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The Finest in the Western Country Opens at Milwaukee Art Museum
Charles Hermann and Company (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1856–1886). Jug, 1856-1870. Salt-glazed stoneware. Kenosha Public Museum.

MILWAUKEE.- Experience Wisconsin’s dramatic transition from frontier territory to settled state through the Midwestern wares in The Finest in the Western Country: Wisconsin Decorative Arts 1820-1900, on view through January 4, 2009 in the redesigned Decorative Arts Gallery of the Milwaukee Art Museum. A showcase of furniture, ceramics, textiles, and metalwork, the exhibition enlivens the dynamics of American history in Wisconsin while framing traditional craft as a mode of personal expression.

The Finest in the Western Country is the rich culmination of a comprehensive new online database project developed by the Wisconsin Historical Society, Chipstone Foundation, and University of Wisconsin-Madison that is documenting hundreds of historic items from throughout the state.

Over forty objects from the collections of historical societies, museums, and private individuals across Wisconsin are, for the first time, brought together in this exhibition. Objects as various as fur trade metalwork of the 1820s and innovative art pottery of the 1890s demonstrate the mingling diversity that defined the period. Beaded and finger-woven bags, painted and inlaid furniture, Milwaukee salt-glazed stoneware, earthenware jugs, a so-called crazy quilt, samplers, and more tell a story of cultural complexity and rapid change.

The decorative arts of nineteenth-century Wisconsin encompass traditions brought by settlers arriving from Britain, Europe, and New England; native customs of the Ho Chunk, Menominee, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi; and expanding systems of industrial manufacture and mass distribution. “There is a remarkable range of fascinating objects in public and private collections throughout the state, and I am thrilled to be able to share some of them with new audiences,” notes guest curator Emily Pfotenhauer. “The resultant exhibition offers a narrative of material life in Wisconsin but also highlights the distinctive beauty of these objects.”

Chipstone Foundation curator Sarah Fayen adds: “When this landmark exhibition is installed, it will present some of the most visually compelling objects in the Museum. The pieces and their stories of early Wisconsin will resonate well with the Museum’s redesigned American Collections galleries, which officially open on October 23. Thanks to the partnership between Chipstone and the Museum that began in 2001, we’ve been able to explore historical and visual themes in ways not usually seen in other art museums. The new galleries will have audio guides that connect musical scores to the aesthetics of our internationally renowned collection of American furniture; we have a site-specific artist installation-a modern-day cabinet of curiosities-and we have interactive kiosks where visitors can share their comments with others. The Finest in the Western Country is just the first of this year’s special exhibitions that will bring together decorative arts in unprecedented ways.”

Lenders to the exhibition include the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Wisconsin Historical Society, and Milwaukee Public Museum, along with the Douglas County Historical Society, Chippewa Valley Museum, Neville Public Museum, and many others.

The Finest in the Western Country: Wisconsin Decorative Arts 1820-1900 is organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Chipstone Foundation, guest curated by Emily Pfotenhauer, Hummel Fellow at the Chipstone Foundation, and coordinated by Sarah Fayen, curator at the Chipstone Foundation.

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