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MAM’s ‘Uncommon Folk’ showcases vast holding of folk art and works by self-taught artists

You don’t have to wander far into the Milwaukee Art Museum to realize it’s not merely a world-class architectural gem, but it also houses a spectacular trove of art of all genres.

What’s less immediately visible, however, is the surprisingly vast amount of folk, outsider and self-taught art held by MAM — in fact, it’s one of the largest such collections owned by a museum that doesn’t specialize in such categories.

Since Jan. 31, the museum has spotlighted this vast collection of folk, outsider and self-taught art with the feature exhibition Uncommon Folk: Traditions in American Art. Hundreds of such pieces have been brought together for the first time in a fascinating display.

Touring the exhibit is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that ends on May 4.

The exhibition is so rich and varied that it’s impossible to describe it without leaving out something. The artwork is arranged either by form (portraits, quilts, carvings, toys) or function (historically focused works, religious works, trade signs). MAM curator Margaret Andera says the museum wanted to present non-academic traditions of art side by side with more established disciplines. The viewers’ take-away message is that the former, facilitated by communities instead of curators and galleries, has an equal position in art history with the latter.

Andera bypassed the common practice of arranging pieces in chronological order. “What that does is point out what’s changed,” she says. “I was interested in what hasn’t changed.”

So she positioned artwork without concern for its dates of origin, drawing attention to similarities and emphasizing that many forms of folk art don’t belong to a specific era but rather to longstanding traditions that continue to this day. 

Walking through Uncommon Folk, a visitor is likely to be amazed by the sheer number of works that MAM can artfully present. Nearly 600 items are on display, including more than a dozen duck and fish decoys.

The massive collection began with two landscape paintings by Wisconsin artist Anna Louisa Miller. They’re on display in Uncommon Folk without any fanfare and in the middle of the exhibition. 

Andera says the paintings were a gift donated in 1951, a time when collecting self-taught art wasn’t even considered by most institutions. There isn’t any obvious reason why MAM would have accepted the works. For one thing, Andera says, “When people offer things to museums, they don’t always say yes.” But for some reason, perhaps the quality of the paintings or simply Miller’s Wisconsin ties, the museum took them.

Those two paintings were the seeds of a self-taught collection that slowly grew, first with a surge of acquisitions in the 1960s. After that, acquisitions of such works abated until 1989, when the museum received the Michael and Julie Hall Collection — a monumental gift that sparked many subsequent donations. Those include the Anthony Petullo Collection, which was the subject of the museum’s Accidental Genius exhibition in 2012. The recently received Lanford Wilson collection is likely to be the subject of its own show within the next few years, Andrea says.

She credits the success of Accidental Genius as inspiration for Uncommon Folk. While the concept of Uncommon Folk has been on her mind for a long time, it was the Petullo Collection that jarred it into existence, Andrea says. That collection focuses on European self-taught art, prompting Andrea to create a show emphasizing the American art that makes up the bulk of MAM’s collection.

Uncommon Folk also provided Andrea with an opportunity to highlight the work of three individual self-taught artists who have miniature exhibits in the gallery. Two are Wisconsin-born: Albert Zahn, a Baileys Harbor native who transformed his home into an art environment filled with wood-sculpted birds and angels, and Eugene von Bruenchenhein, a West Allis artist who worked in a variety of media but is best known for his eye-catching, vividly colored surrealist paintings that reflect contemporary trends in abstraction.

The third artist, James Castle, created art that until now had not been exhibited. The bulk of his creations are ephemeral works made of soot on paper. The fact they’re so delicate that a breeze could destroy them makes them all the more captivating.

As Uncommon Folk winds down, Andera says she’s increasingly finding a sense of pride in the collection through patrons’ feedback. That’s the response she’d hoped for while assembling the exhibition. It’s rare for museums to build exhibitions around their own holdings, she says. But, she adds, this is the sort of collection that deserves to be shown to the people on whose behalf it was created.

“This is the community’s collection,” Andrea says — one to keep unveiling, hundreds of pieces at a time.

On exhibit

Uncommon Folk continues through May 4 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (8 p.m. Thursdays). Admission to Uncommon Folk is included in museum admission, which is $17, $14 for students, seniors and military and free for members, teachers and children under 12.

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