Since 2009, The Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee has sponsored a year-long Artist-in-Residence program. The selected artist sets up their studio in a glass-walled room on the ground floor of the luxury hotel, and guests are encouraged to observe and engage with the artist as they work. The 2014-2015 Pfister Artist-in-Residence was Niki Johnson, a multi-media sculptor and curator. The body of work Johnson developed during the residency was largely one of ceramic and mixed-media sculpture inspired by a selection of fairy tales. These drew from both from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, focusing on Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, The Princess and the Pea, Rapunzel, and Thumbelina.
The studio space, in addition to functioning as both an artist’s studio and a fishbowl for observers, also serves as a small gallery space, displaying finished works alongside those in-process. A series of images, black and white illustrations framed in gold, showed designs for six sculptural tubs created in response to each of the fairy tales. Two of the tubs, Tether (inspired by Snow White) and Lather (Cinderella), were present in the studio during my visit. Each Artist-in-Residence at The Pfister leaves an artwork behind as a contribution to The Pfister’s permanent collection, and Tether was Johnson’s legacy piece. It is a small tub—about the size that would accommodate a young child being read fairy tales— hand-pressed in terra cotta clay. The outside is a vivid red with gold patterning, and lined in places with cracks of gold reminiscent of kintsugi, the Japanese practice of fixing broken pottery with metallic lacquer. The interior is lined with feathers, fur, and snakeskin. The various colors, textures, and patterns evoke a certain sumptuous that feels appropriate for a luxury hotel.
Also on display were Nest Egg, a series of altered commemorative plates making extensive use of gold leaf to create the silhouettes of birds in various natural settings, and Drop/Let, an arrangement of porcelain balloons painted in pink, white, and gold, created for the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s The Pink Balloon Project. Somewhat of an outlier is the piece Laid Bare, a found late-19th-century chaise lounge elaborately reupholstered with expired French condoms.
Johnson’s body of work, however, was not exactly what brought me to Milwaukee from Chicago for a weekend this spring. In lieu of a standard wine-and-cheese reception or exhibition, Johnson chose instead to close out her residency with a day-long symposium. (There is somewhat of a precedent for putting a twist on the closing reception; fiber artist Timothy Westbrook turned his Pfister reception into a runway fashion show in 2013.) The event was called MarKEt/FORWARD and designed as the first act of MarKEt, a new non-profit she is developing with Kayle Karbowski. MarKEt (a blend of the Milwaukee abbreviation MKE and the art market) is described in its mission statement as follows:
“MarKEt is a Milwaukee based non-profit that fosters growth in the Milwaukee art scene by establishing a platform for new opportunities, education and professional development for the self-made artist. Sparked by the Midwestern DIY ethic, MarKEt aims to connect Milwaukee’s institutional, entrepreneurial, and financial communities, by working with established non-profits and commercial entities to create grassroots alliances.”
This text is largely aspirational, as MarKEt has only just come into existence, but having spoken with Niki Johnson I find it unsurprising that she wants to take on this kind of community organizing. One gets the impression that there is a parallel universe in which she is some kind of guru: a motivational speaker, a cult leader, a brilliant military captain. She speaks articulately, giving thorough, thought-out answers to spontaneous questions as if she had some vast internal text she could draw on at any moment. “I’m not trying to run this town,” she said at one point. She was smiling, but her voice was serious.
After arriving in Milwaukee the night before the symposium, I spoke with both Johnson and fellow arts writers in town for the event (James Pepper Kelly for ArtSlant and Kate Sierzputowski for Newcity). The conversation was lively, but by the end of the night I was very still very unsure what to expect; there was a lot of enthusiasm, but not a lot of specificity. Unfortunately as the symposium itself got underway, I found myself underwhelmed. Overall I was far more interested in Johnson’s artworks and personal conversation than in the content of the symposium. I found myself wondering, fairly ungenerously, how someone who makes such compelling objects and speaks so charismatically could create an event I found mostly tedious.
Over the course of the day, however, I kept reaching the same realization: I was somewhat disinterested because this event was not for me, which is not necessarily a negative. As a glance at the event’s graphic design or the Power Point styles of its presenters could tell you, this symposium was not slick, and its contents not especially groundbreaking, but it was serving its intended audience. It’s right there in the mission statement: MarKEt is for the Milwaukee-based, self-made artist. As someone with a couple of art degrees and a life entirely lived in the orbit of the three largest American cities, this symposium was not designed with me in mind. And that’s fine: perhaps too much of the art world is designed for someone (well, a man) coming to it with that perspective.
“Grant Writing Unmasked” with Melissa Dorn Richards, the first presentation after introductory remarks, was particularly unexciting to me, not because what she was saying was off the mark, but because it all seemed so obvious. Talking points included many basics: look at where a granting organization gets their funding and what projects they have funded previously; have someone else look at your application; imagine being on the other side of the table. But when I looked around the room, I saw an audience of people listening carefully and diligently taking notes. It was heartening. I’d been under the misapprehension that most people were in the same boat as me: I know what I need to do to apply for a grant, because resources about that information are all around me, but I’m disorganized, or lazy, or afraid of failure. But here is an artistic community that seems really eager for this kind of information, especially when it comes to Wisconsin-based resources like the Funding Information Center at Marquette University.
The presentation highlight for me was “Manufacturing Creativity” with Reginald Baylor, a Milwaukee-based artist working in a variety of media, and the 2009-2010 Pfister Artist-in-Residence. He spoke about how he turns to the music industry, the tech industry, and the sports industry, rather than the traditional fine art market, for inspiration in doing business. The art world, he asserted, should take a lesson from hip-hop; we can be more like Russell Simmons. “Suburban homes,” Baylor told us, are “the best museums,” urging us to acknowledge that there is a larger art market than that of exclusive galleries and collectors. He is interested in 200,000 buyers of his work, not 5—“I don’t think I love my work enough if I only want five people to have it.” In service to this kind of accessibility, Baylor sells his work out of his open studio, seeking to create an experience for his audience that is inviting rather than intimidating, more garage sale than gallery auction. His talk was an enjoyable reminder that there are infinite options when it comes to structuring the business of being an artist, and that it’s wise to assess those choices in light of your audience and goals, rather than pursuing one standard prescribed model of artistic “success.”
Overall, while MarKEt may not be as compelling to a Wisconsin outsider as Johnson’s personal artistic practice, it seems to have the potential to be a valuable addition to the Milwaukee art scene. Smaller American cities are often undersold, with the talented and ambitious encouraged to emigrate to the nearest hub and join the fierce competition for big city resources if they wish to succeed. But Milwaukee is, of course, not merely a satellite of Chicago (which is itself often [mis-]represented as dwelling under the shadows of New York and Los Angeles), but its own site of cultural production, with its own aesthetics and values. If the receptive audience of MarKEt is any indication, the Milwaukee art community is one hungry for passionate, locally-focused organization.
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- Niki Johnson and MarKEt/FORWARD at The Pfister Hotel, Milwaukee, WI - May 12, 2015