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Short Run
MSOE administrators canned the Journal Sentinel art critic’s radio show, but no one will say why.





Why did WMSE-FM drop Mary Louise Schumacher’s new arts show after just one episode?

Schumacher, the Journal Sentinel’s art critic, says she’s never gotten an official explanation, and there’s no indication she flubbed her premiere. After the debut episode aired on Friday, August 23, the station’s promotions director, Ryan Schleicher, sent her a congratulatory email.

Less than 24 hours later, however, the gig was gone. As Schumacher reported on her blog, station manager Tom Crawford later sent her an email asking her to call right away – and when she did, Crawford told her that the show was history.

“He was obviously very upset,” Schumacher says. “He essentially said that he appreciated the show; he respected me; but the leadership of MSOE had made the decision not to air the show.”

Schumacher says that when she asked why, Crawford said, “I can’t really tell you,” and  he repeated that response when she asked whether the cancellation had anything to do with something she’d written.

And to date, Schumacher says, school officials have maintained their silence on the topic.

(Full disclosure: Milwaukee Magazine recently began a weekly, half-hour talk show on WMSE called “No Revisions.”)

“We evaluate our programming on a regular basis,” the engineering school’s media relations director, JoEllen Burdue, tells Pressroom Buzz via email. “From time to time, it involves adding or removing a show. As a matter of standard practice, we don’t engage in public discussions about our programming decisions.”

 

Pressroom Buzz has learned, however, that the reason was indeed something Schumacher wrote – more than a half-decade ago.

Schumacher’s 2007 story about MSOE’s new Man At Work museum focused on the presence of artwork commissioned by the government of Nazi Germany, under Adolph Hitler.

The story pointed out that among the 700 paintings and sculptures collected by the museum’s principal donor, the single-most represented artist was one Erich Mercker, whose work, Schumacher wrote, “was commissioned directly by Hitler’s government to create images of the Third Reich’s expanding infrastructure.” The story noted that two other artists in the collection also had Nazi ties.

“One of the 81 Mercker works in the collection shows laborers cutting stone bound for the Chancellery in Berlin, the Reich's seat of power, and others depicting bridges of the Autobahn, one of Hitler's proudest achievements,” Schumacher wrote at the time.

When she asked Eckhart G. Grohmann, the Milwaukee industrialist whose donation of some 700 paintings and sculptures got the museum off the ground, about the appropriateness of including Nazi commissioned art in the display (without a forthright discussion of its origins), he told her that the museum was focused on the evolution of human work and industry – and nothing more.

“Grohmann also said Mercker was, like many artists, merely trying to make a living during the war years, a fact he says he learned from the artist’s heirs,” Schumacher wrote. And she reported the artist was not, in fact, a Nazi party member, confirming that detail with the National Archives.


In all, the story reflected some assiduous investigation. Schumacher even sought provenance records on the Mercker paintings (without success) in hopes of learning where they had come from before Grohmann’s purchase.

The piece was also highly nuanced. She pointed out that a local Jewish leader had specifically declined to criticize MSOE or the museum for including the Nazi-linked works in its exhibits. And she quoted an official with the Simon Wiesenthal Center who pointed out that in contrast to active, enthusiastic Nazi propagandists, hired artists like Mercker were “not necessarily the bad guys,” and that, “There’s a lot of gray in this area.”

At the same time, though, Schumacher was forthright in assessing the moral issue at hand.

She quoted a critic who suggested that some of the workers depicted in the paintings might well have been concentration camp slave laborers, and she took note of the curiously sanitized biography of Mercker that MSOE offered – it referred to the rising Nazi regime of the 1930s merely as “the new German rulers.”

She polled various art experts on the larger question of how to display Nazi-linked art and writing: “Curators and scholars generally agree that exhibiting works made for the Nazis is not, unto itself, egregious, but whitewashing the history is.”


That Schumacher was even raising questions struck a nerve with the museum and its benefactors.

When she asked now-retired museum director John Kopmeier “whether the museum would consider providing more historical context” for some of the works, she wrote that Kopmeier responded, “‘I could argue against this … It is of no interest to us.’”

Meanwhile the donor’s wife, Ischi Grohmann, told Schumacher “that the museum was ‘a private collection of a private man who gave this as a gift to a private school. The public has nothing to do with it,’” although, as Schumacher noted, the museum is open to the public seven days a week.

Whether a six-year-old controversy cost Schumacher the radio show at WMSE is still not a matter of public acknowledgement, and Schumacher has moved on. The program – which had several episodes already prepared when the first one aired – is now a podcast. 

*

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(photo via Shutterstock)





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