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October 31, 2007

Has a "teachable moment" been lost?

Jennifer A. Smith

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."

Posted by Jennifer A. Smith at October 31, 2007 12:30 PM


I was surprised that the Journal-Sentinel did not raise issues of museum governance. Nobody from the engineering school appears in either story, yet the article says the collection was donated to the engineering school. Delving into that aspect seems a must for a story in which the museum seems to be operating as the private fiefdom of arrogant people ("it's not the public's business what we do") who seem to know little about the curatorial responsibilities of showing art to -- oh -- the public, at a college that benefits nicely from public support via its nonprofit, tax-free status. (the latest 990 form on guidestar shows that the engineering school received a third of its $54 million 04-05 budget from tax-deductible donations and tax-free investment earnings - and the donations included $3.3 million in direct government grants. Also, the Grohmanns presumably pocketed a nice tax deduction when they donated their collection. Couldn't hurt to ask the school its valuation of the collection).
I'd like to have seen the college president pressed on all of this, along with comparisons to the governance of other museums on neighboring campuses. The Nazi-art issues are very interesting, but the nature of the deal between the museum and the engineering school bears a close look as well. Is this museum something the engineering school really wanted? Or something it OK'd to placate a leading donor? And now that it has a museum, isn't it obligated to run it up to professional standards, with a professional staff? And is professionalism consistent with apparently allowing the donors themselves to run the show? Another focus, perhaps, for another story on another day.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at November 2, 2007 1:09 PM

Hello Mike: Good points all, and I agree with everything you've raised here. In some ways, the Nazi-art issue is emblematic of larger problems and the ways in which certain expectations/standards have been circumvented. I don't know if this museum has hopes of accreditation at some point, but I can't imagine they'd get it if they didn't change course. I hope Schumacher and/or Gould will do some follow-up stories.

Posted by: Jennifer Smith at November 2, 2007 1:44 PM