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.

Museum of Wisconsin Art Plans To Re-open In July

From my email this morning! I am looking forward to MOWA and other museums eventually re-opening.

The past few months and weeks have thrust extraordinary and unsettling change into all of our lives. Whether the result of the global pandemic and the financial crisis or the shocking reminders of brutal injustices inflicted on our nation’s communities of color, one thing is certain—no one has been untouched. As these disturbing events have unfolded from hospital wards to city streets, it has become increasingly clear that there will be no going back to what we were or how we functioned just three short months ago. Nor should we. 

When I last wrote to you in early April just days after closing the museum, I felt a keen sense of loss and even nostalgia as the museum plunged headlong into an uncertain future. Today, as we prepare to reopen in early July, I am saddened by the suffering of so many of our friends and neighbors and the disproportionate impact of these disturbing events on our communities of color. But I am also buoyed by a sense of optimism that MOWA can do more in these challenging times. 

Museums have always played an important role in creating platforms for difficult, thought-provoking conversations. In MOWA’s role as the museum for the State of Wisconsin, we also have a responsibility to represent and support all of our communities—black, brown, and Indigenous as well as white and all others. I and our Board of Directors take that mission seriously. Over the last couple of years, MOWA has made significant progress in increasing exhibition opportunities and in supporting emerging artists from black and brown communities. But we acknowledge that we can do more to promote racial and social equity in everything we do, and we will. 

As MOWA’s Executive Director, I pledge to all of you that in the coming weeks and months, the museum will implement the following initiatives:

When we reopen in July, our members will find reinstalled galleries, educational materials, and future exhibitions that create a more inclusive story of Wisconsin art 

We will take immediate action to increase the diversity of our Board of Directors and to provide anti-racism training for our entire staff and volunteer corps

We will make a commitment to acquiring artworks that further expand the diverse voices of the museum’s permanent collection, and 

We will create an ongoing, paid internship to support a university student of color seeking a career in the museum industry.

So, yes, I am optimistic, more optimistic about the future than I have ever been. I believe that MOWA and the arts can be part of building a better and more equitable community. My staff and I do not have all the answers and we will undoubtedly make mistakes along the way, but we will learn and we will look to all of our devoted members to help guide us.  

Together, we can and will do so much more. 

Laurie Winters

Executive Director | CEO

MOWA stands with our Wisconsin communities during these challenging times and we support Black Lives Matter

Very positive changes and I am excited to see what their new programming will include.

And for those of us concerned about going out in public again…MOWA is taking precautions for visitors and employees in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. They plan on opening July 8th and here is the safety information from the museum.

but just a couple of highlights, typical for most businesses as they re-open:

Reducing capacity requirements by 25% to ensure social distancing.

Access to hand-sanitizing stations throughout the museum.

Mandatory face coverings for all members, visitors, and employees. Disposable high-quality face masks provided free of charge if needed.

Special hours for seniors (60+) and vulnerable members to access(Wednesday – Sunday, 9:30 am – 10:30 am).

So, stay safe, and enjoy Wisconsin Art!