October 2007 Archives

I was caught off guard by this recent story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about a new museum that opened this month at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE). As far as I can tell, there has been no coverage of this new museum here in Madison. The Grohmann Museum, built around the theme of "Man at Work" and the celebration of physical labor, includes a number of artworks "made to glorify the construction projects of the Nazi regime," in the words of the article by architecture/urban spaces writer Whitney Gould and visual art writer Mary Louise Schumacher.

Chief among these artists is Erich Mercker, a painter commissioned directly by the Nazi government. His works make up 81 pieces of the nearly 700-piece collection donated to MSOE by Eckhart Grohmann, described as a Milwaukee industrialist.

My goal here is not to rehash Gould and Schumacher's well-written and informative piece; I recommend you read it yourself (here's that story link again: "Art with Nazi links raises questions for new museum"). The crux is this: "Curators and scholars generally agree that exhibiting works made for the Nazis is not, unto itself, egregious, but whitewashing the history is. Museums, they say, should be explicit about where artworks were made and under what circumstances, particularly when sensitive issues are involved." As you'll find out if you read Gould and Schumacher's article, collector/donor Grohmann, his wife Ischi and the museum's director (John Kopmeier, who has no art background) do not seem interested in pursuing the thorny questions involved in displaying art that, in some cases, may depict forced labor. In fact, they seem dismissive.

While I think it's a wonderful thing that visual art will have a place at a private engineering college, putting art on the walls with no sense of context or encouragement of critical thought seems inconsistent with the spirit of academic inquiry. To borrow a bit of jargon from the educational world, a "teachable moment" is being passed over here.

I don't wish to impugn the motives of anyone involved in the new Grohmann Museum; that would be irresponsible since I know little about the Grohmanns or MSOE's leadership. But how Nazi-sponsored art could be presented in an uncritical fashion is a little mind-boggling. MSOE seems to have moved ahead with little advice or guidance in presenting visual art, and there are certainly plenty of places they could have turned for help. Close to home, they could have sought help from the Milwaukee Art Museum, which has a substantial collection of German art. They also could have turned to scholars in the German, history or art history departments at the UW-Madison, where there are numerous faculty with expertise in the area of Nazi cultural policy. These are just two ideas among many, of course.

This seems to be a case of what can happen when institutions get too cozy with collectors and/or donors, and when an educational institution doesn't apply its teaching mission to its own programming.

None of this is to say that the Grohmann collection shouldn't be exhibited; I'd like to see it myself. It sounds like there are some gems in the collection, including a painting by Max Liebermann, a major figure in German art who was also Jewish (and, tragically, whose wife was driven to suicide to avoid deportation to a concentration camp). Pieter Brueghel the Younger is also represented. (I should note here that the work of Erich Mercker and a few other artists with Nazi patronage does not make up the bulk of this collection as I understand it.) The question, of course, is how the collection should be exhibited.

Milwaukee has the potential to strengthen its position as a place to see and study German art. The Milwaukee Art Museum gained national attention with its 2006 Biedermeier exhibition organized in conjunction with several European institutions. It was a gorgeous, historically important show that traveled to Vienna, Berlin and Paris. And, as previously mentioned, the museum's permanent collection includes significant holdings in German art, especially 19th-century. But the current situation at MSOE is not helping, and it is dispiriting coming from a place of learning. Let's hope the school and the museum's leadership rethink questions of historical context and the responsible display of visual art. It's not too late.

(And for further reading... here's more background on the Grohmann Museum by Mary Louise Schumacher: "A Working Tribute: Grohmann Museum honors labor of 'Man'")

UPDATE added Nov. 5: Here's a new piece by Whitney Gould from the Nov. 4 Milwakee Journal Sentinel: "Without context, 'Man at Work' is a work in progress." Here's Ms. Gould's concluding paragraph: "I'm not urging that the Nazi-era works be censored, rather that the museum acquire the expertise to research and disclose the lineage of all its holdings, so that viewers can judge them intelligently. As part of an academic institution, the museum should welcome such scrutiny. What a wonderful teaching tool: art that sheds light not only on the nature of work but on one of the darkest chapters in human history."

