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Sarah Ball Allis exhibition interrupts expectations

The Sarah Ball Allis Art Museum Jan 26-June 11, 2023. Includes Wisconsin Public Radio logo and photograph of Sarah Ball Allis.

Image courtesy of the Sarah Ball Allis Art Museum.

The Sarah Ball Allis Museum might sound like Milwaukee’s newest, if strangely familiar, museum. Usually known as the Charles Allis Museum, the institution is temporarily changing its name in conjunction with its new exhibition highlighting women, femme and nonbinary artists. The Sarah Ball Allis exhibition is curated by Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design Associate Professor and Chair of First-Year Experience Kate Schaffer and includes work by MIAD alumni Melissa Dorn ’96 (Sculpture) and Artemis Sidikman ’22 (New Studio Practice: Fine Arts).

The Sarah Ball Allis exhibition was six years in the making, weathering everything from changes in museum leadership to a pandemic. As guest curator, Schaffer filled the museum with artwork that Sarah might have selected herself. “It was this way for me to honor her and her role and put a spotlight on women, femme and nonbinary folks in the arts,” she says. Following the directive left by Sarah Ball Allis in her last will and testament “to educate, to delight and inspire,” Schaffer says the exhibition is about educating people and learning. “It’s asking people to look beyond what is readily apparent,” she says.

One theme central to the exhibition is interruption. “I like to interrupt people’s notions of femininity,” says Schaffer, who identifies as nonbinary but uses she/her pronouns as a political choice. She delights in making people question their assumptions. “[It’s] one of the most important things that I can do in terms of making change in the world,” she explains. Renaming the museum was a strategic choice that Schaffer hopes will immediately interrupt audience expectations. “When you start reading the didactics of the exhibition, that becomes increasingly clear,” she continues. “But it still leaves the viewer some space to process and agree or disagree as they see fit.”

Tiled bathroom ornamented with mop heads. A yonic red tapestry hangs above the bathtub.

Melissa Dorn. “Fem-utility Closet.” 2023, installation view. Sarah Ball Allis Exhibition. Courtesy of the artist.

Melissa Dorn, one of the exhibiting artists and a MIAD alum, is an adjunct faculty member teaching First-Year Experience courses. Her artistic practice focuses on feminism and labor, represented in the Sarah Ball Allis exhibition through an installation in Sarah’s bathroom composed primarily of industrial mop heads. Previously used as a storeroom, museum staff “cleaned out everything that was in there. It’s currently not a functioning bathroom, there’s no toilet … I was really excited because I had the opportunity to finally do an installation full-scale,” says Dorn.

In addition to curating the exhibition, Schaffer is also showing art. As part of The Everyday Feminist, Schaffer and Dorn teamed up to create “Dear Sarah,” an installation consisting of a portrait and letter addressed to Sarah. In the spirit of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, visitors are invited to take a copy of the letter with them.

Both involved closely with MIAD, Dorn and Schaffer teach classes in the First-Year Experience department. “The discussions I have with students continue to feed me,” says Dorn. “They usually look at things in a very different way than I do. Seeing things from multiple perspectives has been really beneficial for me and hopefully for them as well.” Recently, Dorn watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on the strong recommendation of her students, a film that she would never have watched otherwise. “I thought it was awesome!” she says. “I’m going to watch it again!”

Curation and traditional art-making practices like painting comprise Schaffer’s creativity, but the instructor also considers teaching an integral part of her artistic practice. She advises young creatives, especially first-year students at MIAD, to find their people. “How can we be really intentional about our community?” she asks. “Not finding who you think you should hang out with, but finding the people who have the same values, goals and work ethic as you, that you know you can have a great conversation with.”

The exhibition is on view until June 11th, 2023 at the Sarah Ball Allis Art Museum (otherwise known as the Charles Allis Art Museum) on Milwaukee’s East Side. Schaffer and Dorn encourage audiences to take their time experiencing the exhibition. “I really encourage folks to get over to the museum and think about how things get named,” says Dorn. “Who are we acknowledging, who are we honoring and why?”

Learn more about the exhibition, keep up with Kate, Melissa and Artemis and check out MIAD’s First-Year Experience program!

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