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Roger Brown's Last Wish

Preserving the late artist's legacy: his paintings, his enormous collection, and an irreplaceable house museum.

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Driving through Rosebud, South Dakota, on a 1972 road trip, Roger Brown came across an old gas station festooned with murals. A hand-painted sign on the front read "Artists Museum," while one on the side of the building advertised the "World's Fastest Scenic Artist." The photographs he took that day documented the genesis of an idea: it was at this site, he said 25 years later, that he began to think of creating a permanent home, and a name, for his burgeoning collection of folk and fine art and other objects.

Brown, an artist who'd lived and worked in a series of cramped north-side apartments since moving to Chicago in the early 60s, took the first step a year later, when he bought an old two-story brick storefront at 1926 N. Halsted. It would be his home and studio, and for the next 22 years he filled it with a mind-boggling array of work by his peers in Chicago and other contemporary artists, work by

American self-taught and outsider artists, folk and tribal art from around the world, pop-culture memorabilia, travel souvenirs, toys, textiles, furniture, baskets, ceramics, and glass.

Inspired by what he saw in Rosebud, Brown wanted to call his new home "'Artists' Museum of Chicago,'" he wrote, "because I feel the things in the collection are of universal appeal to all artists and people with a sense of the spiritual and mystical nature that material things can evoke." Lisa Stone, now the collection's curator, recites the statement from memory. It's from a letter Brown wrote to her in 1997, several months before he died of complications from AIDS.

"It's one of the most eloquent thoughts he shared with me about the collection," she says. "Often, people's initial response is 'Oh, look at all this kitsch!' And it's not. People can perceive it that way....But from Roger's point of view, there was no distinction between high and low art."

In the mid-90s Brown bequeathed the collection to the School of the Art Institute, his alma mater, and it still sits intact inside his former studio, which has been open to the public on a limited basis since 1996. But the Roger Brown Study Collection of the School of the Art Institute, as it's officially called, is rapidly approaching a crossroads. Although the works themselves have been carefully preserved over the years, one doesn't have to spend a lot of time roaming around the studio to realize the building needs a lot of work: stairs creak threateningly, cracks snake along the walls, the woodwork needs sprucing up.

While keeping the RBSC open as a study center has so far been supported by the school--and, per Brown's instructions, the sale of a few pieces of his own artwork--paying for a major renovation is a different story. But Brown left the school plenty of art to sell. RBSC administrators have called on Russell Bowman, former director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, to help.

Raised by a staunchly Baptist family in Opelika, Alabama, James Roger Brown developed an interest in art in grade school. But after graduating from high school in 1960 he enrolled at the Church of Christ-affiliated David Lipscomb College in Nashville, where he studied to become a preacher. By 1962 Brown had moved to Chicago to pursue art instead. He went back and forth a few times between the American Academy of Art, where he eventually completed a commercial design program, and SAIC, where he earned both a bachelor's and a master's. As a student Brown was enthralled by pop and surrealist exhibits at the Art Institute, and his early works often featured cartoonlike images of oddly juxtaposed objects. While working on his MFA in the late 60s he became identified with the Chicago Imagists, a group that included SAIC-trained artists Ed Paschke, Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Barbara Rossi, and Karl Wirsum. They created funky, often irreverent works influenced by pop culture, commercial art, comics, and advertising, which they exhibited in a series of group shows at the Hyde Park Art Center from 1966 to '71. Many of them were represented by art dealer Phyllis Kind, who'd previously only shown old master prints and drawings. Imagism, she said later, got her excited about living artists.

Brown said that as a kid he was always collecting things--butterflies, rocks, stamps. But it wasn't until the late 1960s, when he saw his painting teacher's collection of folk and primitive art and found objects, that he began to realize "how important involving one's whole life in visual things is for an artist." The teacher, Ray Yoshida, and art history professor Whitney Halstead urged Brown and his cohort to take inspiration from non-Western and nontraditional art. Yoshida accompanied his students to Maxwell Street to prospect for "trash treasures," while Halstead encouraged them to visit Chicago self-taught artists like Joseph Yoakum, Aldo Piacenza, and William Dawson. Brown and other Imagists appreciated--and bought--these artists' works at a time when few others saw their value.

