Art Behind the Scenes Curatorial Exhibitions

Being an Intern: It’s not only Makin’ Copies

Prancing Horse with Head Turned, Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), detail.
Prancing Horse with Head Turned, Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), detail. James E. Conley, Jr. Collection. Photo by the author.

In 2005, as a senior Art History major at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I worked as an intern for the Museum’s Curatorial Department in Earlier European Art. Working under the expert intern-wrangling leadership of Catherine Sawinski, Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art, I industriously contributed my research (compiling artist biographies for the 2006 Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity exhibition) and customer service (answering public inquiries) skills to the greater cause of making the Milwaukee Art Museum run.

Breaking my daily routine, Laurie Winters (now the Museum’s Director of Exhibitions) and Mary Weaver Chapin (now the Museum’s Associate Curator of Prints & Drawings) asked me if I could go to Chicago with Mary for the day to help with a cataloging project.  We would be visiting an Asian art collection to inventory, measure, and photograph all the objects.

As an intern, I was thrilled with this great opportunity, but I had no idea that this material would reappear in my life 6 years later!

Art Behind the Scenes Curatorial

Acquiring Art at Auction— Part 4 (It’s a Tea Service!)

Grete Marks tea service

The papers are signed and I can say it: The Milwaukee Art Museum welcomed into its permanent collection a Tea Service designed by Margarete Heymann Löbenstein Marks.

After we purchased the work at auction two months ago and the wire transfer payment was complete, several of the Museum’s art preparators traveled to Chicago to pack the ceramic pieces carefully and adeptly deliver them to the Museum’s art vault. I patiently waited a few weeks for the next scheduled meeting of the Museum’s Acquisitions & Collections Committee, when I was able to share the artwork in person.

In the final act of acquiring artwork for the permanent collection, the Museum’s Chief Curator, Director, and the Chair of the A&C Committee signed the paperwork that officially make the object part of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

And now I can say it: Welcome to Milwaukee, Grete Marks!

Behind the Scenes Curatorial

We Couldn’t Do It Without Interns

In 2004, interns helped put new labels out in the collection galleries.

So much of what we do at the Milwaukee Art Museum depends on volunteers. In the Curatorial department, most of my volunteers are college interns. These dedicated students are willing to give their time and energy to us in exchange for the experience of working at the Museum.

Over the past ten years, I have supervised over 100 interns. At times I have had as many as eleven interns at once! Their enthusiasm and intelligence are invigorating. Most interns commit to working 10-15 hours a week for a semester. Sometimes they intern for college credit, but just as often not. I have had interns stay and help me for years after their coursework is done—which is wonderful, because they can work on long-term projects and mentor new interns.

Behind the Scenes Education Exhibitions

How We’re Getting Ready for the “Summer of CHINA”

Zhan Wang, Artificial Rock No. 43, 2008. Stainless steel. Private collection. Image courtesy of the artist and Long March Space, Beijing. This work is in the “On Site: Zhan Wang” exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum this summer.

When one exhibition closes, another always opens.

While I’m bummed that Frank (are we allowed to be on a first-name basis after my exhibition Express Talks and school tours?) is leaving the Museum after May 15, I am so excited for the epic series of upcoming exhibitions included in the Summer of CHINA!

You might have heard about this endeavor: the Museum will have no less than five—five!—exhibitions that feature thousands of years of Chinese art, all in one place here at the Museum (you can read all about them in the press release). Right now, as I’m studying The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City exhibition catalog, I thought I’d give you all a sneak peek as to some of the things that happen around here before an exhibition opens to the public. Warning: This post might exhaust you! We get pretty busy…

Behind the Scenes Library/Archives

Beautiful boxes often hold beautiful things…

Wood lantern slide box with brass pull and glass lantern slides, early 20th century. Milwaukee Art Museum, Institutional Archives.
Wood lantern slide box with brass pull and glass lantern slides, early 20th century. Milwaukee Art Museum, Institutional Archives.

I’ve always felt that beautiful boxes should hold beautiful things, and that is the case for one small, graceful box stored in the Audio Visual Library at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Made of a dark, lustrous wood and elegant enough to be exhibited on its own, the box immediately caught my eye when I first came upon it.  With a squeal of excitement, I gently pulled off the lid and inside was a small collection of lovely glass lantern slides.  The box and lantern slides spoke instantly of a century past when traveling slides shows were essential to a museum’s exhibition program.

