We sat down with Milwaukee's own Michelle Grabner to ask about her take on the city's art scene and her creative process.
Read more about Michelle Grabner, from our October 2017 issue: Meet Local Artist Michelle Grabner, Who is so Much More Than a ‘Soccer Mom’
You have deep ties to both Milwaukee and Chicago. Do you consider both cities home?
Growing up in northeastern Wisconsin, coming to Milwaukee for undergraduate and grad school was a big deal. It was the state’s largest, most diverse city. But I realized that if one really wanted contribute to visual culture and criticism that one had to go even further south, to Chicago. So I went to Northwestern for my MFA, and got teaching jobs there.
I still love taking the train down and teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago, but I didn’t always enjoy living there. Especially after curating the Whitney Biennial, it felt like I was living an untruthful narrative that the city created for me, so I wanted to pull away from it. I think of Milwaukee as home now, but I also still think of the Fox Valley region. That’s where my family lives.
Have you ever wanted to move to New York or Los Angeles? Many artists seem to feel compelled to.
I can confidently say that that has never been a possibility. I had my first son when I was in graduate school, and – given the resources that we had as a family – we just couldn’t afford it, quite honestly.
That doesn’t mean I begrudge my students who move to the coasts or Europe. And I can still do business in other cities. I fly often to get to New York. I move around a lot.
You’re also more interested in suburban spaces than most. Why do you think so many artists tend to overlook or flat-out ignore the suburbs?
If one doesn’t have a tie to the suburbs, the impulse to live in a more diverse metropolitan area with transit, with the things one needs, makes sense, and isn’t a critical position against the suburbs, necessarily. Though there are good reasons that the suburbs – with their monotony and lack of diversity, their isolation – seem to be a place the one wouldn’t want to engage.
But I have to point to an interesting artist and longtime friend here in Milwaukee, David Robbins. He grew up in Whitefish Bay, one of the city’s suburbs, though he worked for Warhol in the 1980s and spent some time living Europe. He sees the Milwaukee suburbs as part of his identity, part of how he thinks about surfaces and facades and culture.
Were you inspired to found the Suburban for similar reasons?
I was thinking a lot about Frank Lloyd Wright, about how he used the suburbs as a condition to evolve an architectural aesthetic. That horizontality.
Landing in Oak Park, one has to think about Frank Lloyd Wright, about the cultural evolution of Chicago and its suburbs. But we were also thinking about contemporary art and a critical alternative to traditional exhibition spaces. An artist-run space in the suburbs could be that alternative. Artist would stay with us in the space and be incubated in a different way than they’d be in a space in Chicago.
You decided to move from Oak Park to Milwaukee in 2015. Is that when you moved the Suburban as well?
The Suburban was really just a little building between our garage and our house. So when we sold the building we sold the Suburban. And when we moved to Milwaukee we found other spaces, which aren’t in the suburbs at all, but we kept the name because people recognize it.
And from what I understand, there are now two offshoots of the Suburban in Milwaukee? One in Walker’s Point and one Riverwest?
And one is smaller. It’s in an old office space across the street from my studio. And the other is a proper storefront.
Are you finding it more difficult to operate a gallery out of Milwaukee than Chicago (or a near-Chicago suburb)? How have locals responded so far?
We approach it the same way we approached it in Oak Park. It’s more about building a relationship with an artist than with an audience. Audiences are welcome, but they’re not something we’re interested in cultivating. We’re interested in offering artists a place to think about locality, to try something out here they wouldn’t be able to try in New York or L.A.
So it’s actually been a little more magical here because most of the artists we bring in have never been to Milwaukee. It’s been really rewarding to be able to foreground our city to other artists.
What other art spaces around the city do you like to visit?
Green Gallery is an interesting commercial space that has relationships with artists around the world. It’s really international in scope, and John [Riepenhoff], who runs it, is also an artist.
You’re represented there too, right?
Yes, and something I really like about Milwaukee is that those conflicts of interests don’t mean much. Alliances can be built.
You’re currently featured in a Milwaukee Art Museum show, Paper Play, which closes October 22. How’s the reception been for it so far?
