Judith Ann Moriarty
City People

Nicholas Frank

An artist, gallery director and teacher, Frank has been a huge asset for Milwaukee’s cultural community.

By - Oct 9th, 2013 12:05 pm
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Nicholas Frank in front of a painting by Tom Uttech. Photo by Tara Bogart.

Nicholas Frank in front of a painting by Tom Uttech. Photo by Tara Bogart.

In the small Iowa town where my formative years took place, the closest thing to “art” was a life-sized hog fashioned from Fiberglass. The black and white hog marked the entrance to the town, where hogs were king. It was an early version of DIY, homespun to the core. It had purpose. Recently, the porker icon was replaced with a more serious form of signage, a blah upgrade ostensibly designed to give my old hometown a sense of worth.

I left Iowa 50 years ago and life eventually took me into publishing and editing Art Muscle Magazine at 10th & National.

When Nicholas Frank walked through our door, I put him to work designing ads.

It’s my recollection that he shortly thereafter asked (or perhaps demanded), that I turn an entire issue over to him. I resisted like crazy, for what could a 28-year-old who arrived on a bike, possibly know about publishing? Riverwest, his home base, where was that, I wondered.

Nicholas Frank's Art Muscle Issue.  Cover by Mikulay.

Nicholas Frank’s Art Muscle Issue. Cover by Michael Mikulay.

Eventually I caved, and when his issue came forth, it featured a cover of a Milwaukee map, drawn by Michael Mikulay. Gallery owner Dean Jensen proclaimed it the best Art Muscle ever. It took me down a peg or two.

The only thing I knew for sure about Frank was he had a lot of nerve and a mop of black curls, but I soon learned he was a hard worker who worked for chicken feed. Because my art snob head was in the clouds, up there somewhere with splendid museums and big time galleries and far from that porker image in Iowa, it never occurred to me that my new hire was an artist trying to make his way in what was a fairly closed circuit of art stars. He was anxious to get his work exhibited and had his sights set on Metropolitan Gallery a few blocks to the east, but the gallery closed before he had the opportunity. For those of you who remember, it was run by Kent Mueller, and there’s seldom been another like it.

Art Muscle Magazine gave the artists something to rally ‘round.  Julie Lindemann and John Shimon (currently teaching at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin) contributed intelligent text and insightful photographs to the magazine, and now and then urban guy philosopher, Tom Bamberger, enlivened the pages. During my tenure, I gave little or (frankly) no thought to what it meant to be an artist, other than the artists I knew mostly wanted to be “stars.” We all have our dreams.

Frank still has a mop of black (not dyed) curls, and he still looks like the slender kid who rode his bike to the Art Muscle office. He has managed to retain his zest, and over the years, he’s developed as a fine writer, a curator, and an artist, who teaches in the Integrated Studio Arts Program at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design where he is also developing new ideas for the school’s core classes. Along the way, he honed his skills when he ran and shaped exhibitions (2006-2011) for the Institute of Visual Arts (Inova). In 2006 he co-founded the Milwaukee International, a group of artists and gallery owners who work to connect Milwaukee’s art scene to the world. From 1993-2001 he ran his baby, the Hermetic Gallery, but the spotlight was never on him per se.

His parents both came from farming stock (his dad from Wisconsin; his mother from Canada). Born in 1967, he grew up around 39th & Glendale when white flight was just taking wing. His parents believed in living in the city, and his mother still lives in Milwaukee, in a little place on the south side. One of Frank’s brothers is a rocket scientist who began his career with NASA; and his other brother (a musician), lived here until a recent move to Colorado.

I learned all of this while interviewing him. He arrived dead tired from teaching and meetings, and scheduling changes, and following our interview, he headed back to MIAD for yet more work. I re-fueled his tired self by offering garden-fresh tomatoes grown without pesticides, and watered with rainwater. We ate at a table centered with a small minimalist wedge of black walnut. It was a test of sorts; I wanted to see if he recognized it. “You bought that at the General Store, an early DIY gallery in Riverwest,” he said. “It’s by Andrew Swant.” He was right. We talked about “success” and what that word means to artists.

Frank admitted that he still has dreams about being someone akin to a Damien Hirst or a Duchamp. But that isn’t who he is. Nicholas Frank is about community and how best to enliven the community where he lives. He reminded me that those artists we perceive to be stars were nurtured by communities. He brought that idea to the forefront in a recent exhibition at the Lawton Gallery at UW-Green Bay. In it, he paid homage to those stalwarts who embraced the DIY ethic by taking their future into their own hands. This isn’t a new idea, but it’s one worth remembering. His show was called “Milwaukeeists: 1996-2006.” It closed on October 3, but if you’d like a free catalogue printed in the accordion style, contact Stephen Perkins, the Senior Academic Curator of Art at the Lawton Gallery, at perkins@uwgb.edu. “He exhibits work in his bathroom” Frank quipped.

Frank says he’d love to tour this show (Paris! Berlin!). “If we had more time and more money, the exhibition could be expanded and be more inclusive,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “perhaps it could include some old Milwaukeeists and new Milwaukeeists.”

And his mission in teaching MIAD students, those who are heavily influenced by the idea of being “art stars?” He says it’s true some students are wowed by the celebrity culture surrounding art, and he hopes he can teach them it’s far more important to be part of a community, local and global, of artists. No one has exemplified that approach more than Nicholas Frank.

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