“Milwaukee Art Museum

Thoughtless or Naive?” A response …

By - Oct 29th, 2007 02:52 pm
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“I’m starting to feel sorry for the Milwaukee Art Museum,” writes Debra Brehmer in the latest edition of Susceptible to Images in an article discussing the recent controversy surrounding MAM’s marketing campaign for its current showcase exhibition, Martín Ramírez.

First off, full disclosure: I worked at the Milwaukee Art Museum for nine months before signing on at VITAL, although as the Tour Scheduler, I had little to do with much of anything besides scheduling tours. But I did sit in on programming, education and marketing meetings, and watched the process of planning a show, a marketing campaign, and a schedule of coordinating events unfold from beginning to end.

The complaint amongst scholars, dealers and other professionals in the academic art world, according to Brehmer, is the Museum’s “ham-fisted approach” in marketing the exhibition. Ramírez immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the 1920s and spent most of his life in a mental institution, where he created stunning, densely rendered, nearly visionary drawings on paper. Today, after decades of misunderstandings about his life, his illness (there is little proof that he had one), his biography and his work, experts in “vernacular” and “outsider” art want people to just shut up already about these tantalizing but irrelevant mythologies — which serve, ultimately, to maintain a barrier between “insider” and “outsider” — and give him what he really deserves: critical attention on the basis of his art, and his art alone.

MAM’s advertising strategy, it seems, is to tantalize, with lots of color and motion, teasingly dramatic slogans, and binary proposals — “VICTIM OR HERO?” “TRIUMPH OR TRAGEDY?” — all strung together with an ultimatum for the viewer: YOU DECIDE. Does it all seem a little forced? A little too simple? Sure it does.

“Would we do this with Van Gogh’s work?,” asks New York Gallery dealer Phyllis Kind. No, we wouldn’t. There would be no need. Everyone knows Van Gogh, his sunflowers, his night skies, and the dubious stories that continue to rivet — his poverty, his lunacy, his ear. “Would the museum take the same liberties with the work of Picasso?” Brehmer asks. No, it would not, although I can’t tell you how many people, during MAM’s summer exhibition of French impressionist Camille Pissarro’s early work, asked to schedule tours to see Picasso.

Martín Ramírez isn’t there yet. He should be, but he’s not.

So many people right now feel so disconnected from art. At the Museum I had countless conversations with urban school teachers who wanted to bring their students for tours or programs, but faced hurdles with funding, scheduling buses, or taking time out of their rigidly structured curricula. I once received a hand-written note from a kid in Kenosha who missed a field trip because his parents had not allowed him to come to the Museum, although he wrote that he enjoys frequent Brewers and Admirals games in the city. I have young professional friends who have never been to the Art Museum for no real reason besides their doubts about what they would gain from a visit.

The Milwaukee Art Museum consulted a multicultural marketing agency (not an agency of marketing professionals who happen to be Hispanic) to reach out to the underserved Latino demographic in our community that might be especially moved and awed by the work of Ramírez. The people running MAM are not blind — they know the perception of the Museum as the big, old, quite literally white institutional gorilla on Milwaukee’s art scene, not the site of its Renaissance but the fount of its at-times-narrow tradition. With Ramírez, they saw an opportunity to at least soften this perception, if not to radically correct it.

As I read Brehmer’s article I thought about Roberta Smith and the free-for-all pledge she advocated in this New York Times editorial. Brehmer writes:

“Although all art museums are now in the business of salesmanship as well as scholarship and most seem desperate to reach broader and broader audiences, a museum’s job is to heighten the level of cultural experience for the masses, not to stoop to the level of the mass media.”

But museums SHOULD be desperate to reach broader audiences. I am aligned with Smith’s opinions that art museums should be like public libraries, that “like books, artworks are tools for lifelong self-education; it is through them that we discover and explore important aspects of our humanness. They should be equally available to all, for the good of the individual and society as a whole.”

Smith is talking about museum entrance fees specifically, but I believe her argument pertains to wider questions of accessibility as well. The Milwaukee Art Museum is nowhere near striking their $14 feature exhibition entrance fee from the register (that’s another conversation), so until they can, they had better convince people — all sorts of people — that their hard-earned $14 is worth spending to see art. If frenetic, vaguely childish and reductionist marketing campaigns prove to be effective in serving that goal, so be it. Once people see the art, the art speaks for itself — at which point it is up to the audience, as the MAM marketing team puts it, to decide for themselves whether or not it is even useful to talk about victims, heroes, triumphs, tragedies, or anything else.

This isn’t about cowing to the lowest common denominator — it’s about speaking in the advertising language that people have been trained to understand about issues that really should matter but don’t seem to capture anyone’s imagination. It’s not about “stooping to the level of the mass media” — but wouldn’t that be nice? Specials on local TV news channels about art in Milwaukee — and not just at MAM? How else to reach the masses but through the media? And don’t the masses deserve to know?

To suggest that somehow art is “above” such things, or that “insiders” (like the folks at MAM — or like art critics) have to maintain a boundary of deference when they present “outsider” work, does little to dissolve those imaginary and likely useless categories. And to imply that the Art Museum should be primarily concerned with its international reputation when many of the city’s citizens feel decidedly lukewarm about what they’re doing is just egregious.

I do hope that MAM can do a better job of presenting the intrigue, the subtlety and the rapture of their next hard-to-sell exhibition — as well as the “hook.” But I care a lot more about who’s getting through the doors to see what’s up in there than I do about their marketing tactics and whether or not they are dumb.

In other news, I was lucky enough to be invited to the final dress rehearsal of Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell, presented by the Milwaukee Dance Theatre. Even with an actor missing, the show was revelatory — muted, sensitive, riotously funny, personal and touching. Gray’s widow composed the piece for five actors, cobbling together pieces of his monologues, letters and journals to trace the arc of his life; during the talkback, we discussed how it was in a way a reimagination of Gray’s role in the theatre, a radical presentation of his monologues as works of drama and not just charmingly dark and plaintive personal musings. I have little previous contact with the work of Spalding Gray (his monologues sounded to me as though they’ve influenced the work of David Sedaris) so I wonder how the show would play differently for a devotee. If you’re curious, too, call the Off Broadway Theatre at 414-961-6119. The show runs through November 10.

PS: I am really sick of people referring to Martinifest when they whine about the Museum. People have been getting way too drunk since the dawn of time. Bad judgment? Yes. Still worth talking about? Not in my book.

Categories: VITAL

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