a national movement that has been touted outside of Wisconsin’s boundaries, one might also pick up some notice.

Location! Location! Location! Population! Population! Population! Media! Media! Media! Reputation! Reputation! Reputation!

There are many examples of artists who grew reputations, exhibit, and sales success, not merely as a result of their genius (if they had any in the first place) but because of the publicity and subsequent cascading response to that publicity. Like newscaster attention to some politician’s faux pas or perceived controversy, stories get into news cycles and are repeated ad nauseam until some other topical and titillating story appears. And once a name or event makes its way on to the national media stage, in some respects at least, it remains forever.

Will the emerging Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend help play a role in elevating discussion about Wisconsin’s artists to a broader regional and nation level? Well…it already has, though as yet in a limited fashion. It has been able to gain some purchase as an institution of some international significance due to the German history in our state, and the museum’s historical collection which includes notable German academically trained artists. And by its announcement of expanding its facility into a progressive modern one exclusively dealing in the art of this state, it has begun to gain attention regionally, unlike it had when it was called the West Bend Art Museum. At some point, when the new facility is finished, the MWA should become an important focal point for Wisconsin’s art culture. Depending on its exhibitions and success in garnering attention, it should help in raising the national visibility of regional artists…especially if at a national level there is less of a blind dependence on other regions to set the pace. But, that is for the future. It will take much time for Wisconsin to grow as an important generator of publicity for its own regional artists.

Right now there are real limits due to our location, our population, our media, and the support that stems from politicians, business, economics, education, and the citizenry. The canvas ceiling exists, and will continue to exist, and it is not easy to admit that perhaps the only means of escaping its effect is to circumnavigate it. Each of us has limited time and energy and cannot merely keep bouncing back and forth between a canvas ceiling and a callous ineffectual foothold. Artists must take matters into their own hands and not depend on our local media, critics, galleries, and museums to do our work for us.
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