Kat Murrell

Dean Jensen Gallery 25th Anniversary Show

Dean Jensen went from art critic to gallery owner 25 years ago. He reflects on the journey.

By - Nov 4th, 2012 04:00 am
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Dean Jensen

Dean Jensen has been a fixture in the Milwaukee art scene for decades, first as a writer then as a gallery owner. His gallery features some of the best in contemporary work, from artists of renowned international reputations to emerging artists with promising careers. Jensen talked with TCD’s Kat Murrell on his transformation from critic to dealer, the love of art, and not getting hopes up too soon for a new BMW.

What made you decide to open an art gallery?


“Favored,” by Tyanna Buie, one of 25 artists in Dean Jensen Gallery Silver Anniversary Show. Photo courtesy of the gallery.

I had been a writer at the [Milwaukee Sentinel] newspaper, a critic. In the 1985-86 academic year I won a fellowship to the University of Michigan for critical writing, even though most of my studies were concentrated in Italian art. Some of the great scholars in the world were there. Then, I came back to the newspaper after having a wonderful year in Ann Arbor. Almost from the instant I got off the elevator at the newspaper on the first day back, I started plotting to get out of there. Before a year was out I was doing this kind of thing. I started the gallery in October of ’87.

Did you have an idea of what artists you wanted to work with?

No, I was pretty vague at that point yet. I mean, contemporary art was what I was going to handle. I wasn’t going to be handling any Leonardos, despite my studies.

The first show I did was a New York painter. I just moved forward from there. From the start pretty much, I handled both regional people as well as artists who were “blue chip” — artists like Chuck Close, Aaron Siskind, Kiki Smith. They blended in with what I thought


“Nemo Librizzi,” by Julian Schnabel, from the Dean Jensen Gallery 25th anniversary show. Photo courtesy of the gallery.

were some better regional people. I also did a lot with the Chicago Imagists — Roger Brown, [Ed] Paschke, Jim Nutt. One of the virtues of working in a city like Milwaukee, operating a gallery here, your specialty doesn’t have to be too narrow. You can kind of follow your bliss. That’s pretty much what I’ve done over the years.

Is there a certain show or artist that has been particularly memorable?

Many of them. There was a very fine figurative artist who was here the first several years I was operating the gallery. I wasn’t in this place [downtown] but in the Third Ward. Ann Gale. The first time I saw her work was at MIAD. She was teaching there. Her husband, a classical guitarist, took a job at the Wisconsin Conservatory so they moved here from the East. [Gale is now based in Seattle.] What was memorable about Ann is that I did three shows, each of them was a sell out. Never had that experience before or since. That was pretty exciting.

My first show was with Peter Dean. The first painting I sold, I think, was $8,000. This was in ’87, it was a large painting. And I thought, “Oh god, what the hell were you doing at the newspaper all those years?” I thought I was going to have a new BMW in about three months (chuckles). It just fell off after that. Those first years were extended white knuckle periods for me. But overall it’s been great.

What do you love the best about running your gallery?

I love coming in here each day. It’s almost like entering a cathedral for me, something almost religious, being around the work. That’s why I keep at it.

25 for 25: Silver Anniversary Exhibition features work from twenty-five artists. The exhibition continues at Dean Jensen Gallery (759 N. Water Street) through December 1, 2012.

For a complete list of TCD stories by Kat Murrell, click on her red byline at the top of the page.

Categories: A/C Feature 3, Art

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