Conversation on Art: Marilu Knode and Michelle Grabner

An artist chats with the director of Sculpture Milwaukee on art.

Living Off-Center

Marilu Knode, project director, Sculpture Milwaukee 
Michelle Grabner, artist, gallery owner and professor, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Building a successful career in the arts, whether as an artist, curator, historian or gallery owner, is no easy task. But both Michelle Grabner and Marilu Knode have finessed this trick. Born and raised in Canada, Knode first came to Milwaukee in 1997 to serve as senior curator at INOVA, the Institute of Visual Arts at UW-Milwaukee. She left in 2003 to further her curatorial career, which has taken her over the years to places as far-flung as New York City, Phoenix, Cairo, Los Angeles and St. Louis. She returned to Milwaukee in 2016. Grabner, a native Wisconsinite, did her undergrad and graduate work at UWM, then moved to Chicago and returned here in 2015. They talked about the shifting role of major cities in today’s art business, and the joys as well as the responsibility of living in Milwaukee.  – Moderated by Carole Nicksin

This conversation was published in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine’s cover story: Let’s Talk It Out.

Living Off-Center: Marilu Knode and Michelle Grabner

MK: Michelle, when you moved back to Milwaukee, that sent shock waves through the community. I hadn’t moved back yet, but when I heard that you had moved here, I thought, “Well, gosh, I guess I can move to Milwaukee.”

But I’m curious, how do you think your career changed from moving here? You run The Suburban gallery, you run the Poor Farm [an exhibition space and residency in rural Wisconsin], your personal art career is gangbusters, and then the FRONT International [the Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art; Grabner served as artistic director] is sort of a national model. So how has it been for you personally?

MG: Just thinking about time differently; this is a city where time is just not as compressed. I can have time in this city to do the things that I’m doing and to also travel, to be in the studio and still to take the Amtrak down to Chicago and teach one day a week.

MK: It’s funny, when I first moved here, I’d been in LA and in New York before that, and one of the things that I really hit upon is, you’re so used to being entertained in a bigger city, you feel like you’re always keeping up with what other people are doing. Being in Milwaukee really allowed me to just go crazy and think about, “Well, what do I really want to do?”

I did so much writing when I was here [previously] for institutions in Europe, in Africa, and it really forced me to take a step toward articulating what I thought I would like to do. And that’s really the luxury of time.

MG: Yeah, that’s interesting. Here, you are responsible for creating a milieu, whether it’s Sculpture Milwaukee, whether it’s The Suburban, whether it’s your own work, or creating the discourse in the relationships you have. It’s on you, it’s not on the institutions.

MK: Right.

MG: And that is an extra responsibility. Not everybody’s built for that, right? When you’re living off-center, you are absolutely responsible for creating the criteria for how you succeed every given day, whether that’s studio work, whether that’s writing. So you have extra work to do, but that’s the work we want to do. That’s the really interesting work.

I spend a lot of time in New York, and it’s a beautiful island of consumption. But it’s very hard to understand the civic structures that govern that place. In smaller cities, it’s really hard to escape that [knowledge]. The public institutions and the public offerings that are here, you understand your responsibility to it, your connection to it, and you can see it here, you can identify it. In big centers, it’s harder to identify that responsibility.

MK: That’s a really great observation, too.

MG: I believe that New York is still the center of distribution. I make work in Milwaukee, and then it goes to New York, and then it goes to the world. Right? That’s not going to change. But right now, in thinking about New York, the ideas aren’t terribly interesting. The relationship to culture, a civic structure and how one can evolve new forms or new ideas, that’s not happening in the center.

I’ve also had the time to think critically, very much like you, Marilu. Lots of writing going on, whether it’s essays for exhibitions, reviews. But I wonder where that critical discourse is happening. We’re having a conversation now; where else are you finding conversations that are rigorous?

MK: It’s a really interesting question, because I feel like in so many ways I’m still settling in on what my goal is to help an institution in formation [Sculpture Milwaukee]. And that takes a great deal of time. What I like about it is just understanding the infrastructure of the city and who lives in the city. I’m trying to understand the different types of initiatives that are going on here, like Imagine MKE [a new nonprofit supporting the arts]. There are all kinds of people who are trying to grapple with what the future of Milwaukee is.

I think the city itself, like a lot of cities in America, everybody kind of hit bottom with the economy collapsing in 2008. I think everybody’s like, “OK, that didn’t work. Following what everybody else did, replicating the model of New York or Chicago didn’t work for us. How can we solve 
our own problems uniquely?”

I don’t think Milwaukee is quite as bashful as it once was – “Oh, we’re not Chicago. Boohoo for us, we’re a bunch of losers.” I don’t hear that anymore.

MG: No, I don’t either.

MK: And for anybody to say that, it’s just like you totally missed the point. This is your chance to really create your own life. This is the chance for you to add to the world you live in.

“Let’s Talk it Out” appears in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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