There was no way of knowing what a great success the James Watrous Gallery in Overture Center for the Arts would be when its doors opened on Sunday, September 19, in 2004. Located in downtown Madison, just steps from the Capitol Square, the high-profile gallery was originally proposed in 1997 as new home for the Wisconsin Academy Gallery, which had for years lived in the cozy confines of the Academy’s Steenbock Building offices. After years of consideration and negotiation, then-Wisconsin Academy director Robert Lange, working with philanthropists Jerome Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland, secured a coveted third-floor gallery space in the nascent art center.
The new gallery was named for renowned artist and teacher James S. Watrous. Watrous, who became a Wisconsin Academy Fellow in 1982, was an advocate for culture and civil discussion in all its forms, and a fine namesake for a gallery whose mission is to support and showcase Wisconsin art and artists. The move to the new Overture Center was a risky one. The proposed space, 1,500 square feet with 130 feet of brightly lit linear wall space along the upper level of architect Ceasar Pelli’s soaring glass dome, was a far cry from the living room-sized gallery space at 1922 University Avenue.
If the Wisconsin Academy Gallery—now the James Watrous Gallery—was going to succeed at Overture, they were going to need some help. Lynne Watrous Eich, the daughter of James S. Watrous, had asked curator Randall Berndt to look into a promising curator named Martha Glowacki who was doing excellent work at the UW–Madison School of Human Ecology’s Gallery of Design. Berndt, who recognized Glowacki's name from mural restoration work both had done for the university, agreed with Eich that Glowacki would be a perfect fit for the new gallery. And the rest is Academy history.
On this ten year anniversary of the opening of the James Watrous Gallery, Wisconsin People & Ideas asked curators Martha Glowacki and Randall Berndt—each a visual artists in their own right—to share with readers some memories of their time at the gallery and how it has influenced their lives and careers.
I was working part-time as the director of the Gallery of Design in UW–Madison’s School of Human Ecology when Randall called me on the QT to see if I might be interested in coming to the Academy to help plan the gallery’s move to the Overture Center.
My artistic life was going well in 2002. I had been part of a four-person show at the Elvehjem Museum (now known as the Chazen Museum of Art) in Madison called Cabinets of Curiosities: Four Artists, Four Visions (2000). That show followed a decade that saw arts residencies in the Kohler Arts Center’s Arts/Industry program and a solo show at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. My sculpture was becoming more complex in terms of materials, scale, and sources. I was drawing ideas from the history of science, poetry, and 19th century material culture. I felt that working for the Academy, with its emphasis on transdisciplinary programs, would be a perfect fit for me.
I was greatly tempted by the job because I knew how important the Academy’s exhibition program was to Wisconsin’s visual arts community, and I thought that I would really like working with Randall. At that time in fall of 2002, the Overture Center was the buzz in Madison; we couldn’t believe that the Frautschis had given that much money to build a first-class arts center in our town. The thought of helping to develop an arts program in the new Overture Center was too much for me to resist.
Before I even really knew who or what the Wisconsin Academy was, I was invited in 1994 to exhibit my artwork in the Wisconsin Academy Gallery (now the Steenbock Gallery). Given my interest in all things remote and past, the following year I was invited to curate Maps of Encounter: The French in Seventeenth Century Wisconsin (1995) an Academy Gallery exhibition of historic maps from the collection of Parker Pen magnate George S. Parker.
I must have done something right, because I was asked to co-direct the Academy’s gallery program, along with Sally Hutchison, for several years until I became gallery director in 1998. Prior to this I had various jobs, in addition to pursuing my personal art life, including coloring comics for Kitchen Sink Press of Princeton and working on an art conservation crew during the State Capitol’s renovation in the early 1990s, where, coincidentally, I first met Martha.
But none of this really prepared me for moving the Academy’s gallery program to Overture in 2004, which involved a huge growth spurt! The prospect of being in a well-lit, spanking new, much bigger space was daunting and exciting. It was a tremendous opportunity to build on the well-respected exhibition history we had accrued since the 1980s when the gallery was called into being as a much-needed showcase for Wisconsin art.
Here was the opportunity to put our program in front of a much bigger audience along with much more attention—bright lights on our triumphs and possible missteps.