October 31, 2007 12:30 PM | | Comments (2)

Art is an intensely local experience. But what arts organizations really put local considerations front and center when they design their programming, educational strategies, and other activities?

I'm not writing to tell you the answer. I'm honestly just throwing the question out there. I'll admit, there's a personal reason to ask: I'm doing a freelance piece for Inside Arts magazine, about this very topic. I'm looking to tell the stories of arts organizations that employ strategies that reflect the peculiar local circumstances of their communities. It's a broad examination of how local demographics, geography, and so-on influence the identity of specific arts organizations. I know some examples, but I want to hear more.

So in a sense, this post is a solicitation. But I suspect it's also the lead-off for further discussion here.

I'll throw out one example that I believe does a fine job of focusing on its local circumstances: the Missoula Art Museum. For one thing, the museum's programming is intensely local and contemporary. Indeed, touring shows and exhibits of work by artists from outside a half-day drive from here are the exception rather than the rule. They've also employed strategies such as their popular Artini series to capitalize on the peculiar demographics of this town.

Who else does this well? I'd love to hear.

October 26, 2007 8:34 AM | | Comments (2)

Critics are trained to think of themselves as objective observers of shows. While we strive to be receptive to what we see, we are also constantly analyzing and setting aside our personal feelings and any potential baggage.

It was that need for emotional distance that had me questioning a few weeks ago whether I should ask my editor to reassign the review I was scheduled to do. It wasn't a matter of my having any sort of personal connection with the show or anyone in it. Rather, my grandfather was in the late stages of cancer and we had been told he would likely die within the week. Would I be able to properly review a musical farce about two Wisconsin ice fishermen if I had to go the day my grandfather died? After discussing it with my editor, we decided that I would go ahead with the previous plans to attend the show and write the review.

The show was superbly done--which didn't surprise me as so far everything Williamston Theatre has done in the two years of their existence has been superb--and I found myself deeply drawn into the show. Some of this was because one of the two main actors reminded me a great deal of my grandfather, a man who loved his fishing. When the musical turned serious and started talking about how short our life is here on earth and how unexpectedly it could end, I cried through the entire song.

A few hours after getting home from the musical, I learned that my grandfather had died. Almost immediately I blogged about both the musical and his death. It's one of the wonderful things about blogs, you can write personal things that would likely never be appropriate for a newspaper. This is especially true given that my blog isn't associated with the newspaper in any way.

As I mourned for the next few days, I found myself faced with writing the review. I had to do a fair amount of soul-searching. Should I disqualify myself from writing the review because I had such a deep, emotional connection based on personal events? Could I honestly saying that I was being objective and unbiased?

Eventually, the answer that I came up with was that as a theater critic, I'm not required to put my humanity into deep freeze. The reader loses no value in a review simply because I am able to connect with a play. On the contrary, how useful can we as critics be to our readers if we never allow ourselves to feel anything or to emotionally connect with a show the way that our readers will?

So, I wrote the review, being careful to sort out in my own mind what was personal and what was valid material for evaluation (and given our 300-word limit, it certainly helped with identifying material to cut).

That was my answer. I'm curious what other critics might have done in the same situation--or even whether you'd even consider the situation a potential conflict.

October 25, 2007 11:45 AM | | Comments (6)

A couple of weeks ago I attended an event here in Missoula that reminded me why I live in this place, why I love these people, and what can happen when an artist in this small town believes that anything is possible.

The event was a CD release concert by David Boone, a local musician whom I've written about several times over the years. Still in his mid-late 20s, David has lived quite a hard life here in western Montana. He left his broken family in his mid-teens, lost the man he considered father in a random murder, drifted around, fought with episodes of severe depression and mania for years. In the up times, he has produced an impressive body of work, including ten full-length albums in the past eight years. In the down times, nobody hears from him for awhile.

