Charles Allis Art Museum renamed for exhibition on feminism, gender equality

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The Charles Allis Art Museum has been renamed after Sarah Ball Allis for its latest exhibition which highlights woman and non-binary people.
Eddie Morales

In the Charles Allis Art Museum’s basement, a carefully stacked pile of chairs occupies a bowling lane, nearly reaching the ceiling. Windowpanes are strategically placed in front of a projector, distorting a video that shows scenes from childbirth and other feminine imagery. It’s a piece by Chicago-based artist, Pia Cruzalegui, and just part of the museum’s newest exhibition.

An art installation by Chicago-based artist Pia Cruzalegui occupies the bowling lane in the Sarah Ball Allis Art Museum's basement.
Eddie Morales

From Jan. 26 to June 11, the museum on Milwaukee’s east side will be renamed the Sarah Ball Allis Art Museum. Sarah was the wife of Charles Allis, the museum’s namesake. Staff say they decided to rename the museum to amend the historical silencing of women and non-binary persons, particularly within the context of art.

Each level of the historic 1911 home now features artwork from women, femme and non-binary artists. It’s a collaboration with local artist and guest curator Kate Schaffer. On display are sculptures, paintings, videos and installations from 19 artists. The museum’s executive director, Jaymee Harvey Willms explains what visitors can expect:

"As you walk through the institution, I hope you recognize moments of celebration for women and people that identify as women and non-binary peoples — that they have space, place and voice — and hopefully that you're gonna walk away feeling like you participated in space making."

Willms says, if the Allis family were alive today, they may have collected artwork like this. She says the family was progressive for their time in the late 1800s and early 1900s, collecting subversive, silly artwork and works from abolitionists.

"When we look at things like that, these kind of quirky, interesting pieces, I think we can kind of take nods that they might have been relatively progressive, or deeply invested in placing their dollars behind the works of local artists," Willms says.

As we continue to walk through the gallery, Willms describes a piece by Valaria Tatera called “Back Off My Snatch.” It features two cylindrical installations made of flowing pink ribbons and nylon rope.

"They really occupy this space in this interruptive yet soft way," Willms says. "I think that's echoed again through the title. You don't necessarily see it before you walk up to it. You're walking up to something that's inviting, it's pink, it feels familiar, you understand ribbon and nylon rope. Then when you get a little bit closer, printed on the pink ribbon in very fine text, it says 'back off my snatch.'"

The exhibition also includes a display personal to the Allis family. When Charles Allis died in 1917, Sarah had planned to turn his bedroom into a radio listening room. Museum staff have created Sarah’s vision.

"This room is installed as she always dreamed it. Our guests can come in and see parts of Sarah's vision for this home and what this institution would and could be, as well as sit down and listen and kind of go back in time."

Sarah’s diagrams for the radio room served as instructions for staff to follow. It was an enjoyable challenge for collections manager Jenille Junco who was tasked with finding the drawings that Sarah described as “river foliage on east bank” or “country road with curve.”
Eddie Morales

Willms says most portraits displayed at museums are of women, and they’re created by men. According to a 2019 study, men make 87% of the artwork catalogued by major U.S. museums.

"Instead of being objectified and the subject, it's really, really nice to be the actual maker and creator," says Willms.

Other pieces on display include Eleanor Neal’s nature-infused artwork and photographs by Vaughn Larsen, a Los Angeles-based trans-feminine non-binary person who graduated from UW-Milwaukee.

Willms says female-owned businesses will offer food and beverages when the exhibition opens to the public on Thursday at 6 p.m.

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Eddie Morales joined WUWM in 2022 as a reporter. Before working at WUWM, he was the North Shore communities reporter for the Now News Group and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
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