It doesn’t take much to get Marcelle Polednik talking. The new director of the Milwaukee Art Museum is passionate about art, the role of museums within the community and the potential of cultural institutions to drive change. Mention these or any related topics, and she’s off. Extraordinarily articulate, and with some very solid accomplishments to back it up, the 39-year-old shows a determination that leaves little question that she will achieve whatever she sets out to do. Born in Poland but in the U.S. since age 10, Polednik started her museum career as assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. For the last five years, she was director and chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Jacksonville, Fla. She spoke with Milwaukee Magazine in her office at MAM.
By all accounts, you left the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville in very good shape, in terms of attendance, contributions, operating budget and endowment. How did you accomplish that feat?
We started with the artistic program; that’s what drove all of the changes. We were interested in creating a profile for the museum that was unique in the contemporary art landscape. There are over 15 MOCAs around the country and each is focused on a similar mission, so how can we distinguish ourselves as MOCA Jacksonville? We came up with a couple of exhibition strategies that contributed significantly to the field. When we spotted trends in contemporary work that no museum had yet picked up on, we seized the opportunity and mounted exhibitions.
In addition to that, we created a new series of exhibitions called “Project Atrium,” in which we invited emerging artists from all around the country to come create projects in a space that is now the museum’s hallmark space. It’s a 40-by-40-foot atrium where artists create site-specific photography, drawings, paintings, sculpture, performance, you name it. We used that as an educational opportunity and an opportunity for different parts of our membership and audience to come and take part, which helped us shed a bit of the impression that the museum was closed off from the community.