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:

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:

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.

Nares : Moves

This is a reprint of my remarks about “Nares : Moves” a special exhibit presented at the Milwaukee Art Museum from June 14 through October 6, 2019. This originally appeared on my Facebook timeline October 6, 2019.

 Nares : Moves was the featured exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum from June 14 through October 6, 2019 in the Baker/Rowland galleries. Unlike traditional retrospectives that follow an artist’s career chronologically, to best display Jamie Nares work, the MAM arranged it in related media or content or styles. Every piece here displays a fascination with motion. And he is quoted in the accompanying brochure: “Things in motion, motion in things”. Some work better than others. And Nares is a student of this era and also representative of a number of movements from her half of the 20th Century.

James Nares, It’s Raining in Naples, 2003. Private collection. Image courtesy of Kasmin Gallery and copied from the Milwaukee Art Museum website.

There are any number of videos throughout the exhibit and they all examine motion in one form or another. But there aren’t people in them. They focus on concrete balls that are free range filmed rolling down ramps or suspended from steel cables to act as a pendulum. The people who happen to appear are unintentional or are acting to make the movie or moving the objects. Incidentals.

Or appendages…as they appear…waving ribbons…snapping fingers…waving in repeated motions…so the motions and shadows are captured on film. And often time and motion are distorted or manipulated by playing with the film speed…Nares loves slo-motion in its own right.

There is one major exception to the no people as actors…it’s a longer film taken as continuous street scenes…where the people don’t know they are actors…and the camera is simply a voyeur…and again slo-motion exaggerates and distorts the sense of motion. This film is also manipulated a bit as it seems that Nares focused on the street people and cut out portions that were intersections or building-scapes.

The entire thing brought to mind early videos of Andy Warhol who often pointed cameras at buildings and let them run on for hours. Or some of his screen tests where his friends or stable babbled or did mundane things without any real context or dialogue. In both Warhol and Nares we seen change and motion…but to the modern sensibility nothing is happening. Nares utilizes sound but it isn’t what you would consider a soundtrack…and it varies…but it helps establish a sense related to the visuals. The footfalls chasing the concrete ball with the camera as it rolls away from him is compelling.

One film in the pendulum room showed Nares signature concrete ball being used as a pendulum. This went on for quite some time and was shown from a number of angles and lighting effects (all natural light). The film is so grainy that if it hadn’t been depicting the motion of the pendulum and been simply a screen shot or stop action photo, it could easily have been one of Georges Seurat’s black crayon drawings.

Nares also did a number of photographs that depict the human figure in motion using time lapse photograph. Any number of Polaroids and Cibachrome photos where we see the figure moving through space, overlapping its own features, and trapped in amber so to speak. The figures are anonymized as the faces are never shown. A rather unique and perhaps modern take on Eadweard Muybridge’s own stop action motion studies, but all in one rather than in series. With the time lapse overlays, Nares has made his more interesting and they feel far more sculptural.

I spent some time in the room labelled Portraits. As I observed the portraits, a lot of people just walked right though the room. But you had to observe these portraits, not just look at them. The theme here is ‘moves’. And if you stand and observe the portraits, you realize that they aren’t photographs of head shots. They again are slo-motion videos and if you stand and observe you will notice a face shift from somber to smiling or eyes blink closed and open or hands clasp and unclasp. The result is far more a portrait than a typical portrait photograph.

I am not sure I appreciate Nares as a painter. Her high-speed paintings seem more gimmick than art. Large pieces of paper are taped around a cylinder and then rotated. As they rotate Nares applies paint to the paper until she is satisfied with the result. And the final painting is a long horizontal painting with horizontal lines in the selected variety of color, thickness, or waviness that didn’t tell me anything. More an experience to do than to see.

And her large waves of color paintings have all of the pop and flare and color and craftsmanship of pop art of the period. Pretty. Unobtrusive. Not memorable. Maybe a little bit cold. I didn’t enjoy them.

And the spotted leopard skin paintings? What?

To close, let me share these quotes from the brochure by contemporaries describing their paintings:

Frank Stella: “What you see is what you see”.

James Nares: “What you see, is what was there”.

More info on the show with video and audio items on MAM site here!