Grand Opening–American Collections Galleries at the Milwaukee Art Museum

In the gallery with Ned Cooke, Charlie Hummel, and Peter Kenny
Ned Cooke, Charles Hummel and Peter Kenny examine a Finnish-American rocking chair in the Finest in the Western Country exhibition.

On October 23, the Chipstone Foundation and the Milwaukee Art Museum celebrated the grand opening of the newly reinstalled American Collections Galleries at MAM. Over the past year and a half, the lower level of the War Memorial building at MAM has been in a state of flux as Chipstone and the museum worked to reinterpret and re-present their world-class collections of early decorative arts. I had the opportunity to help out a bit on this exciting project–mostly with packing up (and months later, unpacking) Chipstone’s priceless British and American ceramics.

Thursday marked the public unveiling of the new galleries, including Loca Miraculi: Rooms of Wonder, an amazing installation by artist Martha Glowacki and Hidden Dimensions, which takes an anthropological approach to understanding familiar objects (inspired by the presentation methods of Chicago’s Field Museum). Noted artist Fred Wilson delivered a lecture examining his own interventions and critiques of traditional museum practices, including his influential installation “Mining the Museum” at the Maryland Historical Society.

This was all great stuff, but I have to admit, the most exciting thing for me that day was the chance to show off the Finest in the Western Country exhibition to some of the major scholars who were in town for the opening events. I took Charles F. Hummel (former Deputy Director, Winterthur Museum and Library), Edward S. Cooke (Professor, Department of the History of Art, Yale), Peter M. Kenny (Curator of American Decorative Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Jules Prown (Professor emeritus, History of Art, Yale) on a tour of the show. They were all quite impressed with the high levels of artistry and craftsmanship that these objects reveal. They were most fascinated by the rocking chair attributed to Finnish immigrant Heikke Saukko (from the Douglas County Historical Society in Superior) and proceeded to make the museum guard very nervous after spending so much time on hands and knees examining the chair’s very unusual construction.

I was thrilled to see these important people in the field, whose work I so admire, get excited about Wisconsin decorative arts. Objects made in Wisconsin–and throughout the Midwest–are an important part of the history of American decorative arts. Their appeal is not limited to regional specialists. I’m so excited to begin to nudge the topic towards a more national stage.

Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer.

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