Brown finished his MFA in 1970, the same year he first exhibited at Phyllis Kind. After finishing his degree, Brown visited Europe and Egypt on a fellowship, collecting artwork and objects. Travel would become both a lifelong interest and a major source of artistic inspiration: his signature works feature stylized, repetitive patterns of skyscrapers, houses, rolling hills, clouds, trees, often punctuated with figures gesticulating wildly in silhouette.

Since its construction in 1889 the storefront at 1926 N. Halsted had been occupied by a tobacco shop, a book bindery, a confectioner's, a grocery, and a plastics company. When Brown took possession it had been sliced into four apartments, two upstairs and two down. Architect George Veronda, with whom Brown had begun a romantic relationship in 1972, remodeled the interior, removing walls and doors and introducing subtle modernist touches while keeping the original woodwork and hardware. He reconfigured the ground floor into a studio and office and modified the second-floor living space to accommodate Brown's collection.

Over the years Brown's stature in the art world grew. His work was shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions around the country and abroad, and major retrospectives of his work were mounted at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in 1980 and at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum in 1987. Meanwhile Brown scoured flea markets, junk shops, and roadside stands, bringing back circus sideshow banners, gaudy busts of Jesus and Elvis, hand-painted religious signs by Jesse Howard from Fulton, Missouri, and wood carvings by Edgar Tolson from Campton, Kentucky. He returned from Mexico, South America, and Russia with masks and ethnic handicrafts. His upstairs space came to accommodate 36 Joseph Yoakum drawings, several Aldo Piacenza birdhouses, a Henry Darger panel, and works by Yoshida, H.C. Westermann, Nutt, Christina Ramberg, and Phil Hanson.

In the early 80s Veronda built a second residence for Brown, an award-winning modernist structure in New Buffalo, Michigan; a few years later Brown bought a beach house nearby. Following Veronda's death from lung cancer in 1984, Brown moved to La Conchita, California, where he lived in a vintage Spartan trailer before commissioning Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman to build him a house in 1988. He maintained ties to Chicago, designing sets for two Chicago Opera Theatre productions of Cosi fan tutte and, in the last years of his life, creating a mosaic mural at the Howard Brown Health Center. In 1991 he helped found Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, a Chicago-based group that promotes awareness of folk and outsider art.

In 1995 Brown gave both Michigan properties to the School of the Art Institute. He leased the Halsted Street building to Intuit, which used the first floor as a gallery and study center and left the second-floor museum intact, giving occasional guided tours. In 1996 Brown donated the more than 1,000 works of art he'd collected (as well as books, slides, sketchbooks, architectural drawings, and writings) to SAIC; the gift included about 25 of his own works that he'd kept for himself, some never to be sold. He didn't donate 1926 N. Halsted to the school, but in late 1996 the school bought it from him.

In September 1997, Brown returned to Chicago to attend the dedication of his mosaic at Howard Brown and the opening of a solo exhibit of his paintings at Phyllis Kind. His friends knew it was most likely the last time they'd see him. From Chicago, Brown went to stay with family in Alabama. He died that November in an Atlanta hospital, a few weeks shy of 56.

Lisa Stone, who'd first met Brown in the mid-80s when she was working at Carl Hammer Gallery, got involved with the collection in the summer of 1996. An Evanston native who'd moved to Wisconsin in 1973 to take art classes at Beloit College, Stone became involved in the documentation and preservation of Wisconsin artists' environments in the early 80s. Under the auspices of the Kohler Foundation, she worked at the Painted Forest, a former Modern Woodmen of America hall in Valton, followed by stints at the Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto in Cataract, Fred Smith's Wisconsin Concrete Park in Phillips, and Nick Engelbert's Grandview, a home and sculpture garden in Hollandale. In 1993, Stone and fellow SAIC faculty member Jim Zanzi produced the exhibit "Sacred Spaces and Other Places: A Guide to Grottos and Sculptural Environments in the Upper Midwest" and wrote the accompanying catalog, published as a paperback guidebook. Most recently, she's worked with the Kane County Department of Development to prepare a preservation plan for Charles Smith's African-American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archives in Aurora.

Brown had directed that the collection and archival materials be made publicly available--to artists, scholars, teachers, and anyone else who was interested. So from early 1997 to mid-1998, Stone, who was also teaching a class in curatorial practices at SAIC, sorted, cataloged, and conserved the materials at Brown's studio with help from her students. After Intuit's lease expired in July '98, says Stone, the school intended to sell the building and move the collection. But in the process of cataloging, "it became apparent that the collection's true value was in its original architectural context," says Stone. "Being in the place where Roger Brown lived and worked rather than having it on display in a museum or another place gave it an incredible power that it wouldn't have otherwise. So the school committed to keeping the building."

