MMoCA Curators Rick Axsom and Leah Kolb photographed by Laura Zastrow
Tyanna Buie knows how transformative art can be.
Buie, 32, grew up in and out of the foster care system in Milwaukee and Chicago, and began making art after she entered what she calls the first “safe environment” of her life at age 8, when her aunt took her in. “For the first time,” she says, “I was looking at things and feeling interested in what was going on around me.” She created dioramas of her neighborhood and sketched pop culture icons for kids at school.
During her undergrad studies at Western Illinois University and grad school in Madison, Buie began using printmaking and mixed media to examine her family background and the history of African Americans, incorporating themes of loss, memory and incarceration.
Still, a career making art was not something easily within reach. But making it into the 2013 Triennial at Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which spotlights Wisconsin’s most compelling artists, changed everything for her.
John Chiaverini, Grant Czuj
Tyanna Buie: “When you are on a center stage at a reputable museum like MMoCA, people around you take you more seriously.”
“Artists strive for galleries, but you really strive for museums,” she says. “You have a different type of accessibility to the public, but you also have curators that you’ve dreamt of working with your whole life, and the opportunity to be in a museum opens those doors. It’s much harder to get into a museum, period. All artists know that.”
At the show, she exhibited 38” x 50” portraits of people from her past, with the facial features missing or obscured. “To make [my art] more universal, I always think about what information I can leave out. The viewers can fill in the gaps,” she says. Looking at her work, a viewer experiences a matrix of African American experiences throughout history.
After the 2013 Triennial, all of Buie’s exhibited work sold immediately, as did any work that resembled those pieces. She is now an assistant professor of visual arts for Detroit’s College of Creative Studies. Her work is part of the permanent collection at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and she was recently reviewed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Before being accepted into the Triennial, she says, “I believed in me, but when you are on a center stage at a reputable museum like MMoCA, people around you take you more seriously as an artist.”
“Incarnation,” a screenprint by 2013 Triennial artist Tyanna Buie.
Buie isn’t the only one to get a boost from the Triennial. Another 2013 artist, Jason Vaughn, has since been featured in the prestigious State of the Art exhibition at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and reviewed in The New York Times and Artforum.
For Wisconsin artists, MMoCA’s Triennial offers a rare opportunity to gain more exposure on the regional and national scene.
“It’s always the hope that through the exposure of the exhibition, artists will move on to the next step,” says Leah Kolb, the museum’s associate curator. “Ultimately, though, we just want to show good work.”
But finding good work takes work, and the museum curators have spent the better part of 2016 preparing for this year’s Triennial, which opens Sept. 23. That’s when all the effort pays off, and where museum patrons will get a chance to see our state’s contribution to the cutting edge of contemporary art.
“We care about these artists deeply, and we want to show our audience that the Triennial is one-stop shopping, says Rick Axsom, the museum’s senior curator. “You don’t need to go east of the Hudson. The best of contemporary art, the highest quality, is right here in your own backyard.”
The Triennial began as a biennial in 1978, devoted to offering the best of Wisconsin’s contemporary art. But the labor-intensive effort to find and select work for the show proved too much to take on every two years. It changed to a triennial in 1987. “We do studio visits, use in-house jurors, all the stops are pulled out. It’s a big deal,” says Erika Monroe-Kane, director of communications for the museum.
But it’s worth it. In addition to upping the ante for Wisconsin artists, the Triennial is essential to MMoCA’s mission and part of its stellar reputation, built over an astonishing 115 years. “It’s very much connected to who we are as an organization,” says Monroe-Kane. “It’s about art that’s taking place now. That contemporary component is central to the museum’s identity. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to showcase Wisconsin artists, which is a longstanding focus of ours.”
The curators are not only looking to put on a show; they are looking for visual statements that contribute to our culture. And sometimes when the Triennial is done, artists make a big sale — to the museum itself. On average, the museum purchases two to six works from each Wisconsin Triennial for the permanent collection. Curators make suggestions to the permanent collection committee, which is then charged with the final decision on whether or not to purchase a piece.
This time around, MMOCA’s museum staff fretted that there might not even be a show. In the months leading up to the entry deadline, the staff waited eagerly for applications to pour in. But by the end of December, there were only 100 submissions. “We came back from the New Year’s holiday and had a complete panic,” says Kolb.
“It was a cliffhanger,” says Rick Axsom, the museum’s senior curator. As it turns out, there was no need to worry: In the last 48 hours before the deadline, an additional 493 submissions flooded Slideroom, the museum’s online application site. “I was surprised the application didn’t crash,” says Kolb. The 2016 Triennial had the largest number of applicants in the institution’s history.
The curators’ selection process begins a couple of months after the deadline. The four members of the selection committee — Axsom; Kolb; Stephen Fleischman, the museum’s director; and Sheri Castelnuovo, the curator of education — close themselves off in MMoCA’s off-white conference room, located in one of the many long, maze-like hallways that crisscross the building’s interior.
No one else, not even Monroe-Kane, is allowed inside.
Axsom admits he finds the process daunting. “But once we get into the groove,” he says, “we look forward to it. The four of us are a very sympathetic quartet.”
Armed with a thick stack of Excel spreadsheets, a master list of the artists and their work, they dim the lights and click through images on an overhead projector, up to five stills or video clips per application. They scratch notes on the outside of the spreadsheet’s columns: “Y” for yes, “N” for no, and sometimes something in between — what Axsom calls a “loose intuitive rating.” These sessions last two hours; anything longer and the committee members can’t do justice to the work. But they return to the room over and over again for weeks, until they determine which of the 609 applicants would receive studio visits.
