Every so often, Museum staff gets an email or learns a story that connects the art in our collection with our community. These might be far-away communities, as in the case of the English ancestors of Miss Frances Lee, or it might be close by here in Milwaukee.
Tag: Behind the Scenes
This blog is about museum life “Under the Wings,” right?
One of the most important and perhaps most buried “under the wings” duties of the curatorial department is the care of the art collection (housing, safe transport, conservation) including the proper organization of what we have, where it is, who made it, how much it is worth, etc.
As the Museum acquires new objects, we make a new TMS (our database, The Museum System) record that tracks everything from insurance values to the artist’s nationality and birth date. As time progresses, TMS becomes rich with information, but that is entirely dependent on constantly adding new data.
A small thorn in our side was an old record saying “188 glass paperweights” and the location of four high-density storage boxes. And, that’s all it said.
Were these 19th-century French millefiori paperweights? Folk art advertising paperweights? Tourist paperweights from 1950s Venice? We didn’t know.
Enter our Milwaukee paperweight expert.
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!
In my last blog post, I shared with you the secrets of a lovely wooden box which contained a collection of glass lantern slides from about 1920. While most of the slides are black and white, a few colorful slides rest as jewels among them.
In the early 20th century, photography was principally a black and white experience. Color photography, an experimental practice at best, was not a terribly viable practice for mass consumers/audiences until the 1940s.
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!
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.
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…
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!
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!
In early March, twenty-two teachers joined us at the Museum for a free Teacher’s Night that focused on the recently unveiled Charles Prendergast installation in Gallery 15 on the Main Level. We got a generous grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art not only for the installation (the beautiful Prendergast objects featured are almost all from their collection), but also for a Teacher’s Night inspired by the works! Here’s an inside look at the planning for the event as well as the event itself…