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Off The Cuff with Patti Sherman-Cisler

Sep. 8, 2015
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Patti Sherman-Cisler began her tenure as the Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s second executor director on June 15. Born in Whitefish Bay and educated in Wisconsin, Sherman-Cisler has spent her professional career with major regional cultural institutions such as the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, the Milwaukee Public Museum and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. After almost three months of settling into her new position, Off the Cuff sat down with Sherman-Cisler to discuss her background and the future of the JMM.

What is the mission of the JMM?

PS-C: Well, there are a number of different components, but, in short, the JMM tells the story of the Jewish community’s religion and culture by way of our collection of materials. Many stories are Milwaukee based but they are also of wider significance. Our current exhibition on baseball, “Chasing Dreams,” is a great illustration. We take broad themes and then dig deeper in exhibition programming. As part of “Chasing Dreams” we held a four-part series on women in baseball involving lectures, films and an 89-year-old former All-American female ballplayer. Basically, “Chasing Dreams” presents the ways that baseball has been at the forefronts of social change on issues of gender and race equality.

What are the responsibilities of the executive director of the JMM and how have your previous positions prepared you for this new role?

PS-C: The JMM is only seven years old and our previous executive director, Kathie Bernstein, did the yeoman’s work of getting the place up and running, building amazing collections, hiring the initial staff, etc. We are a growing organization so there’s always fundraising to be done. We’d like to improve our use of social media in marketing and growing our audience base. The stories that are told in this museum are relevant for people of Jewish faith—but the story lines have a broader relevance to the public. My past positions have acquainted me with various management strategies, taught me how to work well with others and how to build community partnerships.

Digging deeper into your past—you have a degree in anthropology from UW-Milwaukee. How has this influenced your life path and current position?

PS-C: Anthropology opens your heart and mind to different ways of looking at the world. It also demands that you get rid of your preconceived notions about others. Methodologically speaking, cultural anthropologists engage in participant observation—learning how a cultural system operates by becoming immersed in a group. That’s what I have been doing for the past few months at the JMM, especially because I am not Jewish.

What does the Jewish Museum have in store for the fall?

At this point, the JMM’s curator, Molly Dubin serendipitously walked by with marketing materials for the next exhibition.
MD: “Southern Exposure: the Jews of Argentina Inclusion/Exclusion” examines the historical happenings that gave rise to a substantial Jewish community in Argentina. The Russian pogroms of the 1880s and the Holocaust, for instance, were major influences on immigration. “Southern Exposure” will look at the emergence of Jewish cowboy culture and other incredible contributions in dance, music, food and literature.

PS-C: We do a lot of this research ourselves. When Molly is talking about Argentina, she has done this research. For our last exhibition, “Stitching History,” all the sleuthing was done here. The JMM is a little intellectual powerhouse. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work here.

What are your plans for the JMM?

PS-C: Some of it is operational—not terribly exciting stuff but necessary for growth. We’d like to update some of our technology, so I’ll be raising money for that. We’ll keep developing the programming around our exhibitions and we’re beginning to send our exhibitions on tours around the nation. Otherwise, we’ll keep developing poignant exhibitions from out of our collections.

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