For the release of his newest record, "A Tale of Gold," David decided to put together a massive concert at Missoula's third-largest concert hall, the 1,100-seat Wilma Theater. It was a bold move; other local musicians have tried and failed to pull together events at the grand old theater.

But David did it right, and the result was a nearly sold-out concert that truly ranks as one of the finest I've ever witnessed. Indeed, it was more than a concert; it felt more like a community waking up to itself. In this city of just over 60,000 people, more than 1,000 showed up for the concert. Using somewhat fuzzy math, if the same percentage of locals showed up to a concert by an unsigned hometown artist in New York City, there'd be over 130,000 people in the crowd.

I wrote a preview of the concert, talking about the new CD and how the concert came together; you can read the full story here.

I also wrote a column - more an ode - after the concert. You can read that here.

If you're a fan of folk-rock music in the Coldplay/Counting Crows vein, I'm even willing to make a rare plug: You should buy "A Tale of Gold." There are some wonderful songs on it, and you'd be supporting one of the most earnestly good people I've ever met.

October 24, 2007 9:32 AM | | Comments (1)

I thought I'd pick up where I left off two weeks ago, with a topic that generated a fair amount of interest: sports and the arts. Last night, I attended a panel discussion at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) titled "Forward Progress: New Perspectives on the Wisconsin Gridiron."

This was a joint event between MMoCA and Madison Repertory Theatre. Speakers were David Maraniss, the Madison native and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (who, it turns out, still lives in Madison part of the year); Eric Simonson, whose play based on Maraniss' bio of Vince Lombardi will premiere next month at Madison Rep; MMoCA curator Jane Simon; and Rep artistic director Richard Corley.

The panel tied together the Brett Favre-related art exhibition at MMoCA and the development of Maraniss' Lombardi biography into a work for the stage.

A few of the themes that emerged: Maraniss noted the pervasiveness of Lombardi quotes in realms not related to sports--Lombardi not just as coach, but as motivational speaker. He also spoke of "central American myths," stating "[Lombardi] had so much to offer about the mythology of winning, what it takes and what it costs." Simonson noted the strong influence of Jesuit thinking and specifically the philosophies of St. Ignatius on Lombardi's worldview.

And, as one might expect, there was talk of the violent aspect of modern sports and what that means. Maraniss argued that there is "a measure of artistic resonance even in violence," while Simon compared a central image in the Brett Favre-related art exhibition (Tim Laun's show "Sunday, September 20th, 1992") to a fallen soldier. The piece in question shows a downed Don Majkowski in larger-than-life fashion, taking up nearly a full gallery wall. This, of course, is the moment that set Favre's career in motion, as #4 replaced Majkowski on the field.

While comparisons between fallen soldiers and athletes are apt in many ways and have a long, even ancient, visual history, this is one place where I think we need to tread carefully and think in historical specifics, not just generalities. As we all know, the stakes for a soldier are much higher than for a pro athlete; we are reminded of that daily in these times. As my husband (a Marine Corps vet himself) commented, "Today, a 'fallen soldier' is likely to be in an outpatient mental health clinic."

Abstracted, almost beautiful depictions of downed bodies, from ancient Greece to images of Majkowski (who is alive and well), don't reflect the kind of psychological and physical trauma that is in our midst now. Symbolic comparisons, while valid on many levels, may have the unintended consequence of distancing us from current realities.

That said, I am glad to see this kind of joint event between Madison's professional theater company and its contemporary art museum. Not only have they coordinated their programming, they've connected it to one of the U.S.' major obsessions that is infrequently addressed in contemporary art-making.

