Radical Fun

Photos and story by Tom Bamberger Brady Roberts appears neither tall nor short, stout nor thin, old nor young. He seems slightly different each time you see him. Sitting in his office, Roberts looks inert, submerged in a nondescript suit, an ineffable presence until he leaps up to grab a book. “Have you seen this?” And there is Teresita Fernández, an installation artist who somehow uses industrial materials to create diaphanous spaces that magically vaporize into pure experience. As Roberts talks about the work, his gestures sweep in increasingly wider arcs, his ebullience takes over the room. According to several…

Photos and story by Tom Bamberger

Brady Roberts appears neither tall nor short, stout nor thin, old nor young. He seems slightly different each time you see him. Sitting in his office, Roberts looks inert, submerged in a nondescript suit, an ineffable presence until he leaps up to grab a book.

“Have you seen this?” And there is Teresita Fernández, an installation artist who somehow uses industrial materials to create diaphanous spaces that magically vaporize into pure experience. As Roberts talks about the work, his gestures sweep in increasingly wider arcs, his ebullience takes over the room. According to several museum insiders, Roberts was the only candidate for chief curator who talked about art at his interview.

“While I was in graduate school in art history [at UW- Madison], I realized I didn’t want to sit in an office and look at slides and write about art,” Roberts says. “I wanted to look at objects.”

That led to many late-1980s visits to the Milwaukee Art Museum. “I’d come back and tell everyone what they were missing.”

Now Roberts, 44, hired as chief curator in January 2009, is in charge of all the works he loved looking at in the museum. Roberts and his boss, MAM director Daniel Keegan, have some radical ideas about what should be done with them.

They have taken over a peculiar institution. The Calatrava addition put the Milwaukee Art Museum on the map, but all the works it was supposed to dramatize have become dimmer and more distant. Roberts and Keegan want to make art the star. They also want to overturn the scholarly museum tradition that makes art into a lesson rather than a pleasurable experience. In their own quiet way, they are radicals.

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“It was important to me to hire someone with values similar to mine,” Keegan explains, “who really understands the linkage between the art and the visitor experience. Brady is not uptight and locked into his ideas.”

Keegan speaks in such modulated management tones that it’s easy to miss what makes him so different. When most of his peers were doing dissertations and giving lectures, Keegan was playing with clay in his ceramics studio. He is not part of the club. Keegan began as a ceramics artist and shares Roberts’ love of objects.

The goal for Keegan and Roberts begins with a blunt question: What do you do about all the blank stares in a museum? “Museum fatigue” has been studied for a hundred years. When presented with a litany of similar objects, it takes only about 20 minutes for a viewer to lose focus and interest. Why?

“How do you engage the visitor?“ Keegan muses. The answer, he wrote in an online chat, is by giving visitors “accessible and memorable experiences” rather than using a school teacher’s “stand and deliver tactic.”

Art museums can be very pedantic. All the art is buffered by experts who lecture and write text panels and labels that put everything into chapter and verse that moves you down a path. Audio guides rattle off information, displacing the art experience. It seems you are always supposed to be doing something other than enjoying whatever catches your eye.

Keegan wants the museum to be less bossy, to stop telling visitors what they don’t know, to get rid of narrow one-way streets. “Today, people with computers and iPods want to make choices, pick and choose their path, be in control,” he says. “They want to come to a museum and see other people and be social. I want to add energy to ideas. Be interactive. Increase the dynamic range of the museum.”

The “visitor experience” perspective has begun to ricochet around the museum world. Olga Viso, director of Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, reinstalled her collection as a more civic space and told Art News, “We want to be in dialogue with the audience instead of in the place of authority.” Thomas Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, added, “We need to remind people that coming to the museum is not a big deal. You’re not taking a test. You don’t have to prove you know about the artists. It’s just fun.”

Museum hardliners don’t want to “dumb down” the experience for visitors. Museums typically resist something as simple as having places to sit in a gallery. If you want to sit with a few friends and talk, you must head to the coffee shop that is nowhere near the art.

The new idea is that a museum should be less uppity and lonely, and more “user-friendly.” With this in mind, Keegan repositioned the museum’s admission desks so you can actually see them when you walk in the building.

During the planning process for the building, the architects from Kahler Slater (the local firm teamed with Calatrava) were flummoxed by Calatrava’s refusal to provide an obvious place for the admission desks. Now you enter and know where to go.

