Risk Taker in Chief

Milwaukee Art Museum’s new boss talks about her standout career in Florida, and her plans here.

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.

MM: It sounds like you were quick to act in Jacksonville. What do you have planned for your early days here?
MP: I think a strong vision is what is needed, and that vision has to be about the art. The museum has been in a period of building and expanding its physical presence in a magnificent way. Whatever happens from this point forward will be based on that artistic mission and vision of the organization.

MM: There is a sense that MAM has not been a thought leader for the last decade or so. Is restoring that reputation part of your mission?
MP: Absolutely. Museums are organic entities; they go through different life cycles [that] require different types of leadership. There’s no question that Dan Keegan, my predecessor, was the right director at the right time. There was a lot of operations-based work that needed to be done in order for the museum to have this solid foundation. I’m very grateful to him because it would be a very different opportunity if we were dealing with leaks in the galleries. It’s hard to talk about an artistic vision and mission when you have very practical concerns about the facilities that you need to address.

MM: In recent years, some of MAM’s curators have done one great show and then moved on. How do you plan to combat that?
MP: It’s tough, because curators are highly mobile by nature, and this is a challenge that every museum faces. MAM has been a launching pad for many wonderful careers, which is a dubious honor at best, so my goal is to provide the kind of mentorship and opportunities for curators over time that will entice them to think about this organization long-term, not just because of the kind of work that they can do, but because of where the institution is setting its sights. I think MAM is perfectly positioned to take a leadership role in the field of museums, and once we do that, I think that also becomes its own retention tool after a period of time.

Curators are by design a little bit selfish in the way they guard their own initiatives, so it takes a very particular person to see how they can really advance the mission of the organization through their role. It’s going to take presenting opportunities that the curators can sink their teeth into and that are meaningful over time, not just for the two to three years that it takes to mount a project.

MM: In MAM’s permanent collection, many great artists are represented, but to my mind, not all of the pieces are first rate. How do you deal with that?
MP: I would probably take issue with that statement.

MM: For example, the Rothko is perhaps not the best Rothko, in my opinion.
MP: True, not the best Rothko. Or not the most representative Rothko is how I would put it.

Artwork pictured: Untitled, 1981, by Donald Judd, courtesy of Judd Foundation/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Artwork pictured: Untitled, 1981, by Donald Judd, courtesy of Judd Foundation/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

MM: So the concern is, if people who’ve never seen a Rothko before see this one, which lacks some of the vibrancy and tension his work is known for, they might think, “What’s the big deal? I don’t get it.”
MP: I think that there is a wonderful learning opportunity, when you have a work of art that may not be the most representative or the most iconic by an artist. This is where I think our age of technology can be very useful in allowing us the opportunity to create a larger conversation and context for a particular object. One of the things I’m interested in exploring is how do we show our public, when they are looking at one work of art, other works by that artist so that they have a frame of reference for understanding where it fits within the scope of the artist’s work, and give more context about the moment in time in which it was made. Where Rothko’s career juncture was, who are the contemporaries of Rothko, where are their works situated in the galleries, what are the interesting questions you should consider when thinking about this Rothko in relation to this Hans Hofmann or this Joan Mitchell. Those become interesting conversations.

MM: Very well said.
MP: I think celebrating the collection has to be the first step, because in Milwaukee, at least in my perception, people refer to the museum as the Calatrava. I want to celebrate the architects that are a part of the museum’s history, but at the same time, I want people to celebrate it for the works that drive our mission on a daily basis.

MM: In Jacksonville, there was a controversy over a photograph of a nude pregnant woman. It seems like you turned that into a learning opportunity.
MP: We had two possible ways of responding to this controversy. One was to start parsing definitions of pornography and why this particular work doesn’t meet the criteria. Or we could elevate the conversation and talk about the importance of artistic freedom and the role of a museum of contemporary art in the life of the city. That’s the route we chose and it served the museum extremely well. There was a groundswell of support that reignited a passion for the mission of the organization in a new way. In some ways, I’m really grateful for the fact that this controversy came to pass. It also allowed us to be very mindful of how we protect artists as an institution.

MM: What level of risk-taking do you think is appropriate for a museum of this size?
MP: I think that taking risks is important for any art institution to stay relevant, and it’s something I take great pride in. When you rely too heavily on attendance as a measure of success, you start second guessing what your audience wants to see. We need to be open to the fact that audiences are intellectually curious, excited by opportunities to think beyond what they know and as excited to discover as they are to see something they already understand and love.

MM: I get the feeling you want to take some risks!
MP: I do! In my experience, I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by what happens when you do that as an institution.

MM: Museums across the nation are facing layoffs. Will there be layoffs at MAM?
MP: I don’t see any cutbacks at this point in time. I think the museum is in a great fiscal position. No cultural institution is immune to having to think about how to get the most out of its resources. I am very cost conscious, and always mindful of the fact anytime we deploy the museum’s resources, we have to ensure that the return of that investment is as strong as it can possibly be.

MM: You seem to be a fair but firm person. I’m curious what your detractors say about you.
MP: I think maybe the level of ambition. That’s a word that’s been associated with me for a long time. I’m very driven, but I think what people forget is that it’s not ambition for me personally, it is ambition for the institution I serve, and that does drive me on a daily basis. There are things that are nonnegotiable for me [in terms of] what I need to accomplish for an organization. So you’re right, there is this firmness that goes along with that. But it’s also what leads to significant accomplishment. You have to make difficult decisions and they are not always popular, but you have to do what you think is right, and you have to remember why you were hired and what your mandate is, and make those decisions.

‘Risk Taker in Chief’ appears in the November issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning October 31, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Editor-in-chief Carole Nicksin has worked in publishing for over 20 years. Prior to joining the staff of Milwaukee Magazine, she was the style director at All You, a Time Inc. publication. She also served as decorating editor at Home magazine. Carole has written for the New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, InStyle and numerous other publications.