Betty Quadracci was known for her tenacity and for her perspicacity, and Marcelle Polednik embodies those qualities as well.
Never was this more evident than early in the pandemic when Polednik, the Donna and Donald Baumgartner Director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, was faced with a challenging decision: whether – and when – to close it.
The museum did, in fact, close and reopen, not once but twice. “It was a tough decision, but we had to focus on our ultimate goal — to ensure the sustainability and viability of the museum,” says Polednik.
On the plus side, the pandemic has reoriented the way Polednik and her staff operate. “The pandemic taught us not to be afraid of failure,” she says. “Not everything we put in place the last 18 months is going to succeed, but if we can improve upon our decisions, we’ll be in a better place.”
There have been other pluses: “learning to be more nimble,” she says, as well as the elevated priority of creating digital content. “The minute we closed our doors, that became imperative.”
Polednik, 44, was born in Poland and emigrated with her family to the U.S. at age 10, later earning art history degrees from the University of Southern California and the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. She has held positions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, the Monterey Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Women mentors encouraged her along the way. “From these women, I learned how to work with a team and how to build enthusiasm for a collective vision,” she says.
Polednik views her staff as “extended family” whom she strives to lead by example, especially women and those early in their careers.
Although Polednik came to Milwaukee after Betty Quadracci’s death, she has had considerable interaction with Betty’s family. Betty and Harry Quadracci’s son Joel was MAM board president and is now the immediate past board chair, and the Calatrava portion of the museum carries the Quadracci name. “I feel Betty’s sense of vision and purpose about the museum,” Polednik says. “The Quadracci Pavilion was a gift not just to MAM but to Milwaukee. It’s a symbol of aspiration for our city.”
Marcelle Polednik is one of the 2021 recipients of a Betty Award. Each year, Milwaukee Magazine presents these awards as a tribute to the late Betty Quadracci, the magazine’s former publisher who founded Quad with her husband Harry. Read more about this year’s honorees here.