It opened as an SAIC facility in the fall of 1998, featuring the Roger Brown Study Collection, which operates as a museum run by the school's Special Collections division, and a storefront gallery where students and faculty can mine the collection's materials and hang exhibits. Students also pitch in with cataloging, maintenance, and conservation tasks as part of coursework or internships. Docent-led tours, given by appointment only, cost $15.

Brown also left the school his Stanley Tigerman-designed home in La Conchita, the Spartan trailer, and more than 100 of his own works to sell off as it saw fit. In December 1997, Stone went to La Conchita to inventory works there. Brown's will also transferred to SAIC ownership of the paintings, prints, and sculptural pieces that he'd consigned to Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York (Kind's Chicago gallery had closed shortly before Brown's death). The transfer, says Stone, "was Roger's way of endowing the [RBSC] fully so it wasn't represented by a dealer who would have a third or more of the proceeds. He gave it all to us to have, entrusting us to do the right thing and to keep the spirit of the collection alive."

Brown "generously" lent pieces from his collection to exhibits around the country, says Stone, who's compiled a history. But she "quickly arrived at a pretty ungenerous lending policy. I wanted to keep the collection as intact as possible, for people to come here and experience the whole thing"--right down to the bowl of pennies beside his bed and the postcards taped to the inside of the dishwasher. (Lending decisions are made by an 11-member steering committee composed of Brown peers such as Nutt and Yoshida, faculty, and Stone, as well as a four-member estate committee made up of SAIC officials.)

The National Trust for Historic Preservation selected the RBSC as one of 20 pilot sites in its Historic Artists' Homes and Studios grant program in 2000, putting it in the same league as the homes and studios of Grant Wood, Donald Judd, and Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. Jeanne Lambin was an intern at the RBSC in the late 1990s, researching the history of the house as well as Brown's architectural drawings. She now works with the National Trust's Wisconsin field office in Mineral Point. "Preserving the legacy of the house and the collection is an awesome responsibility," she says. "It's absolutely one of the most important artist's sites in Chicago and the midwest because it's so intact, because there has been so much documentation, and because so many of Roger Brown's friends and colleagues sit on the steering committee."

"We're not preserving the house at the expense of the collection or the collection at the expense of the house," says Stone. "It hasn't crossed that funny line into a house museum where there are velvet ropes and vitrines, where you stop at a room and look in. Here you can actually walk through and feel like you're in a home....Unlike a lot of house museums, there's a kind of flexibility. There's an artistic presence that continues--a sense of authenticity that people strongly respond to."

Authenticity is both the RBSC's blessing and its bane. Except for some work this summer, the building hasn't been substantially rehabilitated since 1974, and its stewards know that preserving it will be a challenge because the art is so integrated within the environment. They've just begun addressing some of the major repairs: reconstruction work on the cornice this summer involved closing the building as well as removing and then reinstalling one-third of the collection.

The school sold the Tigerman house in 1998 (the trailer is on long-term loan to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles) and the New Buffalo beach house this past spring. But that's still not enough money for the rehab, and a major fund-raising campaign is in the offing. (Stone and SAIC officials will disclose neither the RBSC's annual budget nor estimated renovation costs.) There's no start-up date for the renovation--it could still be a couple years away--but the SAIC has been planning for it since 1999, when it commissioned conservation assessment reports for the building as well as for the collection.

To assess the building it hired preservation architect Anne McGuire, who found that the structure needed to be stabilized and that mechanical and electrical systems needed upgrading. She also recommended that the residential heating and cooling system be brought up to museum standards. "House museums are unique building types," says McGuire. "You want to keep the feeling of the house and at the same time meet code requirements to accommodate the public safely. But enough work has been done in this area for us to know how to establish a good happy medium."

Still, McGuire's report didn't cover how to empty the house. So two years ago the RBSC got a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which covered the costs of having Art Institute conservators, registrars, and students diagram and tabulate the collection. "We organized the move into all of its logistical components, including down to the box level--how many boxes of what size, how many crates," says Stone, adding it will be a "staggering task." The plan alone occupies several shelves' worth of black binders that are stored behind a curtain near the top of the stairs at 1926 N. Halsted.

