Americans In Spain: Painting and Travel, 1820–1920 at the Milwaukee Art Museum

During my study of American art history, most of the better known American artists made visits to Europe to study. It seems that they almost always visited London where a number of ex-pat artists made them welcome. And they almost always made it to Paris which was certainly the center of Western art at the time. And those wealthy enough or lucky enough to have a generous patron made it to Italy: Florence and Rome!

So I have thought very little about Spain’s influence on American art in general or painting in particular. So the theme of the current show at the Milwaukee Art Museum created a bit of doubt but then curiosity in my mind. And then Americans In Spain: Painting and Travel, 1820–1920 opened up a different view on Spain’s influences on American artists and it was a very pleasant surprise to find some very well known painters visited Spain and were influenced by the art, architecture, landscape, and the overall atmosphere of the place. And although very similar to the rest of Western Europe it is also very different.

Well, what will you see? Portraits and Landscapes and Genre Paintings…and nearly a room full of different views of the Alhambra (one of the most significant architectural sites in Spain from the time of Muslim rule in Medieval era)…and famous American artists showing just a little different perspective on their vision. Who exactly? Well; Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, James McNeill Whistler, and Robert Henri.

One thing you will notice about the epic landscapes is a sense of a much hotter brighter sun. The landscape lacks the lushness and greens and twinkle of many of the landscapes that we we are used to seeing in America or from France. Here the sun burns and the landscape takes on a bright ocher with hints of oranges, reds, and browns. It is quite striking and particularly revealing in some of the paintings of the Alhambra.

The portraits tend to be just a little more towards the realistic side given the influences of earlier Spanish portraiture. And the streetscapes and genre paintings are also bright…often more to the bright white of sunlight and it is apparent that the dress and customs of Spain seemed exotic to Americans in the nineteenth century as they may seem today (particularly the appeal of dancers…there is a room of paintings of Spanish dancers by an array of artists…and one in particular took on the role of muse).

So enough chatter…here are a few of my favorites. I apologize for some of the image quality. I was using my phone and I have a tendency to get a little wobbly. But I will put up a number of each type of painting if they’ll display cleaning…and there will be one extra surprise at the end.

William Merritt Chase: Girl in White; 1898 – 1901
Carrie Hill; View of Segovia; ca: 1925
John Singer Sargent; Hex Wood, Majorca; 1908
Elizabeth Boott; The Alhambra; 1881
Childe Hassam; Plaza de la Merced, Ronda; 1910
John Ferguson Weir: detail from The Alhambra, Granada, Spain: ca. 1901
Edwin Lord Weeks; Interior of a Mosque at Cordova; ca. 1880
El Greco: Saint Catherine; 1610 – 1614

Yes, I know he’s not American but he’s not Spanish either! And who can resist an El Greco!

So if you are interested in seeing this show, it is at the Milwaukee Art Museum through October 3, 2021. Due to continued pandemic concerns advance timed tickets are recommended and available…so check out that information here: Americans in Spain!

I plan to visit it again before it closes…so maybe I’ll see you there!!

Museums Close As Pandemic Spreads: Art Institute of Chicago and the Milwaukee Art Museum

First, from an email that I received on Tuesday November 17th from the Art Institute of Chicago:

Since reopening in late July, the Art Institute has warmly—and safely—welcomed visitors back to the galleries to experience firsthand the transformative power of art.

However, due to the governor’s new directives for the state of Illinois, the museum will immediately be closed to visitors.

We will continue to work with local and state public health departments and will keep you updated on any new developments, including information about reopening.

In the meantime, please stay in touch through our website and social media channels. We’ll continue to develop content that fulfills our mission to foster the exchange of ideas and inspire an expansive, inclusive understanding of human creativity.

In the meantime take advantage of their online features and information. Their website is: https://www.artic.edu/

And this morning, the Milwaukee Business Journal published an article that the Milwaukee Art Museum would close until January 2, 2021 due to concerns from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Milwaukee Art Museum announced it will close to the public beginning Thursday through at least Jan. 2, 2021, as a result of rising Covid-19 cases in the city of Milwaukee.

While the facility is closed to the public, art museum staff will work from home to continue virtual art museum engagements. The museum is encouraging visitors to view its content online with virtual tours of gallery spaces, interviews with artists and art projects for families.

And so you can keep tabs and utilize their online features, the MAM website is: http://mam.org/

Editor’s Note: this afternoon I also received notification that the Milwaukee Public Museum and the Cleveland Museum Of Art are closing for a period of time due to the pandemic. MPM didn’t provide an anticipated opening date, while CMA hopes to reopen on December 17th, 2020.

