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Published: Sunday, 12/10/2006

Drawing on ability: Former Toledoan Laurie Winters is making her mark as curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum

BY ANN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Winters Winters
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The Milwaukee Art Museum boasts a collection of 20,000 works from antiquity to the present, but that s not what convinced former Toledoan Laurie Winters to accept the curator s job that was offered to her by then-director Russell Bowman.

She was won over indirectly by a wad of tissue that had dropped to the floor of one of the galleries.

We were walking through the galleries and he was showing me the artwork in my area, Winters recalled during a recent telephone interview from her office. And he bent over and picked up a crumpled-up Kleenex. He didn t say anything; he just stuffed it in his pocket and then when we passed a wastebasket he put it in.

That was it. I decided then that if someone cared that much about the place where they worked, I wanted to work there, too, said Winters, 46, who was born in Metamora and grew up in Toledo s Old West End.

Hired by the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1997, Winters is curator of earlier European art paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century and she has established herself as one of the treasures of the Milwaukee museum and the global art community as well.

Winters has received international attention for the exhibition Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity, which opened in Milwaukee on Sept. 16. She organized the show in collaboration with the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin and the Albertina in Vienna. After the exhibition closes Jan. 1 in Milwaukee its only U.S. venue it will go on to Vienna, Berlin, and the Louvre in Paris.

Rave Reviews

Museums Magazine rated Biedermeier one of the top 10 museum shows in the U.S. The New York Times splashed Winters picture across the top of its Art section on Sept. 10 in a story that cited her exhibit as an example of the extraordinary lengths to which mid-size museums such as Milwaukee must go in order to offer noteworthy shows.

They have to be flexible, aggressive, and come up with ideas no one else has, wrote Ted Loos in the Times.

For her part,Winters had a couple of things going for her beginning with her typical American drive. ... But it was also the quality of her scholarship and her concept for the show that convinced the director of the Albertina to lend her some of the museum s Biedermeier pieces and to agree to exhibit the show, the article continued.

The press has been pretty amazing, Winters told The Blade. She could be heard flipping through a stack of publications and clippings as she read some of their names, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Magazine, Antiques and Fine Art magazine, Antiques & Auction News, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Town & Country, Philadelphia Daily News, ELLE Decor, Chicago Home and Garden, Interior Design magazine, New England Antiques Journal, a magazine published in Holland that she said devoted its entire September issue to the show, even a piece in a publication for physicians at leisure as well as two articles in the New York Times.

I m happy, obviously, she said, but she s not kicking back while she enjoys the positive reviews. I m already working on the next exhibition, Winters said. She s not ready to share any details publicly, anyway.

Three days after I opened this one, my director stopped me in the hallway and asked me, What are you doing next? Winters recalled, adding modestly that, You re only as good as your last show.

Complex logistics

Mounting a successful, attention-getting major exhibition enhances a museum s stature, and makes it easier to attract financial and cultural partners for the next one, she pointed out.

Winters began establishing a track record of success in 2002-2003 with the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci and The Splendor of Poland. The centerpiece of the exhibit that included 77 masterpieces from Poland was da Vinci s famous Lady With an Ermine portrait from Krakow. The exhibition attracted more than 150,000 visitors to the Milwaukee Art Museum, went on to museums in Houston and San Francisco, and earned Winters the Cavalier s Cross of the Order of Merit from the Republic of Poland.

For Winters, one of the most satisfying aspects of that exhibit and the current Biedermeier show is being able to forge connections with the Milwaukee community. People of Polish, German, and Austrian extraction represent probably 85 percent of our population, she said.

People were moved by the [da Vinci] exhibition, she continued. I have had people of Polish heritage call me from all over the country to say thank you.

Coming just a year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Splendor of Poland exhibit required especially stringent security measures. The shipping arrangements and the insurance for all the artwork were very difficult, Winters said. That was the biggest obstacle. I had a 17-page contract outlining the shipping for Lady With an Ermine alone.

Like that show, the Biedermeier exhibition is generating positive comments from visitors. This is art they can easily relate to, she observed. There s nothing difficult about it. They can look at the furniture and say yes, this could be something I would have in my own home.

The exhibit brings together for the first time about 300 examples of German, Austrian, and Czechoslovakian paintings, furniture, and related decorative arts and works on paper from central Europe of 1815 to 1830. According to the museum, the assembled works document in depth the innovative character of the period and demonstrate how it is a precursor to modernism. This is the first exhibition on the subject in North America and will offer a fresh exploration for European audiences.

The simplicity and sense of calm expressed in the objects reflect a period of relative peace and stability in central Europe during those years, Winters said.

Making it happen

Where did the curator s own interest in art come from? I have no idea, replied Winters, who noted that there are no artists in the family, and, except for a nephew who is an art history major at Penn State, no one else has followed an arts career path.

She said she always has had an interest in the arts. As a child I probably went through coloring books faster than any other kid on the block, she said. Later, she took art classes, but realized she wasn t cut out to be an artist I was good enough to know I wasn t good enough.

The former Laurie Gries knew by the time she got to the University of Toledo after graduating from St. Ursula Academy that she wanted a career in art. She earned a bachelor s degree in art history from UT and went on to masters and doctoral studies at the University of Michigan. After a year studying in France on a Fulbright and a fellowship at the U of M Institute for the Humanities, she started a career in education at Bowling Green State University as a replacement for a professor who was taking a year-long sabbatical.

She was teaching art history at Rhode Island College in Providence when she and her husband, Brian (an attorney in Milwaukee and a former Maumee resident) decided to move back to the Midwest. Her plan was to get another teaching position.

I thought museum jobs were kind of boring, Winters admitted.

Now, she said, she wouldn t go back to teaching.

She likes the challenges her job offers, enjoys working with European directors and curators, and feels privileged to be able to bring some of the great art pieces of Europe to people who otherwise might never see them, she explained.

It s a chance to be out there making it happen in the cultural world.

Contact Ann Weber at: aweber@theblade.com or 419-724-6126.



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