Alongside the brightly colored Dala horses, large-scale woven artworks, and fabulous furniture featured in the Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890–1980 exhibition are eight publications from the Milwaukee Art Museum Research Center—two magazines, an exhibition catalogue, three books, a beautiful serigraph, and an interactive ergonomics manual.
Why, you may be asking, are these publications on display in an exhibition with works of art and design?
When I returned to the Milwaukee Art Museum after the state’s Safer at Home order, one of the first things I did was visit an old friend: Saint Francis of Assisi in His Tomb (1630/34) by the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán. I’ve walked by the painting nearly every workday in my time at the Museum, but never have I been more appreciative of its quiet contemplativeness and the sense of stability it brings me. Indeed, the painting is such a fixture of the Museum that it is hard to imagine that it was ever not here, that it lived in three different countries, across two continents, before arriving in Milwaukee.
Each day, hundreds of visitors enter the Milwaukee Art Museum to stare in awe at the incredible wealth of artworks within the museum’s collection. But what can too often go unrecognized is the equally awe-inspiring work of the many museum staff members, without whom the museum in its current state could not exist. “MAM Behind the Scenes” is a blog series written by Digital Learning intern Emma Fallone to showcase the wide range of positions that make up a museum, and to reveal just a few of of the many people whose work makes the Milwaukee Art Museum a source of inspiration and education. We begin with Heather Winter, Librarian and Archivist.
Can you give a brief description of your job, in thirty seconds or less?
A little bit of anything and everything. My responsibility is to take questions about the Museum’s collection and history, and then answer them with any number of materials from the library or the institutional archives. It’s my job to know where those materials are, and to use them to answer the questions quickly and accurately.
One of my favorite film gems in the Museum’s audio-visual archive is rare film footage of the institution’s changing location and architecture. This film–soundless, in black and white, circa 1957–features the Layton Art Gallery, the Milwaukee Art Institute, and the Eero Saarinen-designed War Memorial and Milwaukee Art Center building, into which the museum moved officially in 1957.
While the 15-minute film is rather grainy and hazy, the images are nevertheless a stunning peek into the last days of the Layton Art Gallery and the Milwaukee Art Institute in the early 1950s before their demolition, and the subsequent rise of the War Memorial building and the (then) Milwaukee Art Center. Excerpts from this film will be featured in our upcoming 125th Anniversary Exhibition, but if you’d like a sneak peek, read on.
The museum’s archives contain a small but delightful collection of film and videotapes, detailing all sorts of subjects–from small films produced by the museum for various projects and exhibitions over the course of its history, to an odd yet enchanting assortment of documentary and artist-related footage.
But of all the film gems in the archive, my top favorites are two films of very rare footage of the internationally celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright which spans the 1930s into the early 1940s. Both films were donated to the museum from the personal collection of Joan Salzstein. She was the granddaughter of Dankmar Adler, one of the renowned architectural duo Adler & Sullivan, who changed Chicago’s skyline at the turn of the 20th century. Wright worked for and studied under Adler, and his granddaughter Joan became a regular visitor to Wright’s home and farm at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, for many years.
We owe it to the awakening interest in art matters
and the democratic spirit of the society,
which is attempting to make the gallery
a valuable asset to every citizen and
to inculcate an appreciation of its offerings.
–Samuel O. Buckner, President, Milwaukee Art Institute. “Art Gallery Rapidly Growing in Popularity.” Free Press, Dec 23, 1913
In 2013, the Milwaukee Art Museum will celebrate its 125th anniversary. Since 1888, the Museum has featured over 3,600 exhibitions, acquired 30,000+ objects, and published hundreds of exhibition and Collection catalogues. The Museum has been instrumental in setting national standards for excellence in art education, and has also erected visionary architecture. An exciting 125 years indeed!
For the last three years, a portion of my time has been devoted to digitizing a treasure trove of imagery found in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Brooks Stevens Archive.
Stevens, one of the best known industrial designers of the twentieth century, lived and worked right here in Milwaukee, his hometown. While you may not automatically recognize his name, you most certainly will recognize his work: the Oscar-Meyer Weinermobile, Harley Davidson Hydra-glide motorcycle, the Valkyrie coupe sedan, and the round mouth Holsum peanut butter jar–just to name a few! Companies of all sizes, audiences and design needs flocked to Stevens and his firm for over five decades.
One of the most fascinating (and fun) books in the Museum’s rare book collection is a set of books by the artist Victor Vasarely.
Vasarely’s four-volume set Plastic Arts (1970), which features numerous color plates, foldouts and loose plastic overlays, not only exemplifies his unique approach to art, but equips the viewer with a finite set of colors and forms to play with and manipulate.
Recently, I had the opportunity to open an interesting book in the Museum’s Library entitled Milwaukee’s Great Industries (1892). This 352-page tome features a history of Milwaukee, articles on its various industries, schools, churches, trades, a variety of advertisements, and a list of city facts entitled “Milwaukee in a Nutshell.”
Did you know that in 1892, Milwaukee produced $135 million in goods; had the biggest iron foundry in the world; or produced fully one-third of all the tin-ware used in the United States? And yes, Milwaukee officially had the largest brewery and tannery in the world!
Last but certainly not least–did you know that, in 1892, Milwaukee also had “one of the finest art galleries in the land, and several of the best private art collections in the world”?
While browsing the Museum’s 120+ year history and its more than 3,500 exhibitions, patterns reflecting shifts in cultural taste, local craft, and major world events, are apparent.
History also reveals patterns that sidestep the obvious cultural or historical narrative to stand on their own. One such pattern appears in the series of soap sculpture competitions held at the Museum (known then as the Milwaukee Art Institute) from 1927-1940. At least fifteen national and local soap-sculpture competitions and exhibitions were held over a tirteen-year period.
How did soap sculpting become such a popular part of local and national practice so quickly? The answer, it turns out, was no further away than my own grocery list.