During renovation the RBSC could be closed for a year, during which time the study collection itself will move to a yet-unidentified site. But Stone says it will still be accessible. "One of the components of the plan is to have visible storage--to set up an installation of stuff that people can still experience."

Up until this year, the SAIC had sold Brown's paintings to public collections only: the Art Institute, the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, the Federal Reserve Bank of Birmingham, Alabama. In all, Brown's works are in 55 public collections throughout North America and Europe, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Smithsonian Institution. Since 1999 the RBSC has lent many works to group and solo exhibits, including two major Brown surveys scheduled to open next year--one at the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University in Indiana and the other at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.

Stone, who commutes to Lincoln Park from east-central Wisconsin, wishes she had more time and contacts to generate sales and shows. "I'd been trying to do that and failing miserably," she concedes. "I mean, we had all these [Brown] paintings just sitting around and people didn't know they were there....We definitely needed professional assistance."

Russell Bowman was a graduate student in art history at the University of Chicago in 1974 when he helped hang a series of exhibits at its Center for Continuing Education collectively titled "The Chicago Style." He met the series curator, critic and Imagist booster Dennis Adrian, who introduced him to the artists. "My wife and I became friendly with Roger Brown, Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson, and Ed Paschke," says Bowman. (Nutt and Nilsson have been married since 1961.) "It was sort of what was happening at the moment--it was excitingly different. For some people, it was too different. I was interested in that difference--that kind of imagistic, expressionistic art happening here that was different from the mainstream in New York."

Bowman developed an especially "warm and generous" kinship with Brown, partly borne out of their shared southern and religious heritage: Bowman had been reared in Virginia in the Church of the Brethren, an offshoot of the Mennonite church. He interviewed Brown many times and was drawn to his work because of its "remarkable formal qualities, the combination of representational and abstract elements, but also because he did paintings on everyday current and political events that not many artists can do."

In the late 1970s, while education director at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Bowman began publishing articles in such publications as Art in America and Art Journal on the work of individual Imagists. He contributed catalog essays to a traveling retrospective of Brown's work in 1980 organized by the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama and to "Who Chicago?," a survey of ten Imagists (as well as antecedents such as Yoakum and Westermann) organized by the Sunderland Arts Centre in London that toured the United Kingdom in '81 and the U.S. the following year.

Brown and Nutt got Bowman interested in folk and outsider art, taking him to shows at Phyllis Kind and showing him their collections. "There are other great collections--Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson's, Ray Yoshida's--but...Brown was more omnivorous as a collector than most of his colleagues," says Bowman. As director of the Milwaukee Art Museum from 1985 to 2002, Bowman expanded its collection of folk, self-taught, and European outsider art into one of the largest in the nation. He also beefed up other collections and staged several major contemporary shows and retrospectives, including one of Nutt's that opened in 1994 and traveled around the country. As a capstone, Bowman presided over the planning and construction of Santiago Calatrava's winged addition to the museum, the Quadracci Pavilion.

In August 2001, Bowman told the board of the Milwaukee Art Museum that he would resign the following summer. Calatrava's addition with its retractable wings, budgeted for $100 million, opened that October. By the time Bowman's resignation was announced in January 2002, "we knew that there was [a cost] overrun," he says. The following May it was reported that the addition was about $20 million over budget. Bowman insists his leaving the museum had nothing to do with its financial difficulties. "I felt I had come to the end of a long road," says Bowman. "I think I accomplished very much of what I could have dreamed of accomplishing there, and I wasn't necessarily interested in doing the same job over in another institution."

Bowman was still at the museum when he began organizing an exhibit of Brown's paintings for the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, tentatively scheduled for 2006; he'd long noted O'Keeffe's influence on Brown's work. That task brought him to the Roger Brown Study Collection, where he met with the estate committee. "I said I felt something really ought to be done to promote exhibitions, sales, museum acquisitions, scholarly writings, that sort of thing," he recalls. By then he'd decided to hang a shingle in Chicago--he and his wife had been going back and forth between their Wisconsin home and a city apartment since 1999, when she landed a job here. "Eventually they came back to me and said, 'Well, if you're leaving the museum and starting this new venture in Chicago, what about you?'"

