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'Impulse to Create' Reflected in Playwright Lanford Wilson's Self-Taught Artists Collection

Two quotes on the wall distil into words the essence of the Milwaukee Art Museum's currently running exhibit, titled Taking Center Stage: The Lanford Wilson Collection of Self-Taught Art.  

The exhibit, which runs until July 3, is a selection from a collection that was gifted to the museum from the late Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lanford Wilson. The quotes are from Wilson himself, from an essay that he wrote in 1993. 

Whether we can live without art or not, I firmly believe that we cannot live without making art.

Margaret Andera, adjunct curator of contemporary art at the museum, chose the following statement: "Whether we can live without art or not, I firmly believe that we cannot live without making art." She says it best captured the impulse to create that unifies the artists highlighted. 

Andera explains that many of the artists started making art despite "not having gone to art school necessarily, or having not been trained in fine art capacity."  

The quote "Technique can be taught. Art can't" was chosen because the artists that Wilson valued produced pieces that came from within, according to Andera. "People can draw wonderful lines...but what is the feeling or concept behind the work of art?" she asks.

Technique can be taught. Art can't.

Andera says that these words reflect not only the nature of the pieces in the collection, but also Wilson's approach to his collecting. Wilson was drawn to the unique, in both his play writing and his collecting.

"Oftentimes, in his plays, there's always a character who is not a misfit, but somebody who's outside of the norm...somebody who is just on the periphery of society," assesses Andera. This same sentiment is seen in his choice of artists working outside of the mainstream art world.

Yet, Andera also emphasizes that these artists were not "outsiders" in the sense that they were divested from society altogether. They were often connected to their communities all over the United States.

The 179 pieces gifted to the Milwaukee Art Museum are mostly from the twentieth century, including drawings, paintings and three-dimensional works created by artists who are still working today.

As for a unifying style in the pieces that Wilson chose, Andera says, "He was definitely driven by a certain esthetic...this boldness."

Andera hopes museum goers enjoy the range of images, "get an understanding about how a collector approaches building a collection," and experience what she describes as Lanford Wilson's passionate exploration of self-taught artists.

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Maayan Silver has been a reporter with WUWM’s News Team since 2018. She joined WUWM as a volunteer at Lake Effect in 2016, while she was a practicing criminal defense attorney.