Pretty terrific. Because it’s a participatory exhibition, people are encouraged to come work, make paper weavings. The museum is saving what’s left behind, and I’ll have an archive that I can use to make paintings, so it will circle back around. It’s my understanding, talking to the museum’s director of education, Brigid [Globenski], that it’s been a really successful exhibition. And I think that’s largely thanks to the exhibition designer, David Russick. He’s created a welcoming space. People feel comfortable and participate – that’s the measure of its success.
The conceit of Paper Play is that the artists featured in the exhibition all manipulate paper using seemingly simple techniques they might have learned as children. Do you think that description fits? Is it reductive?
Well, fundamentals of composition, color and materiality are things that one thinks about in art school. But I’ve always felt that, as an artist, those are things to negotiate on a daily basis. They aren’t things to be taken care of freshman year and moved away from, they are things we should always be teaching.
Look at Frank Lloyd Wright, at twentieth century architects – they embrace those fundamentals too.
I’m not afraid of being aligned with craft, of being aligned with fundamentals, because they’re needed to build the most complex works too.
Critics have sometimes disparaged your work for that reason. In a New York Times review, Ken Johnson derided your focus on craft, on domesticity, and even used the term “soccer mom” to describe your aesthetic.
Ken Johnson speaks from a lack of understanding about living in the suburbs, or of being a soccer mom, or a woman who lives in the Midwest, or a woman with children. What his review represented, which unfortunately had nothing to do with my work, was a prejudice about where contemporary art should come from, about whether it must be male driven, cosmopolitan. It circles back to the suburbs, the imagination. What is the contemporary avant-garde? Where does it have to come from?
Are women particularly likely to be criticized for incorporating their day-to-day, domestic life into their work?
Totally. In the 1980s, I was studying at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and I was working at the UWM daycare center as my day job, thinking that – by the time I had kids – there’d be child care for everyone. But it’s gotten worse.
Culture is politicized, and we’re not moving forward. There’s still a lot of work to be done. I remember being optimistic in the 1980s, and I’m pessimistic now.
What was it like co-curating the 2014 Whitney Biennial?
Because it’s played out on such a public stage, it’s often thought that careers are made there, and they’re not. You just have to look at a 1972 Whitney catalogue and see that you don’t recognize anybody.
I knew that going in but didn’t realize until the exhibition was over that the artists I worked with had different expectations. And I regret not sitting down earlier with each artist to manage their expectations, though, if I was one of them I don’t know if I would have listened either. So in that sense, it’s a confusing exhibition. But I enjoyed it, and learned a lot, mostly about institutions, how they work. I worked with 52 artists, and each one had a different method of working. That was fascinating. And I learned a lot from my co-curators, who were professional curators, not artists. Being the first artist to curate the biennial, I really thought I was working for those artists, but not knowing my way around the institutions sometimes put me, and the artists, at a disadvantage.
You’re also co-curating Cleveland’s first triennial. How has that been similar or different so far?
We’re building it around the concept of an American city, the idea that cities are the future of the world. They generate the most culture and also the most revenue. Cities are hugely important.
It allows me to think about locality, worldliness. That’s been interesting. And there’s a different kind of budget and different kinds of venues. When I was at the Whitney Biennial I was given a floor to install work on. Now I’m working with the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Akron Museum of Art, Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum, the public library, the Federal Reserve. Sites that are traditionally cultural institutions but sites that aren’t as well.
So it’s been very different, but what holds it all together is that I’m still having wonderful conversations with artists, and that’s why I always say yes to curating, in spite of not being a curator.
Looking forward to the next five or ten years, do you see yourself still making art, running galleries and teaching simultaneously?
That’s a question I’ve been thinking long and hard on. I just got back from the Poor Farm, which I’ve been running for nine years now – it’s a large exhibition space and residency in Waupaca County. And there’s the Suburban too. It’s a privilege to think about how they’ll evolve in the future, and how people would see them evolve. I’ve been emboldened by the ease and happiness that came from moving here from Chicago, thinking about all those other spaces evolving.
Being in the studio is always at the fore. My teaching is important to me too, and all these other things – curating, writing for Artforum, running the Suburban – help me in my teaching. I’m at my best as a teacher when I’m engaging them.
What advice would you give other local artists who want to carve out a creative niche for themselves in Milwaukee?
I was talking to a student who moved out of Milwaukee and went to Cranbrook, and she says you have to get out of Milwaukee to be able to come back. You have to get out and see the world to understand what is valuable about what you have here, and how you can best interface with the city.