This gallery is a place to return to, to see what’s in there today, tomorrow and over and over again

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For as popular and oft-talked about the Portrait Society Gallery can be amongst Milwaukee’s art aficionados, it isn’t necessarily easy to find.

The contemporary gallery is on the fifth floor of the maze that is The Marshall Building — the former warehouse at 207 E. Buffalo St. — that’s now filled its seven floors with galleries, photography studios and artists’ workshops, as well as lawyer’s offices, consultants and other less-artsy exploits.

The entrance to the Portrait Society Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo St., Suite 526. Photo by Adam Rogan.

Atmosphere

At the Portrait Society, Gallery Director Debra Brehmer (an occasional MilMag contributor) lets the art speak for itself. Most of the walls are painted white, with one exposed-brick wall allowing in just enough natural light through caged windows.

It isn’t particularly spacious, only three rooms really, so it doesn’t take long to get a glimpse. But depending on what’s hanging on the walls — a photographic analysis of gender, some Africa-inspired art, or maybe a feature of locally grown talent — viewers’ gazes are prone to dawdle.

Purpose

For as off-the-beaten-path as it may appear, there’s much going on inside the couple-hundred-square-foot Portrait Society. It’s busy more often than just on Gallery Night and Day, which may be a product of its relatively limited hours: it’s only open about 15 hours a week.

Every other month or so, displayed artists will pop in to walk patrons through their work. These events are a welcome unveiling of the often-veiled artistic process. These face-to-face conversations and walk-throughs allow laypeople access into the artistic mind.

Unlike some galleries and art museums, the exhibitions are constantly rotating. There are no permanent exhibits or resident artists. No trends in what kind of art will hang on the walls or stand in the middle of the space.

There’s always something new here. Something to come back for.

Vibes

Even when the artists themselves aren’t present, there’s usually a staff member or two available to answer questions or dissect a painting with.

Many pieces are often for sale, not to mention the small store selling handcrafted works — oftentimes including handcrafted dolls by artist Della Wells, or by Sharon Kerry-Harlan or strongly colored jewelry by Rosemary Ollison — a selection oftentimes bolstered by a selection of not-so-easy to find books perfect for an art lovers coffee table.

A directing sign in The Marshall Building, 207 E. Buffalo St. Photo by Adam Rogan.

A history lesson

The Marshall Building predates World War I.

Built in 1906-07, its flat-slab concrete floors were revolutionary — not relying on wood and steel like most other warehouses built in the late 1800s and early 20th century. It changed hands repeatedly.

The groundwork of the modern Marshall Building was laid in the ‘70s. According to the Marshall Building’s website, “In 1974, (real estate broker George) Bockl reacquired the Marshall Building with the notion of turning it into an incubator for small businesses, artists and craftsmen,” a description that more-or-less stands today.

Some venues in the 115,000-square-foot building are a mere 200 square feet, while others take up more than 7,000.

The Portrait Society Gallery took up residence in 2008 and has been showing off collections old and new ever since.


If you find yourself in The Marshall Building, take the time to check out the Timo Gallery on the first floor, and enjoy some classic rock while you’re at it. CLICK HERE to learn more about Milwaukee artist Timothy Meyerring.

For a glimpse into the life of one of the Portrait Society Gallery’s favorite artists, check out THIS STORY on artist and collagist Della Wells.

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