OUR SURPRISING HISTORY

by Gary John Gresl, Artist and current President, WP&S

We shook our heads in disbelief.  How in the blazes did we get this far? How did we manage to become one of the few totally volunteer artist organizations that had operated without interruption for a century? There they were, about to celebrate our success without comprehending how the task was accomplished.
The year was 2,000, Peg Haubert, head of WP&S in the year 2,000, said this:“Those who have taken on the responsibilities of this organization have not been motivated by money – they have all been volunteers. They have not been motivated by a quest for power – there is no one to exercise authority over. They have not been motivated by a guarantee of personal success – there are no guarantees. The motivation must come from their heart’s brain – because no one in their right mind would do this.”  (From the Centennial Exhibition catalog, WP&S, West Bend Art Museum)
On that day, four years ago, a few of us members stood before a substantial crowd of artists, administrators, award recipients and interested parties. The occasion was a reception and award ceremony celebrating the “Centennial Exhibition” of Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors, held at the West Bend Art Museum, West Bend, WI. Amazing! 100 years of volunteer artists! 100 years of continuous effort! 100 years of exhibitions and community.
WP&S is now a mature 104 years old, and still vital. Oh! To be sure, we have been very lucky in staying together this long. We thank our good fortune, indeed. The difficulties in keeping unpaid volunteers together are well understood. Basically people tire and become disillusioned without concrete rewards. Noting the reputation of artists as fractious and independent adds more wonderment in this story.
Have you heard of Richard Lorenz, painter of Western America?  Frank Enders, Robert Schade, George Peter, Gustave Moeller, Louis Mayer, Bruno Ertz, George Raab? These people formed the Society of Milwaukee Artists in 1900, in 1913 renamed, Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors. Many persons in contemporary Wisconsin have never heard of them, nor know much about the history of visual art in our state. Those mentioned formed the Society of Milwaukee Artists in 1900, which in 1913 was renamed, Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors. Fortunately, there is a core of academicians, art dealers and collectors who keep interest in Wisconsin art history.
The first juried show of the newly formed Society was held in December, 1900, and established the policy of exhibiting “all deserving work, members or not”. Now, that is very notable!  To this day we still create a biennial exhibition for all state artists. The most recent exhibition, The Wisconsin Artists Biennial 2003, held in the UW Madison Memorial Art Galleries, included more non-members than members. (FYI, WP&S members are juried into the membership by a peer review. There are about 320 persons as members.)
This Biennial is held in different venues around the state. The 2001 exhibition was at the Rahr-West Museum, Manitowoc, traveling to the Anderson Art Center, Kenosha. In 2005 it will appear again at the Anderson. In 2007 it will be at the Haggerty Art Museum, Marquette University. This event, drawing artists from across the State, doesn’t have a permanent venue. New venues are found every two years as WP&S partners with different museums producing arguably the most important recurrent art exhibition in Wisconsin. That is a noteworthy achievement.
FYI, WP&S has three chapters: The South East Chapter is located in Milwaukee. The North East Chapter draws from the Fox Cities area, Appleton, Green Bay. The South Central Chapter is centered in Madison. Holding these groups together is the task of the WP&S State Board, composed of officers from each chapter. This Board formulates policy, arranges activities, produces a professional newsletter, “Art In Wisconsin”, and is a final arbiter.  Each Chapter acts independently, holding meetings and chapter activities.
The subject of “Regionalism” comes into play here. To the snobbish and elitists, this sometimes connotes humble provincialism, and an unimportance. Historically, we recognize the term related to Depression Period movements of Social Regionalism and Geographic Regionalism. 
“Seen in retrospect, Regionalists painted a broad range of subjects, including some scenes implying social commentary. Regionalism, in the broad sense, refers to art which presents personal responses to a given region but transcends regional boundaries to communicate to all…” (From “Regionalism, The California View, Susan Anderson, catalog, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1988)
Some of us are raising the Banner for greater study of Contemporary Regionalism. We all can learn Art History and the art of cultures from across the Earth thru publications, college courses, TV and the Internet. However, we each have our unique roots in local culture. We each evolve more or less independently, and personal influences and idiosyncrasies emerge in our art. While the world focuses on the art of New York or major cities, the bulk of art-making goes on outside those media centers. WP&S is but one part of Wisconsin art history and of the broader Mid-West region. Clearly, it seems to me, the whole subject of regional art is deserving of exploration by the National Media.
WP&S has existed thru enormous changes in 20th Century culture. There has been turmoil of personalities, egos, evolved venue systems, daily interruptions, and new interpretation and visible statements of what art can be. Perhaps that quote from Peg Haubert does make sense.  “We have not been in our right minds”. Or we have not allowed the rational left hemisphere of our brains to take over our direction.
If anything has served as a binding force, it has been a belief (or delusion) that what is done serves a Greater Good. This is not the work of Mother Teresa…but there are small heroic deeds and miracles. Perhaps existing for more than 100 years is beyond being a small miracle.

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