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The Collector Behind MAM's 'Accidental Genius'

Feb. 8, 2012
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Over a 20-year period, Milwaukee's Tony Petullo amassed an internationally known art collection. Now, the retired businessman has given more than 300 pieces to the Milwaukee Art Museum. These works form the new exhibition “Accidental Genius: Art from the Anthony Petullo Collection.”

How do you know when you have found a “keeper”—a piece that you'll want to hold on to for the long term?

My general advice is: If you love it, buy it. That said, if you're planning to build some kind of collection, whether it's eclectic or specific, you really have to do your homework. You have to look at a lot of things the artist has done, and see what's the best. If you're building a collection, buy the best you can afford, but don't compromise on the quality. If you can't afford a really big one from that artist, take a smaller one and make sure it's really good.

Have you been surprised by art that has caught your eye?

I really have. There were some works where there was an instant love. Instant. If there is something hanging in my house and I don't stop and admire it frequently, I probably shouldn't have bought it. In my office, every one of the things hanging in there, I look at it and I think, “Gosh, that's good.”

What does it mean to you to give these works to the Milwaukee Art Museum?

There are so many favorites—things that I really, really love that are going to the museum. What outweighs that is the fun I've had in watching other people admire them. Now, tens of thousands of people will be able to enjoy the collection. That is really what it's all about.

Which artist would you most like to meet if you could travel through time?

I guess it would have to be Scottie Wilson. And after him, maybe Henry Darger. Even though I lived three blocks from Henry—I may have seen him when I was a boy because he probably came into our store (in Chicago). I would have liked to know what was going through his mind, to write a 15,000-page fairy tale. And then, of course, Scottie: He has to be in the top of the most fascinating artists in the collection. He really was a bit of a rebel.


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