Yes, I remember there being great anticipation for the Academy’s move into the Overture Center. The new gallery space, with professional-quality lighting, more exhibition space, and much better accessibility for people with disabilities, promised to be a quantum leap from the gallery in the Academy office building. Our open hours could be longer and there was parking. Plus we would be in the midst of a group of Overture resident companies that were keen to partner on programs. It was all very exciting.
As the main point person for planning the new gallery space, I got to work with Mike Huffman, the person on the construction team responsible for fitting out the interior spaces in the building. I remember going several times to look at the gallery space during construction, always with a hard hat and climbing up changing sets of temporary stairs to the third floor. Together, we chose office furniture and electronic equipment as part of our portion of the build-out; no way were they going to let us bring our second-hand furniture and old computers down to this pristine new space!
We decided on gallery display “furniture” too, including a set of simple white tables with Plexiglas vitrines, pedestals, and two movable walls to divide the space. We were able to select our own contractor for the gallery furniture and chose Jim Dietz, a local furniture designer and woodworker, to design and construct the pieces. We are still using all of Jim’s furniture today.
Our first exhibition in the new James Watrous Gallery, A Decade of Art (2004), featured over ninety small works hung salon style from artists who had shown in our Wisconsin Academy Gallery space during the previous ten years. It was a baptism by fire to put up such a complicated show right at the beginning. But it was visited by thousands of eager, elbowing onlookers during that first week of Overture’s opening celebration.
For that first show, Randall had planned to ask all of the artists who had one-person shows at the Academy Gallery to submit a small piece. He wanted to call the show A Decade of Art. What a great idea, I thought: it would be a grand celebration, and at the same time honor the Academy’s commitment to continuing a gallery program for Wisconsin artists.
But I don’t think either of us thought through how much work this would be. There were over a hundred artists on the invitation list. I thought we might get fifty or sixty artists who would be interested in participating in such a large group show. Instead, almost everyone we asked wanted to be part of the celebration. We ended up wrangling almost ninety artists from all over Wisconsin, each of whom wanted to deliver their work to a very busy new loading dock two weeks before Overture opened—and they all wanted tours of the amazing new building. Randall, Jennifer Stofflet (who had joined the gallery team in the summer of 2003), and I somehow managed to assemble all of the work, shoehorn it into the gallery space, and remain standing for the opening week festivities.
During that first week, with Overture’s extended hours and lots of free programming, we had something like 15,000 people troop through our crowded opening show. It was madness, and we were running on adrenaline and exhausted by the end of the week. For the first year that Overture was open, our attendance was amazingly high as people from the area came in to see what this new arts complex was all about.
Things soon settled down. Jennifer, Randall, and I developed a rhythm as a working team and found that we loved working together. I have very fond memories of our early years at Overture.
Working in the Watrous Gallery these last ten years has been a terrific “post graduate” course of study—I got my MFA in 1969—in wildly varying artist’s personalities, art styles, and curatorial challenges. Presentation, context, and lighting as well as how far off the floor the art should go were dealt with and mostly went unnoticed by casual gallerygoers. Writing text for exhibitions is a mind-expanding exercise in putting into words the ineffable qualities of visual art—which is supposed to be visual rather than wordy.
In the end, dealing with all this art over the years has helped me think critically if not systematically about quality in art. I have often exercised some curator’s compassion in coming in contact with art wildly different from my own, and, at the same time, becoming more firm in pursuing my personal quest, more definite in developing the identity of my own art, my own visual narrative.
My position at the Watrous Gallery has given me lots of freedom to pursue curatorial ideas. Because we are a small part-time staff, we have to do the wide variety of tasks that are more specialized in a larger arts organization. I’ve had to learn how to write complex grants and do fund-raising, how to be a registrar and publicist, and how to design and hang all sorts of art work. I’ve loved learning all of those things. This job has never seemed remotely boring to me: sometimes frustrating, sometimes overwhelming, but never boring.
