Three exhibitions and 125 years of art in Milwaukee
Step on to the threshold of Milwaukee Art Museum's gallery 10 and prepare to step back in time.
As part of a triptych of exhibitions celebrating 125 years of history, the museum has re-staged this familiar gallery, to conjure its predecessor, the Layton Art Gallery, which stood at Jefferson and Mason Streets from April 1888.
That institution later merged with the Milwaukee Art Institute to form what we today call Milwaukee Art Museum.
Gallery 10 has long been home to a range of works – mostly paintings but also Gaetano Trentanove's sculpture "The Last of the Spartans" – but now those works have been pulled down, the walls painted a stunning Pompeian red.
The works in the gallery are now hung salon style – a Tetris-lover's dream – with some works hanging low, others up high, recreating a long out of fashion look. The effect is jarring and thrilling at the same time.
There is nothing on the walls to explain or name the works; instead, visitors can engage with the art first, and then pick up one of the binders on the benches to identify the paintings.
"It's almost like a jigsaw puzzle. It's very much to 19th century taste, as were these colors," says William Keyse Rudolph, MAM's Curator of American Art and Decorative Arts.
"What we thought we would do in the core of the (1957 Eero) Saarinen building and in the core of our historic collections, would be not to recreate, but to evoke the kind of experience visitors would have had at the original Layton Art Gallery."
Rudolph says that there was no attempt to be faithful to the original galleries, rather to bring visitors into the atmosphere of the Layton Art Gallery.
"There were certain things we followed; very specific historic principles. Always the largest pictures were the things ones you saw below and the other things that were 'skied,' as they called it. There's a whole politics to it. So we started with that and then we just kind of fit things.
"And we created some, unexpected combinations. There are some jokes here for the curators. Like, ha ha a broken down stage coach, with a sleigh. Kitties ... and monkeys looking toward the kitties. We had a lot of fun. Curators have to have fun, right?"
The three exhibitions have allowed most of the museum's staff to get in on the fun. In the Baumgartner Galleria, curator Mel Buchanan has put together a series of "stations" that collect memorabilia, models, documents and photographs that trace the history of MAM.
"My piece of the puzzle here was telling the Layton Art Gallery story but then also the other groups that combined to form the Milwaukee Art Museum and what happened to the Milwaukee Art Museum once it was formed.
"We were the frontier, but we were beginning to become very wealthy and Frederick Layton was part of this world. He was one of a group of people that wanted to bring culture to the west. He turned a lot of his fortune into artwork. So the legacy we really have from Layton is the collection of artwork."
Downstairs, the Chipstone Foundation's Claudia Mooney and Sarah Carter, focused more tightly on Layton himself. Here we learn more about Layton's 99 voyages across the Atlantic – trips during which he collected much of his art.
"We worked really closely with the Layton Trustees, so it's just the story of Layton. And we were really lucky to have John Eastberg, who is the historian at The Pabst Mansion," says Mooney. "He just finished a book called 'Layton's Legacy,' which is all of the research and history on Frederick Layton and the Layton art collection. So we got all of our research for this exhibition from that."
It is here, too, that we learn about how Layton's passing changed the direction of the institution that bore his name. Three years after his death, his curator learned, while on vacation, that he had "retired," and was replaced by Charlotte Partridge, who had started the Layton School of Art in the basement of the gallery in 1920.
"They really wanted a whole new vision," says Carter. "They really wanted to modernize the Layton Art Gallery. They felt it had become stagnant."
Partridge sent many of the Victorian paintings out on loan around town, repainted the dark walls a lighter tan, switched from the salon style approach and covered up many of the Victorian attributes of the building.
She began to focus on Wisconsin artists, collecting works by many of the Layton school's faculty and former students and organizing shows around Wisconsin artists, including a controversial but popular one with Frank Lloyd Wright in 1930.
The three exhibitions do more than catalog the past, however, Rudolph points out that rethinking gallery 10 – as well as creating the two other small "birthday" exhibitions – allowed the museum's curators to tinker in other rooms, too. The result is that some rarely seen pictures are seeing the light of day for the first time in years.
"A happy ripple effect that's happened from this is because we were sort of robbing our own permanent collection galleries and our own vault to do this it's necessitated changes both in the European galleries and in the American painting galleries," says Rudolph.
"This whole project, in excavating our original tastes, it's allowed us to tell other stories, too. That's the happy fallout that's happened from these projects. We've learned a lot about our various histories and I think it's gotten us a little pumped up about what we're going to do next."
So, what's next? Still on the horizon is the Milwaukee Art Museum's entire re-think. The entire institution will get a makeover as everything comes down, walls are painted and the collections are reinstalled. Stay tuned.
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