Private art becomes public in ‘Milwaukee Collects’

By Kat Kneevers, Contributing writer

There is often a time in an artwork’s life when it is sold and sent out the door to its new home — and out of the public eye. A work might be purchased by someone acquiring his or her first original piece of art, or someone for whom the accumulation of art that they love is an ongoing adventure.

But either way, what once lived in a gallery or studio for all to see disappears behind the collector’s walls.

The exhibition Milwaukee Collects — currently on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum — reverses that dynamic, bringing privately held art back to public consciousness.

Given that the premise of Milwaukee Collects is to bring together a variety of pieces that are held locally, it might have been challenging to create something cohesive from this assemblage of more than 100 pieces from about 50 collections.

The decision was made to organize the show in a largely chronological way, but at times it breaks into groupings of objects or aesthetic interests. Some feature pieces arranged as a set, offering an idea of how these pieces might relate when on view in the home. In other cases, works are commingled to explore a certain style or theme.

From 18th century to now

The exhibition opens with early American artists and European pieces inspired by Renaissance traditions, but most the show has a modernist pulse. A lovely standout in this earlier section is “Élodie with a Sunshade: Bay of Douarnenez” by French artist Jules Breton.

Painted in 1870–71, the work catches some of the directness and refreshing looseness promoted by the Realists and even nascent Impressionists. For another look at Breton, also see “Le Père Jacques (The Wood Gatherer)” in MAM’s permanent collection.

Many of the pieces in the exhibition are illustrative as representative samples of their artist or style, but not without some surprises. American painter Everett Shinn’s “Boudoir” is a small, intimate piece tinged with his familiar dark blue colors.

Shinn’s flourishes and flurry of brushstrokes take us someplace ambiguous. A woman in a flounced dress looks in a mirror, perhaps. What should be her reflection has a face covered in broad stripes, a touch that takes Shinn from his typically realist tone into something more surreal.

For something that does have sharp, striking clarity, see the gigantic “Red Lamps” by Roy Lichtenstein. A living room interior with couch and coffee table, accented by an open book that has been laid down, are rendered in blazingly vibrant red and muted aqua tones. Given that it’s nearly 5 feet high and about 6 1/2 feet long, it is all the more remarkable as a complex lithograph, woodcut and screen print.

Important contemporary artists are represented by the collections contributing works to the show.

There are multiple striking pieces by American artist Glenn Ligon. His starkly muted “Self-Portrait,” showing the back of the artist’s head, is made with silkscreen ink and gesso on canvas in a meticulously pixilated display. Ligon’s work addresses identity, race, and social issues through image and text, and in this piece, the traditions of portraiture are distinctly turned around.

Learning more about art collecting

As an exhibition, Milwaukee Collects offers an opportunity to peruse a wide range of pieces in something like a casual survey. The exhibition is about the art and being engaged in the moment. But you might wonder, what about the collectors? Who collects and why? Those aspects are less a part of the installation, but are addressed in other ways.

Several upcoming programs will share the stories behind the process of accumulating art, including lectures and panel discussions.

For a more immediate perusal of the behind-the-scenes aspects of art collecting, visit the exhibition page on the MAM website, and the section “Meet the Collectors.” Jody and Dick Goisman, Eckhart Grohmann, Sande Robinson and Christine Symchych explain how they began collecting and share stories about favorite pieces.

If there is a common and unexpected thread, it is that acquiring art was something that just happened over time.

The pleasures of going to galleries and art shows and finding something treasured that becomes part of a personal living space is one of the most satisfying aspects of the art world. It is a very different experience than when visit art in a museum, but for this exhibition, a reversal makes private art something to be enjoyed publicly.

On exhibit

Milwaukee Collects continues through May 21 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Drive., Milwaukee. For more, go to mam.org.

As part of the exhibition, a variety of events related to art collecting will be held at MAM.

The following events — free for museum members and free with regular museum admission — will be held in Lubar Auditorium:

Lecture: ‘Auction Houses 101’

April 13, 6:15 p.m. 

Art makes the news when auction houses post high sale prices for coveted works, but how does the auction market really work? This presentation is an introduction to this part of the art world for the collector and interested observer.

Panel Discussion: ‘Inside Milwaukee Collects’

April 27, 6:15 p.m.

Four local collectors featured in the Milwaukee Collects exhibition will share their stories about starting on the path of art collecting, plus tales of selected pieces and artistic provenance.

Panel Discussion: ‘Collecting on $10 a Day’ 

May 4, 6:15 p.m. 

Buying art is not something only for the rich and famous. Oftentimes, a great collection starts with modest means, propelled by perseverance and genuine interest. Panelists will share their stories of acquiring art without the traditional deep pockets.

— K.K.

Jules Breton (French, 1827–1906). “Élodie with a Sunshade: Bay of Douarnenez (Woman with Parasol),” 1870–71. Oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 35 5/8 in (65 x 91 cm). Collection of Eckhart and Ischi Grohmann. — Photo: Milwaukee Art Museum
Jules Breton (French, 1827–1906). “Élodie with a Sunshade: Bay of Douarnenez (Woman with Parasol),” 1870–71. Oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 35 5/8 in (65 x 91 cm). Collection of Eckhart and Ischi Grohmann. — Photo: Milwaukee Art Museum