Bowman's position as the custodian of Brown's posthumous career became official in late fall. Early on, he convinced the SAIC that it was important to try and place the artist's works with private collectors. "Private collectors are also a part of keeping an artist's reputation alive, and the work that [they] have often ends up in institutions anyway," says Bowman. Not only do collectors loan their works for exhibition, but they often leave them to museums or other public institutions when they die.

Bowman has sold ten paintings since January, all to private collectors, and he's been talking to public institutions as well. Browns are in "most of the major American museums," he says, "but there are some newer institutions, particularly western and southern institutions, that don't have his work." He's also currently organizing a Brown show that'll open in 2005 at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University; the late Weisman owned a number of Brown's works.

Earlier this year Stone and Bowman organized the RBSC's holdings into two major categories: the Roger Brown Permanent Collection, 46 paintings available for study and exhibitions, and the Roger Brown Estate Collection of Paintings and Prints, 103 works available for sale or loan. The estate collection has been broken down by theme--"Landscapes," "Architectural Wonders," "Religious Subjects," "Views of the Art World," and so on. Pieces from the permanent collection--an overview of works from Brown's early to final years--are virtually untouchable, says Stone, "unless a major museum with a huge amount of money like the Tate or the National Gallery is interested."

Most of the paintings in the estate collection were made in the 80s and 90s, with a few from the 70s. Nearly everything Brown created in the 1970s "sold immediately at the time," says Bowman. Many of the pieces that are left, he thinks, didn't find buyers because of their political nature. The "Current Events/Social Commentary" category includes several early-90s works dealing with the first Gulf War and such figures as Saddam Hussein and the first President Bush. 1982's IRA PLO FALN, depicting a burning high-rise, was one of a number of "unnervingly prescient" paintings Brown did linking tower disasters with terrorism, says Bowman. At the other end of the spectrum is a series of works from the mid-90s that combine painted landscapes with ceramic objects on shelves in the foreground--a format Brown called "virtual still life."

"Roger Brown, A Different Dimension," the first exhibit to focus on Brown's three-dimensional works, opens at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts next April and travels to the Chicago Cultural Center in July. The show will include 30 pieces, including painted chairs, some of the virtual still lifes, and matching nine-foot-high models of the World Trade Center towers made in 1977. It'll also include one of Brown's best-known pieces, owned by the MCA: Autobiography in the Shape of Alabama (Mammy's Door), a 1974 painting on a door, with mirror, hardware, Plexiglas, photographs, postcards, and cloth shirt.

"What I'm primarily interested in," says Bowman, "is continuing to build Roger Brown's reputation as a major American artist, which I believe he is--not just a Chicago artist who is somewhat underrated at this point."

Is it too early to reassess the work of an artist who died only six years ago? Veteran MCA curator Lynne Warren doesn't think so--if for no other reason than that he was a Chicago artist, and "Chicago artists aren't taken as seriously as they should within a national and international context." While scholars like Bowman and Dennis Adrian have helped raise Brown's profile, Warren says, "critical opinion never quite matched the dispersal of his work." Being lumped "under the Imagist moniker" may have also been a detriment. "Roger was unique within the group of artists that he was associated with," she points out. "He had strong opinions and may have pissed off people with some of his paintings. Some were tough and acerbic, like those about the follies of the art world....But the work of individual artists in that group was often not as explored as much as it could've been."

Marissa Pascucci, who's curating the upcoming MMFA show, believes there may be a "resurgence" of interest in Brown's work partly because so much of it is in one place and readily available to institutions--she says she was "amazed" when she examined the RBSC's materials over two years ago. She thinks many of his sculptural pieces provide an alternative to pop art. "I don't know if people have gotten bored with pop art, but I think they're realizing there were other things besides Rauschenberg and what was going on in New York during Roger Brown's time."

But no matter how popular Brown may or may not become, Stone says, his study collection will always remain under the auspices of the SAIC. "The fact that Roger Brown gave his collection to the school is a reflection of his trust in the school. It's important that a late-20th-century house museum like this not be part of a historical society but be part of a big, varied art school. We're a small place, but I don't think we'll ever exhaust our own possibilities of what's here to explore."

Her only worry is that the ensuing publicity could create more of a demand than the little building on Halsted can handle. "It's a lot of wear and tear on the collection. We're not trying to be Sue the Dinosaur."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe, James Arkatov, Michael Lombardi.

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