October 16, 2007 9:00 AM | | Comments (6)

Just a quick note here to let Flyover readers know that, due to various work and personal doings, most of us will probably not be posting this week. If you were really hoping to while away some of your day Flyover-style, please have a look at our archives, which stretch back a few months before we moved to ArtsJournal. All of us hope to be back on track within the next week or so.

October 15, 2007 8:16 AM |

With the start of the sixth annual Wisconsin Book Festival just a day away, I've been getting prepped by reading "Petal Pusher: A Rock and Roll Cinderella Story" by Laurie Lindeen, who will appear Saturday night along with Janet Fitch at Madison's Café Montmartre.

I first became aware of Lindeen's memoir from an article in Isthmus, Madison's alt weekly (and the paper to which I contribute). Lindeen grew up here and bounced in and out of the UW as an undergraduate. That gave "Petal Pusher" a bit of local interest for me, compounded by the fact that Lindeen's all-women rock band, Zuzu's Petals, was active in Minneapolis during the few years I lived there post-college (early to mid-'90s, before I came to Madison). Though, regrettably, I never saw Zuzu's Petals play, I remember that time in Minneapolis when they were struggling to gain a foothold.

And how they struggled: Lindeen's first-person account as Zuzu's Petals' lead vocalist and songwriter is a tale of self-booked tours, scraping for every gig and bit of media attention, playing run-down venues and having little privacy (separate hotel rooms--or hotel rooms, period--were a luxury the band often couldn't afford). While those years produced some artistic highs and a well-received first album, after a while, the wear and tear became too much for Lindeen, who shifted her focus to writing. During all of this, Lindeen dealt with multiple sclerosis, the dissolution of her parents' marriage and a string of relationships that ultimately led to her marriage to Replacements' leader Paul Westerberg.

While I wish Lindeen's writing were a little punchier and more polished, her story is worth reading partly because it's a side we don't see often enough: what happens when you don't make it big, and when you realize the dream you've been chasing is perhaps no longer what you want anyway. Her writing is honest and self-aware.

The other book that springs to mind in terms of would-be rock stardom is Neil McCormick's "Killing Bono: I Was Bono's Doppelganger" (silly title, fun book). McCormick had the misfortune to go to school with one Paul Hewson, who achieved superstardom while McCormick's dreams fizzled. Ultimately, though, he found a successful career as a U.K. rock journalist.

What books like this give us is an inside look at the creative life and its immense ups and downs--something that those of us who spend more time writing about art than making it would do well to remember. (Yes, I believe intelligent arts criticism is a craft in its own right, but it is by definition a secondary or reactive one.) What Lindeen talks about is relevant not just for women in a punk trio, but for artists of all stripes.

As I often do, once I finished the book, I searched the Web for others' reactions to the book. I came across an interview with Lindeen in City Pages, Minneapolis' alt weekly, that raises a few good points but also seems to have fundamentally missed one of the poignant underlying themes of the book. And while I don't want to make assumptions or stereotype according to age, I couldn't help but imagine that the writer of the article must be considerably younger than the fortysomething Lindeen. Here's the beginning of the second paragraph: "[A]fter a long vacation from the stage, Lindeen is ready to rock. Or, rather, she's got an appointment to rock, in between a pedicure and the family dinner hour." Ouch! The cattiness continues with "[Lindeen's] meeting me for margaritas in a high-tax-bracket suburb just an inch southwest of Minneapolis city limits..." The article also implies that Westerberg was responsible for dragging Lindeen out of the rock world and into "an ordinary life as a mother and homemaker."

This struck me as unnecessarily judgmental and ignorant of the ways in which life can lead you down some blind alleys. Things don't always turn out like you hope, especially in an unstable business like rock and roll. If you've never had something major in your life refuse to pan out as anticipated, I'd say that: a) you're fantastically lucky, or b) you just haven't been around the block enough yet. Sarah Askari's snarkily-titled article, "It's a Wonderful Life. Kinda" skirts dangerously close to implying that Lindeen is a sellout, a failure, or both. With an MFA in creative writing and a first book out, I'd call her an author.