Art Behind the Scenes Curatorial

Acquiring Art at Auction—Part 3 (The Auction!)

The day of the auction may have dawned Wisconsin spring gray, but to me skies were blue, birds were chirping, and the Amtrak train to Chicago was led by seventy-six trombones.

I had located an object perfect for the Museum collection, gained enthusiastic approval from the Collections and Acquisitions Committee, determined that the object’s condition was museum worthy, set an appropriate bidding limit, and was now about to face that split second at the live auction when we’d know if the object would become part of the Milwaukee Art Museum, or go to another bidder.

No, I wasn’t nervous at all.

Art Behind the Scenes Curatorial

Acquiring Art at Auction— Part 2

Wright's auction preview gallery. Photo by the author.

With my pre-approval in line and my auction catalog in hand, the next step in buying art at auction was to travel to Chicago for personal inspection. About a week before a sale, lots become available for prospective buyers (and the merely curious) to view in person.

The object was being sold by Wright, an auction house specializing in premier modern and contemporary design.  While in Wright’s cavernous warehouse of treasures, I took the opportunity to investigate designs including a scrapbook of Wiener Werkstätte lace designs, a collection of Art Deco microphones, a delicate Wharton Esherick chair, and a felt Gianni Ruffi La Cova (nest) chair.

Think you aren’t welcome to snoop around like this in an auction house? Think again!

Art Behind the Scenes Events

How Well Do You Know Art in Bloom?

View in Windhover—a part of Tim Garland’s Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired display. Photo by the author.

Art in Bloom 2011 is in full swing! Huge flower displays are being wheeled through the galleries. Floral designers are snipping, arranging, considering, and re-arranging. Hundreds of garden goodies line the gallerias. There is a gelato cart, yes, you read that right, a gelato cart, parked near our beloved Coffee with a Conscience. And the best part of all—it smells so good in the galleries!

So I have a little game for you when you come visit us this weekend!

How well do you know Art in Bloom?

Can you find the locations of ALL of the following photos and detail shots!? If you’re the first person to identify everything correctly in the comments below, I’ll send you two free passes to come see our Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century exhibition before it closes in May! Check out the photos after the jump. Just write down the Mystery Photo number (it’s in the captions), as well as your best description of the space, gallery name, or gallery number. Good luck!

Art Behind the Scenes Curatorial

Acquiring Art at Auction— Part 1

Auction graphic

As a graduate student dreaming of a future museum career, my idea of a curator’s job was glamorous. I imagined working on the layout of exhibitions, attending opening cocktail parties, taking trips to museums, accessing art treasures in storage, and sitting in a crowded auction to bid on art for the collection.

I admit that a curator’s job is pretty cool, but in reality it is only about 10% those glamorous things and 90% email. This spring, however, I’m thrilled to be working to purchase an object for the Museum’s collection at auction, and I’m going to share the steps through this blog. Welcome to Step 1 of the process!

Just a warning: You might find this post partially un-gratifying, because until the deal is done and the papers are signed, I can’t disclose precisely what the object is. Why is that? Read on…

When it is known that a museum is interested in an object, it can drive up the price at auction. As we present art to the public, research art for our exhibitions, and add art to our collection we (in a roundabout way) lend an artistic “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to the selected objects. Those artists and works that we present often become more valuable on the open market simply because of the museum attention. If a museum did an exhibition on, say, Homer Laughlin “Fiestaware” ceramics, I’d bet that eBay sale prices would see an uptick. Can you imagine being in an auction and seeing a curator from the Met waving a bid card? A first thought would be “Oh, that painting must be good!” and you might add to the bidding frenzy!

Behind the Scenes Exhibitions Library/Archives

Listen to Frank–“The past always hangs to the future by a thread”

Frank Lloyd Wright, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, 1954. World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)
Frank Lloyd Wright, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, 1954. World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

“… Remember this, that society always continues. That the past always hangs to the future by a thread. And organic architecture and the thought behind it and the philosophy it represents is going to be that thread. I am sure of it. …” –Frank Lloyd Wright

Recently, while sifting through hundreds of reel-to-reel recordings of past lectures, our Audio Visual Librarian Beret Balestrieri Kohn stumbled upon a lecture labeled “Historical Master: Reel #93 Frank Lloyd Wright 1940-50 – Lecture at Episcopal at Nashotah.” We sent the recording away for professional transfer and, upon its return, settled into a quiet office to listen to a lecture we thought would be about the work of Frank Lloyd Wright from 1940-1950.