That made headlines. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel art critic Mary Louise Schumacher accused Keegan of desecrating a “sacred space” with “money changers in our church,” then publicly scolded him before his bosses. “Now, instead of that first expansive view, with marble floors reflecting the lines and volumes of the building and the lake beyond, we see people’s backsides. We see people waiting in line. … Keegan has failed to understand something fundamental to the institution he runs: The building is the visitor experience. And the museum board has been around long enough to know better.”

The idea that the building rather than theartis the visitor experience (an odd notion for an art critic), or that a museum must look like an empty church, is extraordinary. This purist harangue helps dramatize Keegan’s larger point. Look how easy it is to cut the visitor out of the frame. Are we really all supposed to be alone in a giant room at the museum?

Keegan actually made this change thoughtfully, first experimenting with movable desks before moving to a final design. The finished information stations slope into the space. They cover unsightly closets on both sides of the atrium. You hardly notice them in their finished form, and all the controversy faded away.

But Keegan is just getting started. And his chief agent of change is Brady Roberts.

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Roberts was born in Walla Walla, Wash. At age 4, he moved to Bloomington-Normal, Ill., where his father taught political science at Illinois State University for 22 years. His mother researched legislative issues, eventually becoming assistant director of intergovernmental cooperation for the state, which brought her into contact with a young Barack Obama. Roberts comes from a particularly “politically engaged” family, he notes with obvious pride.

Most curators advance by narrowly focusing on definitive exhibitions of important artists. But Roberts has made his career working at institutions poised between the present and the future. His specialty is change.

He was a curator at the Davenport Museum of Art in Iowa when it was formulating a master plan that culminated in a new building. In 1997, still in Iowa, he became director of the Dubuque Museum of Art, which was raising money for a new building. Roberts went to the Phoenix Art Museum in 2001 as the curator of Modern and Contemporary art, just as it was building a new wing. Then on to Santa Fe, N.M., to work for Gerald Peters, who was opening up a new gallery space. He began his job here in March 2009.

Generations of academically trained directors and curators have run museums without fussing about the kind of cognitive combustion Keegan seems to be seeking. Roberts is certain you can be more friendly without dumbing down the museum. “I think you can have your cake and eat it,” he says.

“I am starting with a lot of real estate and great art,” he quickly adds. When talking about the museum’s collection, Roberts and Keegan use the verb “activate.”

For instance, the Gaston Lachaise sculpture, a magisterial bronzed naked woman. It’s literally a million-dollar experience. How could anyone chain this robust creation to a wall? Now moved to the middle of the galleria, she has two sides. Her bulbous buttocks and engorged breasts loom over you. It’s femininity on steroids.

If museums are to step down from their pedestals and be more chummy, why not allow the “sacred space” of the Calatrava to become a showcase for art? Roberts wants to “activate” the museum, he says, with a series of architectural interventions, called “On-site.” “Some of the artists that came to look at the space said ‘Why would you do anything, it is so complete?’ Teresita Fernández looked at the space and had ideas.”

Her luminescent landscapes, made out of common industrial materials like cheap plastics, hover on the edges of perception and consciousness. Fernández could add a tart, Minimalist rigor to Calatrava’s buttery swirls of concrete, which could help draw people down the 100-yard east galleria to the collection.

Roberts wants to plow boulevards through the maze of galleries on the lake level. That was the original plan proposed by the consultants, which former artistic director Russell Bowman vetoed because it would mean hanging maybe six less works of art. Bowmanlovedart and rather charmingly always wanted all he could get.

But in many ways, Roberts is changing things by going back to the era of Bowman and former chief curator Dean Sobel. It’s as if the last seven or eight years never happened.

Former director David Gordon (2002-2008) was mostly consumed with handling the museum’s crushing debt and strengthening it financially. His much-ballyhooed choice (though not by me) for chief curator, Joseph Ketner II (2005-2008), made many of the art decisions in the post-Bowman era. Roberts has so systematically wiped the museum clean of Ketner’s misguided schemes that it seems more like a sanitation project, a remediation rather than a reinstallation.