One final thought: one wonders how, if Zuzu's Petals were starting up today, the Internet would have affected their chances for success. Touring in the final few pre-Net years, they still needed to put out singles and beg for radio airplay. With a chance to better control their own marketing and reach fans directly, would they have fared better?

October 9, 2007 7:00 AM | | Comments (8)

Given the recent posts about state money and Jennifer's post on sports, I was intrigued by this blog entry by a Michigan blogger, dedicated arts lover, and talented critic.

He points out that every theater person ought to be writing thank-you letters to the owners of the Detroit Pistons and the Detroit Red Wings. It was due to their lobbying efforts that the expanded sales tax on services was not extended to entertainment services such as athletic games and the theater.

Given a recent comment that theater belonged to the wealthy elite (despite the fact that a ticket to an athletic event is typically far more expensive than a theater ticket), I found this paragraph interesting:

State House officials tried to paint their efforts to expand the sales tax as an effort to tax "luxuries." But since when is attending a theater performance or a sporting event a luxury? I don't know how often our state elected policitians attend a professional theater performance, but looking at the audiences last Friday night at The Zeitgeist and Saturday night at the Marygrove Theatre, I saw primarily working class people, young people and members of the sought-after creative class. (In fact, the leader of a large group of students from Wayne County Community College Saturday night explained to me that he chose that show in part because of the affordable ticket price.)

Nowhere did I see the snooty rich, the people who fit the image our politicians were trying to create in order to get the public to buy in to their budget plan.

October 5, 2007 5:46 AM |

I've been sitting back and watching the discussion between Mike Boehm and Jeff Croff in the comment trail of my entry last week, in part because I haven't wanted to interrupt an interesting dialog between the two.

I'm definitely a fence-sitter on this issue. I would love to see more public support and funding for the arts. I firmly believe that, like education, the benefits of the arts accrue to more than just the consumer of art (and I use consumer in a broad sense to mean not just the purchaser of a piece of art or a ticket, but anyone who experiences art in its many forms). I think the arts make our community and our world a better place to live in. They have the ability to instill us with hope and optimism or at least to give people an outlet to express their frustrations and cynicism with the reassurance that they're being heard.

However, I also believe that many artists have hurt the cause of public funding by being overly demanding and refusing to look at things realistically.

Last year, arts funding in our state was frozen. We were going through a budget crisis of epic proportions--one that resulted this past week in an increased income tax and expanded sales tax. We've had to do this because of fiscally irresponsible policies throughout the nineties where the state privatized those businesses that made money and refused to institute responsible tax policies because they needed their soundbite for campaigning. Ah, but I wander off into the political in a non-arts related way. Let me get back on track.

People were outraged that money was cut and rallied at the Capitol demanding not only that the arts money be unfrozen (it eventually was at about 75% of original levels) but that the funding be restored to levels that they were in past decades.

As much as I'm a supporter of the arts and in paying taxes to support the arts, that demand tasted sour in my mouth. What they seemed to be saying was that the arts were more important than human services, education, and public safety. The state was talking about shutting down entirely and the artists were demanding that they receive an increase in funding rather than joining in the conversation about how where they could make sacrifices without committing suicide. It was a loss of credibility.

When there are tough economic times, artists need to be realistic and accept that there isn't money to be had. They will have a tough time winning supporters if they claim that funding their season is more important than keeping the schools open or paying for a firefighter or keeping the ambulances running.

The flip side, though, is that when money is available, the arts need to be recognized as important to the quality of life of a community. Once you get past the minimum levels on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, it's going to be the arts that let your citizens climb from safety to belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

October 4, 2007 10:03 AM | | Comments (3)

Yesterday, on a drizzly morning in south-central Wisconsin, I awoke to find the lead headline on the soggy paper in my driveway printed in the type size normally reserved for things like "VICTORY OVER JAPAN!" Yes, during Sunday's game against the Vikings, Brett Favre set the record for career touchdown passes. "TOP GUN," the Wisconsin State Journal exclaimed on a special cover consumed entirely by a full-color picture of Favre. (The "normal" front page was shifted to page 3.)

