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The Museum of Art at Work

Off the Cuff with the Grohmann’s James Kieselburg

Aug. 30, 2016
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“One of a kind” is one of the English language’s most overworked phrases. However, when describing Milwaukee’s Grohmann Museum, the worn-out term speaks truly. The Grohmann is among the world’s only art museums focused on the subject of people at work and the places of their employment. Its galleries are filled with depictions of men and women toiling in fields and factories, studios and mines, offices and outdoors from late medieval through contemporary times. James R. Kieselburg II, with the museum since its inception, assumed his current role as director in 2011. Although the Grohmann is housed in a rather large and grand building, it operates with only three permanent staffers plus a crew of Milwaukee School of Engineering student workers.

So how unique is the Grohmann?

We’re very unique in our theme and collection. We’re certainly the only museum of our kind in this country, unless you consider the Steidle Collection at Pennsylvania State University, which is very small and focused on Pittsburgh.

And yet the subjects of the art we exhibit exist in every major museum collection. Many painters have been captivated by working scenes. I’ve often cultivated exhibitions by drawing on other collections. Locally, the Grohmann has collaborated with the Haggerty Museum, the County Historical Society and the Milwaukee Public Library.

What is your greatest challenge?

The Grohmann is part of a larger institution, the Milwaukee School of Engineering, and that could have kept us cloistered psychologically from the public. I made sure we had signage shouting: Public Welcome! We want people to come back after the first visit. To that end, we curate three or four feature exhibitions per year. Adding to this is that we continue to collect new pieces. The original thought was that the Grohmann would just house the permanent collection of over 1,000 art works donated to it by Dr. Eckhart Grohmann, but I was passionate that we needed to do more than that to draw repeat visitors…

Although we have a particular theme, we exhibit work in all media—painting, sculpture, photography, mixed media. For our exhibit on the Milwaukee Road, we included advertisements and ephemera along with fine art and photographs of engine shops in the Menomonee Valley and trains at full steam.

The one controversy surrounding the Grohmann concerned paintings made in Germany during the Nazi period.

It’s a matter of context. There’s nothing problematic about displaying the work as long as you lend context. There is nothing overtly propagandistic about a painting depicting the autobahn, a project begun before the Nazis took power. 

Next year is the Grohmann’s 10th anniversary. What’s planned?

Very important things starting with “Steel: The Cycle of an Industry,” an exhibition of photographs by the internationally renowned David Plowden. He did a series over a 23-year period on the steel industry, moving from mining to steel mills through the abandonment of the mills. We will have an exhibit called “Artists at Work” in collaboration with members of the Cedarburg Artists Guild. And to coincide with the 10th anniversary in October, we will mount “Masterworks from the Grohmann Museum”—my selection of the finest work from the collection, drawn from the 190 works chosen for Klaus Türk’s book of the same name. 

Meanwhile, you have an exhibition opening in September.

“On the Job: Photography by Jim Seder” is a series of portraits of Milwaukee area workers and their implements taken in the studio. Jim allowed the workers from various occupations to pose as they will—whether humorously or stoically. He gave them the latitude to control the dynamics.

“On the Job: Photography by Jim Seder” runs Sept. 9-Dec. 11 at the Grohmann Museum, 1000 N. Broadway. 

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