As a summer packed with Chinese art appears on the horizon at Milwaukee Art Museum, some local artists and others have been waiting for a comment by the museum on the April 3 arrest at the Beijing airport of controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who remains in government custody more than two months later.
In recent days, Milwaukee Art Museum director Daniel Keegan posted a statement on the museum's Web site. In it, Keegan wrote that the museum's mission, "is to serve the community and present art as a vital source of inspiration and education" and that MAM, "as a cultural institution, does not support censorship, including self-censorship, of art exhibitions or artists based on unpopular or controversial subjects."
Although he does not name Ai Weiwei in the four-paragraph statement – which also does not mention the artist's arrest and detainment – Keegan told me this morning that the museum's programming surrounding the China exhibitions will discuss Ai Weiwei in no uncertain terms.
"The programming that we've got in place is going to address the Ai Weiwei question I think in a very important way," said Keegan, referring specifically to a July 7 panel discussion about the artist and the issues of politics in art, artists' rights, detention and related issues.
"I think it can be a really interesting dialogue and we'll also have opposing views represented, as I think we should. ... So with the Ai Weiwei issue, once that cropped up in April, we thought, 'wow, this is a natural, we've got to figure this out'."
But Keegan added the museum will not protest Ai Weiwei's detainment and that he doesn't believe that it is appropriate to the museum's mission to lodge a protest.
"We're a cultural institution. We don't do protests. Our mission is to educate, to bring people together around the experience of the art. So I would say very emphatically, in my position as director of the museum – and I know that my board of trustees supports me in this – we should expressly not do something like protest.
"What we should do is create programming that brings people together so that we can have the conversation. ... We also don't do politics and I think you'd acknowledge that the Ai Weiwei thing; there's a political piece to this. He's an artist who works in that whole political arena."
Keegan went on to say that he personally finds Ai Weiwei to be an interesting artist and that the Milwaukee Art Museum has attempted, unsuccessfully, to acquire some works by the artist in the past.
Last week local artist Mike Brenner announced he would appear on the bridge that connects the art museum to O'Donnell Park and shave his head to mimic Ai Weiwei's distinctive hairstyle in protest of the arrest.
Museum guards reportedly attempted to eject Brenner from the bridge and called Milwaukee police. In the end, Keegan said, Brenner was moved closer to the O'Donnell end of the bridge, where he completed his protest.
"The security guards being there surprised me, but it didn't bother me," said Brenner. "It only changed where I planned to be by 24 inches."
However, Keegan said, the actions of MAM security contradicted discussions he'd had with other museum staffers.
"I can say it's a screw-up, a goof-up, on the bridge," he said. "I was traveling at the time, but we were clear, we knew about Mr. Brenner's haircut activity, which, actually, I thought was kind of cool. The confusion came on the security end of things where we had a miscommunication.
"Our key responsibility is the safety of the art and the facility, and that includes the bridge. Also, the safety of our visitors. It seemed to me that what Mr. Brenner was doing was in no way interfering with any of that, so we were perfectly fine with it, but our apologies to him for the confusion on our part."
Brenner, who is currently traveling outside the United States, said via Twitter that he had not heard directly from Keegan, but isn't surprised.
"I just changed my number," Brenner wrote, "and I flew to Munich to finish brewing school the day after I did it. Even if he tried he probably wouldn't have been able to find me."
Anyway, said Brenner, the protest isn't about Milwaukee Art Museum.
"What I did wasn't about MAM or in protest of MAM. I'm really excited to see the show, actually. I was in China two summers ago touring American businesses and factories with ties to Wisconsin. I also looked at a ton of contemporary Chinese art. I was very impressed.
"I wasn't mad at Keegan or MAM at all. MAM is run by a ton of brilliant people."
Details on the July 7 event have not yet been added to the Milwaukee Art Museum website because the complete panel has not yet been finalized, according to MAM spokesperson Kristin Settle.
The Summer of CHINA exhibition opens on June 11 and runs through Sept. 11.
"I'll definitely see it when I get back," said Brenner.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.