Let’s Revive Museum Art Rental/Sales Galleries

For those of you who aren’t familiar with an art rental and sales gallery, here’s a bit of background based on my personal experience. In the mid to late 20th Century, many major museums had art rental and sales galleries. They are exactly what they sound like. They were a dedicated gallery space where visitors could rent or purchase contemporary art. If I remember correctly, work could be rented by the month and monthly fees would be subtracted from the purchase price if the work was purchased. The artists on display were usually from the area around the art museum. These galleries would have a curator and a small staff…plus a group of volunteers.

How did this work? Well there would be a call for submissions from local artists. Similar to what regional or national shows do now. Often those eligible to submit had to live within the market area of the museum (the Art Institute of Chicago for instance used a 100 mile radius from Chicago). The artists generally could submit two or three pieces. This would usually happen quarterly. And just like any other art show, the curator or a guest artist/curator would select work to be exhibited during the next time period. And the artists who weren’t selected would collect their work and wait until another time.

After the selections were made and the work hung, there would often be an opening. But during the period work would often be swapped out or rehung depending on wall space and sales and rentals. And some galleries would have featured artists who would have a special niche or wall and additional pieces shown during the period.

These galleries were very popular with young artists. They provided a cheap and easy way to get work prominently displayed in a museum. But they probably didn’t provide enough revenue for the museum to cover the expenses to run the gallery. The Milwaukee Art Museum’s rental and sales gallery was in the Cudahy Gallery I believe and the Art Institute’s was in the lower level just north of their current photo galleries.

But these galleries started to disappear late in the century. I imagine there were better uses of the space calling out to the museums and as I said, they probably didn’t provide much revenue. I don’t know how much work was sold…nor if anything was ever rented. I didn’t know any artists who had any success that way. I was lucky enough to have work in the Art Institute art rental and sales gallery from fall of 1976 to spring of 1978…a number of prints and water colors. I never rented or sold anything but I did get a north of the loop gallery out of it.

But let’s look at 2020 as we watch the nation search for ways to reach racial and gender equality in society. And we watch art museums and art groups pledge to provide more diversity in their staff and management, the artists they show, and the programming that they provide. Let’s consider reaching out to the local community by reviving museum based art rental and sales galleries.

Yes, we still have the issue of revenue/cost relationships. And even as museums start to re-open they have all been hit hard financially by the shutdowns forced on them by the COVID-19 pandemic. But in a lot of ways, modern technology should be a major means of reducing costs compared to the good old days.

Yes, the museum will still need to provide floor space and in most museums that will still be a limited resource prized by the curators of traditional art classifications. But the museums have committed to community diversity and they have a very visual opportunity here. Now, they will still need a curator. Whether that individual is solely dedicated to the art rental and sales area may depend on the size of the museum or its audience. And they will need staff beyond the typical museum security staff because, hopefully, some sales or rental transactions will be taking place.

But in the 21st C, museums are more in tune with securing corporate sponsorship for galleries, shows, and special events. This would be a perfect instance for a local sponsor to reach out to the local community as well.

The museum wouldn’t have the sturm and drang of artists hauling in pieces for jury four times a year either. Most shows and galleries now use digital work submitted by email or other digital means. So periodical calls for submissions won’t require extra staff, storage space, or gallery interruptions. So a curator and/or invited jury could review prospective pieces and more easily put together a show.

But given a new interest in outreach, the curator could also actually curate…rather than perform a blind jury…and pull together shows of local artists that would provide a real opportunity to exhibit artists from diverse backgrounds. Not only diverse artists but primarily local artists…who would enjoy the exposure and imprimatur of showing in a museum.

This may sound grand but there are a couple of issues that I am aware of…and readers can probably come up with a dozen more.

First, the museums would need to develop the expertise to seek out and identify minority artists in their communities. That isn’t as easy as it seems. Museums tend to be white and often older and in the past 20 years, there have been fewer and fewer local galleries so local artists are harder than ever to find. (why the call for submissions and a jury process are still viable…although it may be necessary to find new venues to get the message out…hurray for social media(?))

And the second is museums are getting very expensive to visit. And yes, some museums have free days subsidized by local corporations or philanthropists, but in general museums are very expensive to visit. So to be particularly effective, art rental and sales galleries should be available to the public in an area outside the paid admission areas. Like the bookstores at the Art Institute or the Milwaukee Art Museum. Or free admission vouchers should be provided to exhibiting artists or area organizations who support minority communities or societal diversity.

It is one thing to embrace diversity through hiring and exhibitions…but at some point you have to provide a means to embrace the whole community as well.

Ok, I haven’t actually solved anything here…just made some suggestions off the top of my head…but I’d like to see major museums again invite local artists back into the house…all local artists…and then provide means for the whole community to celebrate those artists.