Art Museums in the 21st Century
As the 21st century accelerates into the future, are art museums—whose traditional mission has been to preserve the past—obliged to keep abreast, and, if so, how do they do this without diminishing their core objective?
We began thinking about this last summer at Villa Terrace as we sat on chairs worthy of a 17th-century hacienda, talking with John Sterr. Sterr is executive director of two Milwaukee art museums, Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum and the Charles Allis Art Museum, both housed in venerable structures. The historic setting overlooking Lake Michigan, seeming timeless as it glistened in the morning sun, helped us wonder about the paradoxical imperatives of preservation and innovation. One thing is evident: Museum programming is increasingly designed to echo the interests of distinct groups within the Milwaukee audience.
Recently, the Milwaukee Art Museum opened its first-ever exhibition by a young contemporary artist with a national reputation, Rashid Johnson. At the Haggerty and the Grohmann, much thought has been given to raising the museums’ profiles in the city. The Museum of Wisconsin Art, whose current building was dedicated this century, and the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, open since 2008 in a repurposed building, are exemplary of the trend toward art museums with specialized genre or regional foci.
Our city’s symbol—the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Quadracci Pavilion—reached out to the new millennium when it was completed in 2001. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the pavilion remains a bold architectural statement, enabled by technological advances in engineering and serving a dual role in housing exhibitions that honor the past while acknowledging the present.
The future? All of us have a role to play in writing it.
Editor, Fall Arts Guide
Assistant Editor, Fall Arts Guide
Charles Allis Art
Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum
When asked about the changing dynamics of art museums in the 21st century, John Sterr, executive director of Charles Allis and Villa Terrace, responds: “Collaboration. Museums can no longer see themselves as monolithic institutions. The key is to collaborate with other partners.”
For the Milwaukee County-owned institutions, the most obvious collaboration has been their membership in the Milwaukee Museum Mile to provide affordable “multiple museum experiences” on the East Side—a joint effort also involving the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, the Museum of Wisconsin Art at St. John’s on the Lake and North Point Lighthouse. The 2017 Milwaukee Museum Mile Day, held on Mother’s Day, offered free or reduced admissions and children’s activities at each of the five institutions. “A lot of families came out that day,” Sterr continues. And that’s the real key: bringing in new faces—especially people who enjoyed the tour enough to consider a return visit.
“It’s like in music—a scene happens when bands help each other. One success builds on another,” Sterr says. “Also, the more we can do together programming-wise, budget-wise, marketing-wise—collaboration takes pressure off the smaller museums.”
Other collaborations involve education. Shana McCaw, Charles Allis’ and Villa Terrace’s senior curator, is excited about her work with Rufus King High School’s international baccalaureate art program. “I’m talking to students, critiquing their portfolios; we chose work from their senior show to bring to Charles Allis,” she says.
Villa Terrace has also become a site for the performing arts—often site-specific performances. This summer’s Sculpt-cussion saw collaboration between art forms with Wild Space Dance Company and musicians Dave Bayles and Aaron Gardner interpreting the exhibit by visual artists Barbara Manger and Richard Taylor. Visitors to the mansion’s library could peruse a selection of books that inspired Manger and Taylor. A “play room” was set aside for people interested in making paper collages by way of exploring the creative process behind Manger’s monoprints.
“We’re providing an experience. We’re interested in tapping into different audiences,” McCaw says. “Each exhibition has several satellite programs. They are not always academic lectures but also things whole families can come to,” such as the “community meet-up run” organized in conjunction with the Allis exhibit of photographer Lois Bielefeld’s images of the Shorewood Girls Cross Country team.
Before becoming the Grohmann’s director, even before the new millennium began, James R. Kieselburg II was already thinking about the changing posture of art museums. As a museum studies instructor at UW-Milwaukee in the 1990s, Kieselburg was discussing the “Disneyesque conception of that time—museums as an experience blending education with entertainment.” He adds that, while the idea “wasn’t entirely wrong,” you won’t be greeted at the Grohmann’s door by Mickey Mouse or find flashy holograms of dead artists amid the museum’s unique collection depicting various fields of work and industry.
