Portrait Society Gallery
Address: 207 E. Buffalo Street, Suite 526, Milwaukee, WI 53202
Contact: Debra Brehmer
Phone: 414 870-9930
Open Hours: Thursday-Saturday noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment
How is the project operated?
Portrait Society is a commercial gallery.
How long has it been in existence?
What was your motivation?
I was teaching college art history and wanted a project that offered a different, more physical and theoretical kind of engagement. I was not interested in running “another gallery” or even necessarily consciously going into the gallery business. The opportunity to shape, curate, investigate a decidedly un-hip, often suspect, marginalized genre like the portrait felt intriguing, playful, experimental – an open-ended field of history and contemporaneity, both bourgeois and completely pedestrian or utilitarian, a rich mix of intersections. The portrait is meaningful and ubiquitous in culture, perhaps even necessary. It travels all socio-economic channels, takes on specific roles where it lands, and thrives without commercial or curatorial control. It functions to represent and preserve but it also, by its nature, stores information pertaining to subtle shifts of cultural conditions. It absorbs well. It’s a working class genre and I tend to align with what has the capacity to seep out from under the door of class and economic controls.
Number of organizers/responsible persons of the project.
Three – myself, a part-time gallery manager (Tony Nickalls) and an intern.
How are programs funded?
The sale of art work.
Who is responsible for the programming?
I initiate most of the programming but work collaboratively as much as possible with artists and others.
Number and average duration of exhibitions/events per year.
The gallery has four exhibition spaces that change every six to eight weeks.
What kind of events are usually organized?
Beyond the standard opening receptions, we do a critique/salon called Fop and Hounds. This represents a severe re-shaping of a standard art dialog. Each month, a different person (usually a curator, artist or academic) and their dog are invited to host the evening. The host submits notes about their dog’s breed and temperament. A wine expert then pairs the evening’s wine with the dog. After the notes about the dog and the notes about the wine are read, the host and their hound lead a discussion with the artist or about the exhibition, which opens up into a more participatory conversation.
Participatory projects: Because of the gallery’s focus on (very broad) historic and contemporary manifestations of the portrait, we’ve also done crowd-sourced (Facebook/Instagram) projects in conjunction with exhibitions. People submit images on a theme that ties in with the show and they are printed and installed in the hallway leading to the gallery. This month, there is a call out for images of interior rooms with an emphasis on light, #lighthouse, which relates to the current show by Ariana Huggett. These projects stretch notions of inclusivity, selectivity and privilege that define the art world, by finding a way to let literally anyone participate in a show, and yet they also illuminate the differences between what a professional artist does and what others do. Both bodies of work become enhanced and clarified by one another. The anchoring of exhibitions to vernacular concerns, illustrates links between our common lives and the ideas/issues that may be distilled in the gallery. The conversation is inclusive, active and joined.
We also stage events/performances, such as a thematic, conceptually rich dinner party hosted by the artist Martha Wilson in conjunction with a show of her work at the gallery and engineered by NYC food writer and theorist Ame Gilbert. It successfully blended notions of portraiture/food/performance/aesthetics/communion.
Winter Chapel: The gallery invites a different artist each January/February to build a Winter Chapel in the space. The dark, cold, inhumane weather in Milwaukee takes its toll. The Winter Chapel was initiated as an opportunity for an artist to build a meditation space that fully acknowledges our shared need to endure these dark months. In keeping with the gallery’s interest in boundaries, this project fuses the secular and spiritual and allows an awareness of the terms of how we craft/invent atmospheres of contemplation. This project will be expanded to a site outside of the gallery this year (as well as a second chapel inside). The following year’s goal is 12 public, artist-designed Winter Chapels/Shelters within the city, spearheaded by a professor who is devoting her sabbatical year to developing this project.
Do you accept proposals/submissions?
Yes. Artists whose work connects somewhere within some notion of the portrait, artists who find expansive ways to work within the terms of representation would be welcome.
What is your artistic/curatorial approach?
The portrait has a double nature. It seeks to define and often artificially elevate status at the same time that it remains lowly, disposable, without intrinsic collateral. It straddles worlds very well and I think that’s the curatorial soul of the gallery. I asked an artist who is represented by the gallery to describe Portrait Society’s approach. She said, “vital, warm, humane, fun, stimulating, smart.”
I’m also concerned about audience. Because of its focus, Portrait Society thinks across divides of age, gender and social definition, in more populist terms, without compromising the program. Engagement is important. College classes regularly visit and conduct class at the gallery, expanding discussion around the work. The crowd-sourced projects stir thought, connection and discussion by including people in the terms of the show.
What idea are you most excited about for the future?
Further developing the “essay” portion of the web site to be the place where the most interesting/analytical/contemporary/experimental writing regarding the portrait is indexed and available.
The gallery often publishes small catalogs. It feels important to extend the ideas of an exhibition, to hang onto its history, and enable the energies that went into staging a project to linger and communicate.
Images courtesy of Portrait Society Gallery.