While I normally bemoan the fact that sports coverage dwarfs arts coverage in most places, I didn't this time. I'm not sure why. I'm not much of a sports fan--despite a borderline-weird childhood obsession with the '70s Cincinnati Reds--but maybe the Packer worship surrounding me in this state is starting to rub off. Being married to a Green Bay native doesn't hurt, either.

What I thought might be interesting for Flyover readers is a current flurry of interest (at least in these parts) in sports as subject matter in the arts. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) is currently exhibiting Tim Laun's "Sunday, September 20th, 1992," so named for the day Favre took over for Don Majkowski. I still have not seen it (it runs through Nov. 11) but here's some coverage from the Wisconsin State Journal and from the local anonymous blogger Madison Guy, on "Letter from Here," who called it "pandering, pompous and patronizing" as well as "cynical and exploitive." That's pretty blistering stuff from a guy who writes a thoughtful, well-researched blog about art, architecture, politics and local Madison doings. The unspoken question here I think is this: Are sports an appropriate (worthy, relevant) subject for art?

Sports-themed and sports-related art has a mixed history here in Madison, at least during the dozen years I've lived here. A few years back, a controversial Donald Lipski sculpture (essentially an obelisk of stacked footballs, a kind of whimsical monument to gladiatorial sport) was installed outside of Camp Randall on the UW campus. It inspired a local backlash of what seemed to me ridiculous proportions. Whether one loves it, hates it, or is merely indifferent, it is but one of thousands of art objects one can see in Madison during the year. Yes, I get it that it's a permanent, prominently sited work at a beloved home of college football, but I still think the local ire was overblown and, after a while, fed on itself. What also disappointed me personally was local commentators' refusal (or inability) to deal with it as a sculpture, with at least some passing reference to Lipski's other work or sculpture in general.

Since I haven't seen MMoCA's Tim Laun show on Favre yet, I'm curious to see how it comes off. (And if anyone reading this has seen it for themselves, please add your thoughts in the comments.)

In the realm of Madison theater, Madison Rep is presenting the premiere of "Lombardi / The Only Thing," an Eric Simonson play based on the David Maraniss bio of legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered. It opens Nov. 9.

I can see two schools of thought forming around this Favre-and-Lombardi art: a camp that sees it as pandering to sports-loving Wisconsinites, a wallowing in familiar, beloved icons, and a camp that sees it as possibly a prime opportunity to get people into galleries and playhouses who might not otherwise come there.

The main response I have is that these arts offerings point up just how seldomly sports are treated seriously as subject matter in contemporary art and theater. While the results will have to stand on their own merits, whatever they may be, I don't think sports are a priori an inappropriate subject for art. I'm not sure anything is - except maybe this (nooooo, Milwaukee, don't do it!). Whether you're a sports fan or not, you've got to admit that sports consume a huge amount of time, attention and money in this country; I think there's something there worth exploring.

Other sports-related art rearing its head in recent years in Madison includes the bronze statues of UW athletic director Barry Alvarez (former Badgers head coach) and Pat Richter, unveiled about a year ago. You can have a gander at the Alvarez half of that here. A coworker remarked that these humorless, Socialist Realism-style figures reminded him of Marx and Engels, boldly striding towards a new tomorrow. Just think: our very own Madison Alexanderplatz!

Seriously, though, I'd be interested in hearing from others what might be happening in their communities that combines athletics and art. While not much of a "sports person" myself--though I did attend a Wisconsin Wolves game a few weeks ago; they're a team in the WPFL--there's got to be some common ground between "arts people" and "sports people." What might that look like?

October 2, 2007 8:00 AM | | Comments (6)

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