Kieselburg understands the Grohmann Museum as “community, not authority,” by which he means a shift away from the art museum’s traditional position as arbiter of taste toward a service role. “We serve the MSOE campus community but also the greater Milwaukee community.” An important aspect is in “supplemental education initiatives. With the abandonment of art education in many schools, museums can fill that role.”
The annual field trip as experienced by baby boomers, involving a standardized walk-through, no longer cuts it. Recent years have found Kieselburg tailoring tours to fit specific curriculums. For St. Robert Catholic School in Shorewood, he crafted a tour linking the Roman Church’s patron saints of professions and occupations to the art on display.
In the 21st century, Kieselburg concludes, museums must “strive to be more accessible, to use collections in new ways, to tell stories by previously unheard voices. It’s no longer just a matter of what we think you should know. We want to know what you are interested in, what your needs are as a visitor and how we can fill that role.”
Jewish Museum Milwaukee
The Jewish Museum Milwaukee opened this century with one eye on the past and the other on how to present that history in the present tense.
“We want people to relate to the stories we tell, to see themselves in those stories,” says Molly Dubin, the Jewish Museum’s curator. Had the museum opened 50 years ago, it might have consisted entirely of objects in glass cases and text panels on the walls. There almost certainly would have been less emphasis on art.
“Visual imagery is a more universal language—it can transcend the challenge of relating to particular times and events,” she explains. “In the past, museums weren’t as cognizant of whether the audience could see themselves in the story. Stories told visually help us to establish a connection with the viewer. If there’s no connection, there’s no experience.”
And experience is the operant word for museums in the present century—“engaging the viewer emotionally, viscerally,” Dubin says.
The variety of exhibitions mounted at the Jewish Museum testifies to changing definitions of art and the widening scope of offerings by art museums. The recent “Fabric of Survival” featured a series of textile panels illustrating the Nazi occupation of a Polish village by Holocaust survivor-outsider artist Esther Nisenthal Krintz. “Stitching History from the Holocaust” exhibited designs by Prague dressmaker Hedy Strnad, who perished under the Nazis.
“Art museums have a more important role than ever in providing art education as funding for public schools have been depleted,” Dubin adds. “Art is an integral part of the human experience. If children aren’t given opportunities to experience art, to be challenged by it, they are missing a huge part of the human experience.”
John Michael Kohler Arts Center
For Sam Gappmayer, director of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, there is no sharp divide between society at large and art museums. Trouble in the one may find treatment in the other.
“Our world is Balkanizing in ways that are frightening and dangerous. That’s clear from the American political landscape,” remarks Gappmayer, “I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish, and I certainly don’t think there’s a silver bullet solution, but I do believe that the arts unite people through shared experiences. In these divisive times, art is part of the glue holding us together.”
While art museums certainly serve as conservators of cultural artifacts, they celebrate not the objects themselves but the values these objects embody. “We are individually and collectively defined by what we choose to keep,” Gappmayer says, likening curatorial practice to the process of moving, “All sorts of decisions have to be made about the things we can jettison and those we can’t bear to part with. Similarly, museums demonstrate commonly held values, while also providing constructive forums for discussing where our values differ.”
Gappmayer’s background at other multidisciplinary arts institutions makes him an ideal director of the forward-thinking JMKAC, which he joined at the end of 2016. “In the early 2000s, there was a pivot point when museums realized that they needed to be more than just antiquated cabinets of curiosity,” he says, “The John Michael Kohler Arts Center strives to engage people in other meaningful ways. Our collection is especially strong in artist-built environments. There is spontaneity, joy and directness that distinguish the experience of these environments from traditional art objects.”
Milwaukee Art Museum
In August 2016, when Marcelle Polednik became the first Donna and Donald Baumgartner Director of the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM), the institution was emerging from a $34 million project of renovation and expansion that marked the beginning of a new era. Such a momentous undertaking was the result of reflection about the task of an art museum in the 21st century. That Polednik was hired over dozens of other candidates suggests that hers was the most compelling view.
