In The Wall Street Journal’s “Review” section last weekend, John J. Miller inspiringly writes about Kansas artist John Steuart Curry’s “Tornado Over Kansas.” The famous 1929 painting, according to Miller, essentially honors the culture of hardworking heartlanders. Completed around the time of the infamous stock-market crash, its portrayal of the impending threat of a natural disaster—an approaching whirlwind on the geographic horizon—also metaphorically represents an economic catastrophe on the time horizon.

Curry achieved national recognition in the 1930s, Miller notes, at the moment when fellow Midwesterners Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood were getting attention for their work, as well. Indeed, leading art critics in the country, Miller points out, called them “regionalist”—a mark of denigration. Their agricultural landscapes and visages of farmers were seen “as expressions of a narrow-minded provincialism or even ugly nativism,” he writes.

Curry rejected the label, according to Miller, who lives on a dirt road in rural Michigan. Curry biographer Laurence Schmeckebier, in fact, quotes Curry as saying “I learned that I belonged to the Regional school of art long after I had done the work I pleased, without giving a thought as to what ‘school’ it might fit.”

Much of Curry’s art is now at the high-profile Whitney and other top museums across America. Notably, and to me quite appropriately, “Tornado Over Kansas” is at the Muskegon Museum of Art in Michigan.

Institutions and identity

We at The Giving Review have written often and vigorously for recognition, including philanthropically, of the importance of local and regional institutions as they relate to the health and well-being of not only their respective locales, but the nation as a whole.

Such is the case with local, state, and regional museums, too. They bring to local audiences items of significance and understanding, of the past and present. In the case of local art and history museums, those treasures can, should, and do contribute importantly to a sense of community identity.

During the past several years, there has been a vigorous public debate, nationally and internationally, over the mission of art museums. This has included discussion—much more questioning than in defense—of their sources of philanthropic support, which Charles Saumarez Smith covers in his recent The Art Museum in Modern Times. The contentious conversation has included the Whitney and the also-prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art (MOMA) in New York, among many others, for example.

For decades, the International Council of Museums—which represents more than 20,000 institutions worldwide—has considered a museum to be “a nonprofit that acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment.” Maybe merely boilerplate, maybe boring, but …

But today, it seems, the very identity of the museum is being transfigured, by elites who apparently deem themselves more-authoritative definers. Increasingly, the museum’s mission is to promote equality, justice, and the planet’s well-being. As in other contexts, lamentably including philanthropy, ideology and politics trump traditional values—in this case, those of research and education.

Walls and work

More than somewhat contrarily, Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, for which I worked for decades, has a significant record of support for the visual arts in its community. Over and above its substantial support for the nationally known and renowned Mrs. Harry L. Bradley Collection of impressionist and modern art at the Milwaukee Art Museum that includes Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko, and Georgia O’Keeffe, Bradley supported the preservation and presentation of the past and present work of artists at the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) in West Bend, Wis., some 50 miles northwest of Milwaukee.

The walls in the Milwaukee headquarters of Bradley itself, moreover, were consciously adorned with work from artists of the region, including Emily Groom, Heinrich Vianden, Joseph Friebert, Edmund Lewandowski, and the realist Daniel Gerhartz, among others. (There was also an impressive collection of beer steins in the library.)

The large Gerhartz painting, “As Dawn Breaks,” beautifully depicts the sunlight coming up over the horizon behind a red barn in between some trees weighted down by snow. A non-narrow path with tracks in the snow—from a vehicle either on its way to or from the barn—evidences that there are always things to be done on the farm, even in the early-morning dead of a heartland winter.

For decades, I, a native Milwaukeean and Midwesterner, would often contemplate the art during meetings in Bradley’s boardroom as we were all working together there, amidst what certainly sometimes seemed to be an approaching whirlwind.

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