Three ways to celebrate MAM’s 125th Anniversary show
Milwaukee Art Museum's 125th anniversary: A panorama from the Layton Gallery through the Calatrava addition and beyond.
How are museums born?
Museums, by name and reputation, may feel as if they’ve been around forever. This gives rise to the stereotype of dusty old places of hushed silence and staid beliefs.
But peel away the layers and you often find the driving vision that first set things in motion. You meet the individual with a wild belief in something that could benefit a community rather than mere private enjoyment.
So it is with the Milwaukee Art Museum. This year, MAM celebrates its 125th anniversary with three exhibitions that tell its story in various ways.
Between 1880 and 1890, Milwaukee experienced a huge population boom, growing from 115,587 to 204,468 inhabitants. Around this time, English-born businessman Frederick Layton established a public art gallery in Milwaukee, the first of its kind to firmly take root in the city. As described during a recent MAM tour, it was a way to “shake off the reputation [of Milwaukee] as the wild west in order to get a little culture.”
Interesting how similar this idea is to today’s notion of cities as places of cultural capital and the correlation between a vibrant artistic scene and economic and civic health. Layton’s ambitions of opening a gallery and donating his art collection to the city formed the nucleus of what would eventually become the Milwaukee Art Museum.
The journey from the nascent days of the Layton Art Gallery through the incarnation as MAM are showcased in the exhibition in the Baumgartner Galleria,125 Years of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Ample documents, including photographs, news clippings, gallery ephemera and videos, all augmented by wall displays, mark the timeline of the museum’s history.
The mix of materials, from facsimiles of 19th-century documents to embedded video screens and a live feed from one of the galleries, suggest the aims of the museum as breaking out of the old-fashioned box. Yet the institutional memory is thoroughly honored, and includes special tribute to longtime museum educator Barbara Brown Lee, who is retiring after 50 years. The future of MAM is foreshadowed with a look ahead to the proposed atrium on the east side of the Kahler addition.
The exhibition’s instructive chronological path takes advantage of the long form of the galleria, the main avenue to the core galleries. The intent is to slow that passage and invite visitors to pause to absorb the many decades of the museum’s story.
125 Years of the Milwaukee Art Museum, on the galleria stroll, focuses on the architectural and physical home of the museum and its contents. The exhibition on the museum’s lower level, Layton Art Collection: 1888-2013, explores the curatorial vision that shaped the founder’s initial collection.
It opens fittingly with Eastman Johnson’s full-length portrait of Frederick Layton. The picture conveys irreproachable dignity warmed by gentle demeanor. Layton emigrated to Milwaukee from Britain and made his fortune in meatpacking with partner John Plankinton. He was a well-traveled man, having crossed the Atlantic Ocean 99 times — before air travel. Layton died in 1919, but his collection outlived him and took on its own spirit and future. Ars longa vita brevis.
The guiding hand behind this progression belongs to a succession of curators, committees and directors. One of the most notable was Charlotte Partridge, who took charge of the collection in 1922 and founded the Layton School of Art in the basement of the gallery. Her imprint persists in the selection of Wisconsin artists she championed and the modernistic aesthetic she promoted.
The ensuing decades saw the transformation of the Layton collection, as the Layton Gallery merged with the Milwaukee Art Institute. The organization moved from the downtown location near Cathedral Square to the Eero Saarinen-designed Milwaukee County War Memorial Center in 1957.
In the 1970s, the Layton Collection shifted course with the support of notable collectors. Curators began focusing on the decorative arts — textiles, ceramics and pottery, furniture, and other items of exquisite craftsmanship and functional purpose. While this exhibition is also organized chronologically, the underlying theme emphasizes the contributions of individuals and how their vision of the collection has shaped its character over time.
125 Years of the Milwaukee Art Museum and Layton Art Collection: 1888-2013 takes a macro look at the evolution the museum. Mr. Layton’s Gallery, on display in the heart of the museum’s main level, is a concentrated micro-view that recreates the Layton experience of the late 19th and early 20th century. In those Victorian times, it was common to stack pictures from low on the wall to near the ceiling, with large and small works arranged like artistic puzzle pieces. The rich red wall color also reflects the style of the time. Many images in this gallery have been in storage for years; for a time, they will hang along such Layton stars as Winslow Homer’s Hark! The Lark and William Bouguereau’s Homer and his Guide.
Perhaps it’s the novelty of this jostling arrangement, but it seems rather contemporary in a world in which multitudes of unrelated images confront us daily. Our eyes dance across the pieces, resting briefly to observe details, then moving on. The visual excitement of multiplicity is transfixing.
The physical centerpiece of the gallery is Gaetano Trentanove’s The Last of the Spartans. The luminous white marble of the warrior fallen on his shield is a silently gripping drama. Despite its hulking size, it seemed lost in some earlier installations. Here, with the dark walls as background, the pristine sculpture comes alive with expressive force. The Last of the Spartans has never looked better. Like the rest of the Layton collection and legacy, the Spartan has aged well.