“The purpose of the museum in the 21st century is to be a place of inspiration and contemplation—a place for learning, reverie and connection between the arts and our everyday lives,” says Polednik. And life in the 21st century presents conditions that make the art museum experience all the more important: “In this age of instantaneity and growing technological sophistication, the art museum provides something increasingly rare: a tangible, material connection to some of the most significant forms of expression ever made by humans, whether centuries ago or just this year. The mandate of the museum is to be that connective tissue that binds the experience of humanity over time, or even at any one moment in time.”
The art museum of the 21st century also contributes to communication in and between communities. “At their best, museums are seats of important community dialogue,” says Polednik, “ones that challenge us to consider different voices and interpretations, and to spark and fuel the discourse that makes us a better society, better individuals and better civilizations.” As forums for dialogue and debate, art museums not only preserve the past, they shape the future. “I am also drawn to the fact that museums are not just repositories of human knowledge and achievement; they must become the catalysts of future knowledge and achievement, too. In so doing, the relevance of the Milwaukee Art Museum has never been greater.”
Museum of Wisconsin Art
For decades, West Bend’s Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) occupied a modest dwelling for its unique collection. In 2013, it moved to a new facility: a compact, wedge-shaped structure situated on a triangular plot along the Milwaukee River designed by Milwaukee’s James Shields of HGA Architects.
Executive Director Laurie Winters believes that MOWA’s smaller scale encourages experiments. “We really like trying new things, and at the top of that list is our groundbreaking membership strategy, which has proven to be very successful,” she says. “Even more important is reducing or eliminating barriers. Museums can be expensive places, so wherever we can, we want to make it affordable or free.”
To that end, MOWA offers a large number of programs for all ages, including a wide variety of artist talks. “When we think about our master classes for adults and kids, we consider what [we can offer] that gives people an opportunity to engage in a different way,” Winters continues. “It can be everything from tie-dye to furniture re-upholstery to doll making.”
For MOWA, being situated in West Bend—or in any one place—is not enough. “The other thing we’re doing is thinking of the museum as extended—having tentacles into different areas of the state,” Winters explains. We do a lot in Downtown Milwaukee, including MOWA on the Lake, and we did a pop-up exhibition at the Pfister Hotel. I think we’ll be doing more of that kind of thing, taking people to places where they might not have been before.”
Racine Art Museum
The Racine Art Museum boasts the nation’s largest and most significant collection of contemporary craft. This specialty marks RAM as a decidedly 21st-century institution since, not so long ago, such a focus would have been inconceivable for a “serious” art museum. “Museums in the 21st century are breaking down the hierarchies that dictated collections in the 19th and 20th centuries,” explains Bruce Pepich, RAM’s executive director and curator of collections, “There used to be the view that painting is the ‘best’ of the arts while works on paper are less important, and decorative arts are exhibited in the basement, if at all. RAM leads with decorative arts and works on paper—usually regarded as ‘poor stepchildren’ by most museums.”
RAM marshals its collection to satisfy the public’s growing curiosity about the folkways of yesteryear. “The museum thrives on adventurous displays that unite different arts from the same time period—opening a window into the past and giving viewers a taste of what it was like to live in the world of these artists and collectors,” Pepich says, making reference to RAM’s collection of 1930s art from the WPA’s (Works Progress Administration) Federal Art Project.
“Interestingly, as our world becomes more technologically oriented, there is a growing interest in hand-wrought work, like knitting and ceramics,” he continues. “Since RAM has the nation’s largest collection of contemporary crafts, we’re in a good position to exhibit these works.”
Pepich also notes changes in the ways art museums advertise in the 21st century. “Because of concerns about copyright issues, we used to prohibit photography in the galleries. Now, we actively encourage people to take pictures and to share them on social media. Museums are recognizing that this is one of the best ways to promote themselves and the artists they represent.”