Over the course of my time at the Watrous Gallery I’ve also found that I have a real talent for exhibition design and for large multi-disciplinary projects with a visual arts component. I’ve learned this through my own work as an artist: I’ve done four large installation projects during the last ten years, including my Washburn Observatory show, Starry Transit (2005) and Loca Miraculi/Rooms of Wonder (2008) at the Milwaukee Art Museum with the Chipstone Foundation. But the wide range of projects that we’ve done at the Watrous Gallery has really gone beyond anything I would be able to do on my own as an artist. At this point, I feel really confident about tackling complex projects, and have a reputation as an artist who can pull them off.
I have especially enjoyed working with the Academy’s Visual Arts Fellows. These have included John Wilde, Warrington Colescott, Lee Weiss, Ray Gloeckler, David Lenz, and Tom Uttech. They have all been tremendous exemplars for me of what it means to take yourself seriously as a practicing, professional artist. John Wilde, who had a strong national reputation as well as much success with museum exhibitions and commercial galleries too, once confided in me that he was surprised that people would actually want to buy his paintings and drawings. His work was so utterly devoted to his inward psychic process, containing grotesqueries galore, that he maybe thought it was a lucky coincidence that others could see the art in it. Both Wilde’s magical “inscapes” and Tom Uttech’s powerfully transcendent landscapes set in mysterious northern places have been inspirational for me. Tom is refreshingly unpretentious and candid about his struggles to attain what he wants to in his work and, despite his doubts, his paintings are always an intriguing, wild world to enter. Both artists represent for me the importance of personal expression, dedication to craft, and avoidance of the fashionable in art trends.
I have also enjoyed the friendship and support of many other Wisconsin artists met through Watrous Gallery doings, visiting their studios, borrowing ideas and techniques, and complaining about the ups and downs both material and emotional of the artist life.
As I hoped, working at the Academy on programs that bridge the sciences, visual arts, and creative writing in innovative ways has fueled my own interests in creating artwork that combines ideas from science and history. It’s been a real pleasure to work with people who are concerned with Wisconsin’s environment and culture, who are energized by talking about ideas, and who go beyond talk to create programs that share Wisconsin’s creative people and ideas with others.
I’m often called upon to talk about the synergy between my life as an artist and my life as a curator. There seems to be great interest in artists working as curators right now. Randall and I both believe that we have brought special insight into our curatorial work at the Academy because we are practicing visual artists. Many of the artists that we have worked with comment on this, appreciating that we understand working on an exhibition from the perspective of an artist as well as a curator.
My position with the Watrous Gallery and Academy has opened doors for me as an artist. I’ve had the chance to work with people from all sorts of other cultural organizations because of my position at the Academy. This has led to valuable connections for me as an artist as well as lasting friendships. I’m grateful for that and know that I’ll have to find new ways to maintain those connections when I retire from the gallery at the end of this year.
Representing “The Arts”—we at the gallery usually thought of these as visual art alone—in a multidisciplinary organization has a distinct advantage: the freedom to conceptualize and present art in different ways. As a curator I had the opportunity to organize exhibitions with “value added” to the purely visual component of the subject matter.
Two historic maps exhibitions were mounted where their geography, history and visual beauty all talked about how odd these 17th, 18th, and even 19th century maps look to our modern eyes. Rebirth of the Prairie: Aldo Leopold and Ecological Restoration (1999) focused on the beginnings of prairie restoration at the UW Arboretum through photography and text. I also curated The Fine Art of Children’s Book Illustration (2009), an exhibition featuring well-known Wisconsin authors/illustrators of children’s books, where the synergy between text and image came alive on the gallery walls. The recent Inhabited Landscapes (2013) exhibition featured art from seven prominent Wisconsin landscape artists and emphasized through artists’ statements the importance of their sense of place as well as environmental issues implicit in the art itself.
One of the greatest curatorial gifts I received was an invitation to the Curators’ Conversations that David Wells organized through Edenfred, an arts residency facility in Madison that is, alas, now closed. Soon after I came to work at the Academy, David came up with the idea of asking arts curators from large and small museums and university art galleries across Wisconsin to gather twice a year for a day-long meeting. I’ve felt embraced by this group of people: we eat together, kvetch, share successes and failures alike. I feel like we are part of a family, my fellow-travelers in the arts.
I have also developed friendships and great working relationships through some of the projects that I’ve worked on for the Watrous Gallery. These projects tend to be an inordinate amount of work, but for me the results are worth it.