I was not a fan of how Ketner redid much of the Modern and Contemporary sections of the museum, calling it “arbitrary and confounding” in a July 2008 story for this magazine. Perhaps the most egregious example: Ketner put a sublime, quiescent black painting by Ad Reinhardt right next to a blinking neon sculpture by Stephen Antonakos, obliterating the impact of the Reinhardt.

Roberts has put the Reinhardt back with its peers in the Minimalist gallery. The Antonakos is where it belongs, too, in the hallway on the way to the underground parking, just like his neon that livens up the interior of the parking structure at the airport. The Cy Twombly, a quiet gray painting kindred in spirit to Eric Satie’s spare music, is no longer jammed next to a blaring, minor Robert Motherwell.

By spring, Roberts had made multiple changes in the Contemporary art collection in the east lake level galleries. The Gerhard Richter, arguably the best painting in the collection for the last 20 years, was put back up next to the Kiefer. The Cornelia Parker, a floor-to-ceiling rain of rocks, was reinstalled in its old place at the south end of the gallery next to Robert Gober’s bottomless suitcase. Photography was returned to these galleries.

Roberts also reinstalled Martin Puryear’s Maroon,which Ketner had taken down, and which before Ketner occupied a cramped space in an alcove along a wall. (It looked better on loan in the Museum of Modern Art’s career retrospective of the artist than it ever did in Milwaukee.) Roberts also returned this work to these galleries, rescuing one of Puryear’s most important works.

This gave Maroonits own corner lot, where it had vastly more presence. Its biomorphic shape – made of wire mesh, pine, yellow poplar and tar – is a ribbed solid from a distance. Then the ribs disappear and the skin becomes porous, revealing an interior world. Maroonnow breathed and radiated in more than three dimensions. (This work and the entire Contemporary art collection has been taken down temporarily to install the Warrington Colescott exhibition and will be put back up in November.)

Roberts wants to paint over another Ketner idea. “The gray walls and brown floors in the Bradley Galleries lack contrast and blend together,” he says. “It is dreary compared to the rest of the museum.”

Then there’s the sculpture by Duane Hanson called Janitor.For more than 30 years, this hyper-real guy with a green shirt, brown pants, hairy arms and a key ring, casually leaned against a gallery wall, every inch a janitor. It was spooky – is it real or is it art? So real, people wanted to touch it.

That’s why Ketner put up a huge panel, with a photograph of Janitor,explaining the consequences of fingerprints on art. The “pawing” went “down 90 percent,” according to the Journal Sentinel. But all the reality and fun of the work was obliterated by the photograph and scolding message next to it.

As I toured the museum with Roberts, he just rolled his eyes when we walked by
Janitor.Now the sign is gone.

Roberts installed a Jenny Holzer work, an electronic ribbon that flows left to right like the stock quotes at the bottom of a cable news broadcast, on the wall between the elevators on the mezzanine. It looks like it’s part of the museum, some kind of information sign, except the words are just one truism after another, saying everything and nothing at the same time. The resulting confusion takes Holzer’s art to another level and addresses another question Roberts asks himself: “How do you get people up those dark stairways to the Bradley collection?”

Roberts wants to change the first gallery of the permanent collection as you enter from the Calatrava. All things considered, most anything would be more lively than a mummy in a plexi-case, which also confuses the larger issue. The MAM is not an encyclopedic museum starting with antiquity. It’s a museum that fills in and occasionally soars after 1900.

Some of its strengths (High and Late Modernism, photography, Minimalism and Post-minimalism, for example) are underplayed. Important German 19th- and 20th-century art and American paintings are balkanized and scattered on different floors according to donors’ wishes, a natural consequence of a growing museum. It’s going to take a lot of work and diplomacy to bring the collection into a convincing whole.

When the Calatrava opened in 2001, we all thought we had a new museum. But it was the old museum with new galleries, a spectacular hall and the best underground parking in the world. Roberts is now engaged in creating a truly new museum, a complete reinstallation of the permanent collection set to be finished by 2013, the 125-year anniversary of the museum.

Roberts has a greater opportunity than perhaps any curator in its history to shape the institution. He is the only senior staff member with an expertise in Contemporary art. The overwhelming strength of the collection is entirely his to think about and tinker with, to play with and ask whimsical what-if questions. Don’t tell the art purists, but Roberts is having fun.

Tom Bamberger is a contributing writer for Milwaukee Magazine.