Curating the Biennial in NYC, then an INOVA homecoming March 31

Michelle Grabner
“I’m more fluid with paint,” UWM alumna, artist and curator Michelle Grabner says of her work.

Contemporary conceptual artist, curator and double UWM alumna Michelle Grabner returns to INOVA on March 31 to discuss one of the biggest moments of her career so far. It’s three stories tall and it opened on March 8, yet it’s consumed much of Grabner’s last 18 months, drawn her into more than 120 studios nationwide, and is open through May 25. She’ll discuss it all during her talk “Curating the Whitney Biennial 2014,” on Monday, March 31 at 6:30 p.m.

But first things first, as you’d come to expect from an artist and curator who’s as Midwestern modest as she is high profile.

Michelle Grabner
Michelle Grabner in her backyard Chicago studio in late 2012.

“I default, always, to ‘Hi. I’m an artist and writer who lives and works in Chicago,’” Grabner has said of her self-propelled, eclectic, domestic practice as artist, educator and curator.

In winter 2012, Grabner sat down for a lengthy interview with UWM Alumni magazine at her home in Chicago, where she is a professor of painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Concurrently, she directs The Suburban, a studio and art space that brings artists and buyers together in her Oak Park, Ill., backyard. With husband and colleague Brad Killam she owns and directs the sprawling Poor Farm artists’ space in Little Wolf, Wis.

Then there’s the Whitney Biennial, an every-two-years survey of contemporary American art that draws devotees and detractors to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

In fall 2012, Grabner was one of a trio of curators hand picked to curate the final biennial in the museum’s current Madison Avenue location, biennial no. 77. She joined Stuart Comer of London’s Tate Modern and Anthony Elms of the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art in the task of seeking, selecting and curating some of the best in contemporary American art. Each curator was given one floor and free rein. Grabner got the fourth floor.

“Viewers of the Whitney are really going to get a sense of what represents contemporary American art,” Grabner explained in a 2012 interview with UWM Alumni magazine. “But what I really like is that the idea of curating will also be content in the show. One can see three different takes and realize curators and curating is vast, and one could do the biennial many times over and do different takes.”

Grabner’s curatorial qualifications made her a unique and perhaps unexpected choice for the assignment. Like her Whitney colleagues, she’s a relative outsider to the New York arts scene.

“The Whitney selected me because I’m an artist and I think differently,” she said. “But I also see this as an extraordinary opportunity to bring curating to the fore, as well as art practice.”

When it comes to curating, Grabner is blunt about recent trends she considers harmful to the profession.

“I’ve called curating a lazy profession, but I’m talking about a very new kind of curating where curators are not doing the hard work of getting into studios anymore,” she said. “They’re selecting JPEGS. They’re not having conversations with artists the way curators in the past have.”

Appleton to UWM to Big Apple

Though she’s been in Chicago for many years, Grabner remains a friend to UWM. She was here in 2012 for “Michelle Grabner: The INOVA Survey.” Much of her family still lives in Wisconsin. She remembers her time at UWM fondly, vividly. She arrived here in 1980 from her hometown high school, Appleton East, pursuing an art education and Plan B as an art teacher.

UWM arts faculty made it a practice to send students into the city: Milwaukee Art Museum and Lynden Sculpture Garden. “There’s something so real about Milwaukee, where the university doesn’t define the entire city so one gets a whole range of interesting cultures,” Grabner said.

Her best UWM memories include a class canoe expedition to the Boundary Waters with Professor Tom Uttech; a midtown Italian feast after Professor Adolph Rosenblatt’s show in NYC; a gallery stop in Cleveland on the way back to UWM.

She earned a master’s degree in Art History in 1987, digging deep into feminist theory and criticism at the Center for 20th Century Studies, now the Center for 21st Century Studies. Her career plans evolved to embrace a future in higher education.

“There are so many artists in the world and so few of them make a living selling their artwork,” she said. “And I think that’s a fine thing. There’s a huge advantage to making sure the bills are paid, that you have health care. Find another way to take care of yourself and not put pressure on the studio.”

In the late ’80s, this meant a K-12 teaching appointment in Milwaukee. She then moved on to UW-Madison. This rapid mobility as a working artist and academic surprised no one at her alma mater.

“Everyone who worked with Michelle when she was at the Peck School is very glad to have played a small role in guiding and mentoring a stellar artist who has been so successful in creating a community of artists wherever she goes, and managing her own work and career successfully,” said Peck School Art & Design Professor Leslie Vansen.

“Michelle is an incredibly generous personality, eagerly curious, very knowledgeable, both flexible and demanding in her own studio practice.”

Buyers, artists come calling

Spend just a couple of hours in Grabner’s home studio and, whether you’re a contemporary-art know-nothing or an avid buyer, you will agree.

Arrive for an interview around the holidays and she offers you fresh-baked peanut-butter balls. Ask about her bibliography and she’ll talk, briefly, about her struggles with writing as a “super-dyslexic” person. She’s won awards for teaching, writing, painting, but who knows where they’re hanging. During that winter 2012 interview, her studio walls were uncluttered: just a few samples of her work, posters of Aaron Rodgers and Barack Obama, select notes and drawings from her daughter – the much-youngest of Grabner’s three children.


It was a heady time for the artist and curator, coming just a few weeks after the New York Times publicized the 2014 curatorial team.

Email messages and JPEGs from artists nationwide crashed her account. Packages began arriving on her doorstep.

Galleries from Milwaukee to Chicago to Zurich went into “pure liquidation mode,” selling every Grabner piece they had. Her work is most easily described as painting, but veers closer to conceptual art. One canvas in her studio is a perfect circle – black with a gentle grey pattern from afar. Get closer, and you’ll insist you’re looking at a woven rug mounted on the wall.

And it’s better if you can describe her work for yourself. The artist probably won’t do it for you.

“I’m uncomfortable talking about my work,” Grabner has said. “Whether it’s modesty or being Midwestern, it’s real. I can talk about other people’s work.”

But she can talk about Milwaukee, a city whose earnestness and midsize status make it a great place for the arts and artists, she has said.

“I think in Milwaukee one actually has a lot more freedom to move around and to invent and interface with culture and one’s own work in one’s own studio practice.”

“Chicago, being a large city and a ‘second city’ in relation to New York, there’s a lot of energy spent here trying to define Chicago in comparison to New York or LA. In Milwaukee, Cleveland or St. Louis, you don’t seem to do that.”

Read the New York Times review of the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

View the work of Wisconsin artists featured at the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

Get details about Michelle Grabner’s upcoming INOVA talk.

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