“The Wisconsin Triennial is unique in this country,” says Axsom. A couple of other states have similar shows, but, adds Axsom, “they are nothing like the ambition of this Triennial, which involves large numbers of studio visits for final vetting. A number of artists will say to us: ‘studio visits? ’They are amazed by the kind of time and physical energy it takes to do them. But that’s how seriously we take this selection.”
Curators went on 95 visits for the 2016 Triennial. They divvied up the artists, and drove in their own cars to all corners of the state, including all the way up north to the state line. Axsom calls these visits “the great corrective.” Because some art looks better in photographs, it’s important to know what the museum-goer will experience.
But the team is looking for more than aesthetic quality or knowledge of art-making techniques; they’re sussing out ideas. The studio visit is an audition of sorts, where a curator takes time (usually about a half hour) to review the work and discuss just what makes an artist tick. “Just to get a visit is huge,” says Tyanna Buie.
“I let the artist set the tone,” Kolb says. “Some of them are very on top of it. They have their spiel. They have specific works set up. They go through them and leave room for questions. With other artists, it’s more of a dialogue — less structured.”
Helen Lee’s glassworks are statements about language and culture.
Kolb’s face lights up when recounting her studio visit with Helen Lee, one of this year’s Triennial artists. Lee runs the UW-Madison Glass Lab, and while the artist showed her work, the two spoke about conceptual art and how Lee’s work has transitioned following the birth of her child. Lee, who was raised by a grandmother who only spoke Chinese, creates pieces about language, blowing glass forms and bisecting them into letters. In recent works, she’s incorporated breast milk, parchment paper and flame. “She’s whip-smart and ambitious. Very together,” says Kolb. “Plus, she’s a mom to an infant, but is still taking her art very seriously and addressing conceptual and formal concerns.”
A curator just can’t get this kind of perspective from a slide.
For her part, Lee remembers being eager to speak with Kolb. “She’s a curator of contemporary art, and that’s really exciting for me because most of the time I’m talking to people in the very specific realm of glass art. It was nice to have her perspective, and get a chance to talk to her about what my work was about instead of what it was made of.” She believes exhibiting at the Triennial will give her the opportunity to have her glasswork included in the larger dialogue about contemporary art.
Helen Lee’s “OMG “ will be visible from the street.
Also, as an Asian American artist, Lee says it’s important to see her culture and ethnicity represented in what she calls the extremely homogenous environment of the Midwest. “[The Triennial] is a formalization of the fact that I’m a working, living artist in Wisconsin. There hasn’t been anything else I’ve done that has broadcast that so much. I appreciate I can bring my background into that conversation,” she says.
The curators strive for diversity on many levels, says Axsom. “It can’t be a Milwaukee show. It can’t be a painting show. You have variables of medium, gender, ethnicity, geography and location in Wisconsin,” Axsom explains. “We’re conscious of that. However, when everything is said and done, we would all vouch for every artist as being high quality. There’s absolutely no element of tokenism.”
In all, 34 individuals and three pairs of artists made the final cut this year. About one-third are people of color: Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos. This level of representation is impressive, given that the 2015 census shows Wisconsin’s non-white population at 12 percent. Almost half of the artists are women.
Inevitably, certain themes arise in each Triennial. This year’s show features a number of pieces representing environmental degradation. Amy Fichter, for example, photographs scientific specimens of endangered birds. The birds are like “little transparent mummies,” Axsom says. They appear eyes closed, obviously dead, with strings wrapped around their beaks. They are somber, delicate, and looking at them, a viewer can’t help but reflect on the ecological fears of our time. “There’s a lament there for what we might lose,” says Axsom. “It’s beautiful and touching.”
Amy Fichter’s “Black Tern“ (Chlidonias niger surinamensis), 2015.
These shared themes figure into how the Triennial is presented in the museum. “I may have [similar ideas] adjacent to each other, or hung in a way that the viewer can catch sight of both of them at the same time,” Axsom says. “We ask ourselves, what pieces might look good together in the gallery?”
The audience is foremost in the curators’ minds. They want the exhibition to please and challenge the viewer. Axsom says the Triennial is not just an introduction to Wisconsin artists; it’s a powerful gateway to contemporary art as it’s developing right now. Unlike, say, the abstract art of the 1950s, today’s contemporary art deals very much with what people see in their everyday world, what a curator might call “the now.” Political issues. Social concerns. Questions of identity. In other words, the art may not be as strange or hard to grasp as visitors might suppose.
To further connect visitors with Triennial artists, MMoCA has created a social media component called #triyourstory. It currently features videos by Kolb talking about the artists’ exploration of identity, as well as artists discussing their work directly. Ultimately, Axsom says, the Triennial is “a very human experience.”
The two curators already have a spot picked out for Helen Lee’s piece, a pink neon glasswork about six feet tall, that they’ll place in the second-floor landing. It will light up and be visible from the street. The work features three Chinese characters that read “OMG,” or “oh my god,” but the literal translation, Lee feels, falls closer to “my day.”
Passersby on State Street will be able to stand below it, contemplate their own day, as they see the letters quietly glowing there, throughout the night.
Lee will be one of the many Triennial artists on hand to chat with museum-goers for the show’s opening night on Sept. 23. Docent-led Triennial tours will also take place throughout the show, which runs through Jan. 8, 2017.
George Tzougros, executive director of the Wisconsin Arts Board, says the Triennial brings in tourism dollars, but that’s only part of the benefit. “In the 21st-century creative economy we find ourselves in, the Triennial is symbolic in terms of what we want the world to see,” says Tzougros. “We aren’t just flyover country, which sometimes is what the people on the coasts think we are. We have something major to offer. We have some of the finest artists you can find.”