Milwaukee Art and Hope
“My life makes sense because of what people did before me,” my friend Jane Brite concluded after sketching for me, on the eve of her 81st birthday, the major chapters of her life in service to Wisconsin art and artists.
Are you an artist?
I never made art. My grandmother was a well-known decorator in Chicago; my grandfather was an architect. All my aunts are artists. I love to tell the story of going with my older brother to the Chicago Art Institute every Saturday morning. I sat there while he took the class. But I did get the sense for it.
How did you join the art world?
We moved to Milwaukee my freshman year at Whitefish Bay High School. I went to a women’s college in Washington, D.C., then got married in Germany after my fiancé got drafted. He was an engineer so they put him to work on atomic bombs in a cave near Frankfurt. I’m not sure that didn’t have something to do with him getting MS later. After his service we lived on Farwell Avenue. Lots of artists lived on that block and one friend asked me to volunteer at the Milwaukee Art Center, now MAM. They had that Gallery of Wisconsin Art on the third floor of the War Memorial. So I became a docent in 1962. Docents took classes once a week as long as you were a docent. And I took art history classes at UW-Milwaukee.
And became the director of that gallery?
And expanded it. I would go around the state to universities and colleges and I would say, I want to meet other artists in your community who aren’t connected with your school, and they were very nice about it. I would do that every year—half the state one year and the other half the next. So I really got to know a lot of Wisconsin artists. I started bringing artists from all over the state instead of only the Milwaukee area. I started doing one or two-man shows with catalogues. It was just a small part of what the museum did, one little section.
And the Lakefront Festival of the Arts?
I didn’t do it my first year, but for many years after I organized all the art of it. I chose the jurors. A friend of mine worked at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., and I had him come as a juror and that brought a lot of artists because that’s an opportunity for them; if they see the work, they might want to use it. From then on I brought national jurors and it became one of the better art fairs in the country.
You started Gallery Night!
I did a big show and catalogue at the Art Museum in 1986 on fiber art called “Fiber R/Evolution.” I knew Chicago had a gallery night. We checked it out and did a gallery night for the fiber show. And it lasted.
The next year you became the founding director of Walker’s Point Center for the Arts.
Steve Chicorel and his mother, Phyllis, got the building and hired me. They had a dream to help the neighborhood develop. I was happy I could do performance art there, too, because it was new then. I was there about 12 years. It took a while to build, took a while for that community to feel comfortable with it. Probably we should have had more Latin shows early on but that’s not so easy to access. We started an after-school children’s program for the neighborhood. Marlene Jaglinski and I wrote a book from that, Art After School. It’s still on Amazon and it still sells. It’s got five stars.
There was a flood in Louisiana and they brought victims here to the State Fair grounds. A friend of mine asked if someone could find a muralist so the victims could do a mural. I know a muralist from Green Bay and he came and did one with them. That started me bringing artists to the homeless shelters. That’s what I do now. It’s called Milwaukee Art and Hope. We go in for six weeks. The first two or three weeks, the residents learn how to make what we’re going to make. They get to keep those pieces. Then we make a piece that stays in the shelter. And I also work with at-risk teenagers at a wonderful place on MLK Drive called the Milwaukee Center for Children and Youth. We do after-school and summer art programs for kids who are in trouble in many ways, to help them straighten out.
Why do this?
It comes from my background. I had a very socially conscious family. It’s better than to go around doing nothing to make the world better. I’ve seen how art makes a difference in people’s lives. I feel lucky that I’ve had these opportunities fall into my lap. I love working with Wisconsin artists. I love how the artists and the kids learn from each other. It changes lives on both sides.