I loved working with Ruth Olson, a folklorist with the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures at UW–Madison. Ruth and I spent a lot of time together during two exhibition projects: Miss Annie Mae’s Hats (2006) and Wisconsin’s People on the Land (2007). I especially remember a road trip to Milwaukee with Ruth and photographer Bob Rashid. We were going to a hat shop that specialized in wonderfully flamboyant “church hats” to meet Annie Mae’s niece, who would model hats while Bob photographed her. Egged on by Annie Mae’s niece and the shop owner, Bob, Ruth, and I ended up throwing our inhibitions out the hat shop door, trying on hats (!), and buying one to take home to wear for the exhibition opening.
Another group of people that I greatly enjoyed working with were people from the McPherson Eye Research Institute at UW–Madison for an exhibition titled About Seeing (2012), which looked at the physiology of human sight as well as the work of three visual artists who had experienced significant eye problems. I was both excited and a bit intimidated by this project. Would I understand their research well enough to work with them to develop content for the show? At our first meeting I realized that the scientists were just as excited about partnering as I was. Matt Rarey, Shiela Reaves, Bas Rokers, Rodney Schreiner, and Gail Stirr worked with me for over a year to develop About Seeing. I think that we created something memorable and unusual, and I have a new group of friends and colleagues because of it.
Help from other curators, like our neighbors at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, and designers, like John Huston from Huston Design, has been invaluable to both my personal success and the success of the gallery. MMoCA has been generous with us in many ways, letting us borrow frames and exhibition cases, partnering on educational programs, and loaning artwork from their permanent collection. MMoCA preparators Mark Verstegen and Doug Fath even showed Randall and me the nuances of installing vinyl lettering on the walls, along with other tricks of the trade. And I would like to thank Steve Fleischman, Sheri Castelnuovo, Marilyn Sohi, Katie Kazan, Rick Axsom, and Leah Kolb for their help and friendship.
John Huston, the Academy’s (and sometimes my own, personal) graphic designer, has been wonderful to work with. I like his clean, classical design aesthetic; it dovetails with my own. When I was working on Starry Transit, my installation at the Washburn Observatory at UW–Madison, I asked John if he would consider working with me to do the graphic design on one of the mixed media pieces for the show. The resulting piece, titled Natural Philosophies (2006), was purchased through the UW–Madison Friends of the Library and hung in Memorial Library for several years. Tandem Press went on to publish an edition of prints based on Natural Philosophies.
If I have any advice to aspiring artists, it is this: Show your work wherever you can to get it out of your studio. See how it looks in the company of other art. Too, keep trying if you are rejected from competitive shows, find a place to be accepted—there are layers and layers to the art world. Okay, this, too: study art history and the old masters, find out how to make the craft of your art better, put yourself in your art, keep it personal but somehow try to drag in as little as possible from the disposable, fad-ridden pop culture we all swim around in. Spend little time in shopping malls. Study trees and clouds.
Remember we are all emerging each and every day.
Find inspirational artists’ aphorisms to live by and note them down in your sketchbook. Here is one taken from the short story “The Middle Years” by author Henry James that I have on my studio wall: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art”
While there are many parts of my work for the Academy that have been meaningful, the thing that has meant the most to me personally is our work with fellow artists. Randall and I often talk about how much we have learned from the many artists we have worked with: how they balance the demands of work, family, and studio; how they weather lean times; how they come up with new ideas to energize their work.
We also believe that a big part of our jobs as artist/curators is to support the artists who are doing solo exhibitions so that together we can produce the best possible result. This means being sensitive to the needs of the artist. Some are ready to install a well-designed exhibition with little help from us; some need lots of advice about selecting work to show and don’t know where to start with installing. Regardless of individual levels of experience and confidence, all of the artists are putting their most personal selves, their work as artists, out on public view. We share the resulting exhibition with the artists, celebrating if the show is fine and suggesting ways to make the next one better.
While we work intensely with artists for a short time during their shows at the gallery, the relationships that build from these experiences are almost always satisfying and sometimes long-lasting. These relationships have reinforced my own deep belief in the importance of creating and sharing art.