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By Sean P. Johnson

There has always been more to Katharine Hepburn’s mystique than meets the eye.

As visitors to Appleton’s Trout Museum of Art cast glances on “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Success” during its final days, they saw the glamorous gowns and costumes, trademark khaki pants and historic memorabilia that comprised the exhibit.

What they didn’t see was the nearly two-year effort it took to bring the exhibit to Appleton.

“Most museums are planning two to three years out depending on what they want,” says Pamela Williams-Lime, executive director of the Trout. “We knew Kent State had the collection and we knew a lot of people did not really know about it yet.”

Williams-Lime was able to use that knowledge to secure the exhibit for the Trout, then use it to create a new experience for both the museum and Northeast Wisconsin.

First, it was an exhibit many would not readily associate with smaller regional venues, so securing it represented a coup of sorts for the Trout. Second, there was a lot more to the exhibit than what was on display at the museum. A fashion show and several other events in the community were staged to support it.

“We want to put together more exhibits like this one going forward,” Williams-Lime says.
That sets a high bar. The region, though, seems up to it.

Hepburn was a prelude to a series of high-profile exhibits that will visit Northeast Wisconsin in 2014. Indeed, this trend may have started with the display of Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion at the History Museum at the Castle, and area museums have upped the ante with recent and upcoming shows that include:

  • Chihuly Venetians. The Paine Art Center & Gardens in 2013 hosted an exhibit of Dale Chihuly glass works including 47 vessels, 12 drawings and 1 “chandelier” in the Venetian style from the George R. Stroemple Collection. Chihuly is widely regarded as the most innovative glass artist working today.
  • Matisse as Printmaker. The Paine will open an exhibit in June that includes prints made by French artist Henri Matisse owned by the artist’s son. The exhibit opens in June.
  • In Company With Angels: Seven Rediscovered Tiffany Windows. Created by Tiffany Studios at the beginning of the 20th century, the windows were installed in the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem in Cincinnati, Ohio, where they remained until 1964 when the church was demolished. Saved from destruction, the windows spent decades packed in crates, nearly forgotten, until their rediscovery in 2001. The exhibit opens Feb. 8.
  • Divine Comedy. The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh will open an exhibit in February featuring prints commissioned to honor the prints Spanish Salvador Dali, who created his images for a commemorative edition of Dante Alighieri’s trilogy. The exhibit opens Feb. 28.
  • Hap Tivey: Sodium Exchange. This exhibit featured a gallery created by Tivey, considered a pioneer of the light and space movement. These exhibits would easily be at home in larger, metropolitan institutions in places such as Chicago, St. Louis or New York. However, the dedicated research, vigilance and creativity of museum directors from Northeast Wisconsin have brought them to our region.

It’s a trend Kevin Miller, executive director of Fond du Lac’s Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts looks to continue.

“I think this can be a big part of getting people to rethink our area,” Miller says. “Having these exhibits can help us sell how important it is for these things to come to middle America.”

THELMA relaunched itself with style in 2013, opening its renovated space in downtown Fond du Lac with the exhibit by Tivey, whose creations are featured in the both the Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art in New York.

How did THELMA secure such an exhibit?

It was a personal connection that enabled Miller to bring the avant garde artist to downtown Fond du Lac. A local artist who also has studio space in Brooklyn is connected to Tivey and helped make introductions. The show also fit nicely into THELMA’s niche of contemporary art, a niche that also helped it secure the current exhibition from Maia

Flore, a French artist whose work has been shown all over Europe. Elevated/Elevee runs until March 30.

“Only someone who is really nice would fly directly from Paris to Fond du Lac in January,” Miller says. “Sometimes I feel like we are winning the lottery with these folks.”

While personal connections can certainly help, the ability to be creative and not take no for an answer also plays a big role in a regional museum landing a major exhibit, says Laura Fiser, curator of collections and exhibitions for the Paine Art Center & Gardens.

“There are a lot of ways we can get them to come to us,” Fiser says. “But they are not always easy to find. You have to always be on the hunt to what other museums are doing and what’s being lent.”

Generally, museums identify and secure exhibits through a couple of channels: museums that periodically lend out or send their collections on tour, third party organizers that put together exhibits for tour and private collectors willing to lend out their collection.

That hunt for for alternative means paid off big for the Paine in 2013 when it was able to land the Chihuly Venetians exhibit after several years on the radar. The Chihuly Studios rebuffed the Paine’s initial efforts because its space was simply not large enough for the installations they do.

However, Fiser was eventually able to find a private Chihuly collector who was willing to lend out his collection.

“We learned about an exhibit at a museum in Chattanooga, Tenn. that featured the chandelier and tracked the collection through that,” says Fiser. “Thankfully, the Internet has helped a great deal.”

This summer’s Matisse exhibit will be bit more straightforward. This exhibit comes to the Paine through more traditional means—a touring exhibit organized by the American Federation of Arts. After learning of the first tour, Fiser was able to position the Paine as a host for a second tour of the exhibit.

Just down the street at the Oshkosh Public Museum, the opening of In Company With Angels will cap off a nearly three year effort to secure the stained glass windows. They should should seem right at home, as Tiffany Studios designed the interior of the Sawyer home that houses the museum, one of the reasons staff pursued the exhibit.

The stained glass windows will be displayed with other Tiffany artifacts the Sawyers owned, as well as complimentary pieces form a collection in Chicago.

“The windows are just beautiful and were done about the same time as the windows here in the mansion,” says Karla Szekeres, marketing and membership coordinator for the Oshkosh Public Museum. “This is the first time a museum in the Midwest will display the windows.”

The success of the recent Hepburn exhibit and outreach has Williams-Lime already looking for potentially similar opportunities for the Trout. In particular, she would like to present exhibits that lend themselves to outreach activities similar to the Hepburn exhibit.

Williams-Lime is also working on an upcoming exhibit that includes works from the Trout collection, as the museum is required to display it, in part or whole, at least once every three years. She says the region’s success is a good signal of exhibits to come as long as local museum staff continue to be diligent and flexible.

“I think the larger institutions are realizing they need to build interest by sharing their collection,” she says. “They recognize there is a need.”

—FC

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