Elena Platonova is an art advisor, curator, and artist liaison in New York and London. Her Instagram handle is @ElenasArtAdventures.
“Avenue des Champ-Elysees. Park Avenue. Michigan Avenue… Milwaukee’s Wisconsin Avenue is emerging as one of the grandest,” say the organizers of Sculpture Milwaukee, an ambitious plan to install twenty-two monumental outdoor sculptures along a major downtown business thoroughfare. Art, despite the presence of a starchitect-designed art museum and a city with a history of wealthy collectors, is not synonymous with Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is better known for its numerous breweries, quality dairy products, and the world’s largest summer music festival.
Star Sculptors, Diverse Styles
The selection of sculptures chosen for the project represent a diverse list of names in terms of techniques, styles and artists’ backgrounds: from an oversized ‘liquid’ bronze tower by the Englishman Tony Cragg, which took four month of negotiations with the adjacent building to install, to Manolo Valdez’s stately Spanish queen gazing at the sleek new Northwestern Mutual building across the street (one of the project’s sponsors), to a bronze horse cast from twigs found in Montana woods by Deborah Butterfield. A white minimalist ‘zikkurat’ by Sol LeWitt was assembled locally according to the instructions provided by the artist’s estate. Santiago Calatrava’s spiky metal ring, reflected in the windows of the nearby Chase Bank, was previously displayed at New York’s Park Avenue. (Calatrava, a renowned Spanish architect, has a special relationship with the city, having built the Quadracci Pavilion for the art museum down the street—by now an architectural symbol of Milwaukee.) Alison Saar’s life-size dark-bronze sculpture with a glass-covered belly that lights up from the glow of fireflies at nighttime distantly resembles ancient monuments of fertility goddesses. This work, made by an African American artist, placed in the middle of downtown Milwaukee, could be a statement on the diversity, and segregation, of the city’s population, as well as symbolize hope for reconciliation of racial tensions. Works of three local artists—Jason S. Yi, Michelle Grabner and Paul Druecke, whose text-based “Shoreline Repast” refers to the local history—complement the multifarious roster.
Sculpture Milwaukee, an initiative that took over four years to come to fruition, is a brainchild of Steve Marcus, a long-time city benefactor and chairman of the board of Marcus Corporation, which runs dozens of movie theaters and hotels in several states. Marcus garnered support for the project from the city’s government officials and business community, presenting it as the world’s largest display of monumental sculpture that could be viewed entirely for free. At the project’s opening ceremony on May 31, Marcus compared the free-of-charge display to major museum exhibitions of international art that would cost “25 to 30 dollars” to attend. It was also announced that the consignees provided the sculptures at no cost since most of them are offered for sale. It should be noted that the program is run through a non-profit formed by Milwaukee Downtown, an organization that derives a substantial portion of its profit from a special tax on commercial properties.
The official opening of the project took place a stone throw away from Marcus Corporation’s headquarters and coincided with its chairman’s birthday. The initiative could be interpreted as a gift both to the city and to one of its most powerful entrepreneurs and generous benefactors. Mr. Marcus is an avid art collector himself, with multiple names included in Sculpture Milwaukee gracing his personal collection. The works will adorn the public spaces up until the end of October, providing excellent PR for the artists and their estates, as well as forming an extant open-air shopping mall for potential buyers.
Snubbed by Sotheby’s (and Christie’s)
The fact that Marcus’ name is closely associated with the widely publicized project could bolster the buying interest of the local establishment, which is known to include a fair share of high-end art collectors. Milwaukee Art Museum is a world-class institution with vast holdings of contemporary art, receiving strong support from wealthy local art appreciators. According to the official art advisor of Art Milwaukee, Russell Bowman (a perfect candidate for the job, having held the post of the museum’s director from 1985 to 2002), he worked closely with consignors, primarily major galleries, which willingly honored his requests to allocate certain works and made their own suggestions of others. No wonder the dealers, certainly familiar with the deep pockets of the regional buyers, responded enthusiastically. And why refuse to display their merchandize on a busy street lined with offices of major corporations and leading to the Santiago Calatrava-designed Art museum during the busiest summer months, especially if they are exempt from the high installation cost?
When asked on what grounds the project is positioned as the world’s largest display of monumental sculpture, Bowman used a more modest definition—“one of the world’s largest”—and then specified, “in which the works are for sale.” According to Bowman, Christie’s and Sotheby’s were the first prospective consignors he approached, having in mind another ambitious regional initiative— Beyond Limits, Sotheby’s selling exhibition of monumental outdoor sculpture at Chatsworth House in England, in place in various iterations for over ten years. The major auction houses were much less enthusiastic about Milwaukee’s potential to become a key event in the world’s art calendar, which eventually turned Bowman to gallerists. The dealers he contacted, Marian Goodman, Marlborough Gallery and James Cohen among them, may have been more attracted by the potential profits of the sales, due to a smaller size of their operations, and—working directly with the artists—less daunted by the often convoluted logistics of the consignment.
Sales Are Not the Only Measure of Success
Time will tell how many of the sculptures, ranging from $25,000 to $1.5 million, will end up selling, but the financial success of the project could ensure its smooth sailing in the future: a share of the sales’ proceeds will be reinvested to fund future showings of sculpture, which are planned to be held on an annual basis.
Whether private interests are served in the process or not, the uplift to Milwaukee’s art scene could benefit the city in a number of ways. E. Wisconsin Avenue is lined with major office buildings, but it is rarely visited by locals working in other parts of town. A presence of twenty-two large-scale artworks, many of which are very approachable—like Tony Tasset’s vertical row of colorful emoji faces (“Mood Sculpture”) or Tom Otterness’ simplistic but thought-provoking “Immigrant Family”—is due to increase foot traffic in the area and possibly the attendance of the museum flanking the street. Tourists are more likely to walk the avenue and take note of some of its prominent architectural landmarks. Groups of school children are expected to visit and reflect upon the significance of the newly erected sculptures. Perhaps, the project will even become a magnet for art aficionados willing to take a plane ride to see one of the world’s largest sculpture displays. With the government’s support for fine art institutions dwindling and the Endowment for the Arts being in danger of losing its funding, private initiative and generosity in the manner of Steve Marcus could be a viable and efficient alternative to federal- and state-run art programs, in the Midwest and beyond.