Trust the artist: MIAD alumni talk curation and art
Two alumni of the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD) have forged a partnership in art and in life. Justin Witte ’99 (Painting) and his wife Olivia Schreiner ’98 (Drawing) live and work in Chicago at the College of DuPage. Schreiner works as an adjunct instructor of drawing at the college, while Witte is the curator for the esteemed Cleve Carney Museum of Art.
Witte did not originally intend to pursue a career in curation. “In a lot of the arts, unexpected things can happen,” he laughs. After meeting in a “Space, Forms and Materials” class at MIAD, Witte and Schreiner both studied abroad at the Lacoste School of Art in Lacoste, France. Following graduation, they decided to move to Philadelphia so that Schreiner could pursue an apprenticeship at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. Integrating into the vibrant community of artists on the East Coast was formative to both their artistic practices, and they embraced the opportunities available to them, such as joining the artist cooperative Vox Populi.
In Philadelphia, Witte wasn’t enthused about his job designing for Ikea, but appreciated the network of artists he worked with. “[T]here is a tight community of artists there, and a lot of them worked doing installation at museums,” he explains. Witte got a job preparing and installing work at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. “I was witnessing all the different aspects that go into putting on an exhibition from the design, the curation, the writing, and getting a sense of what a satisfying creative output that was,” Witte says.
When both Witte and Schreiner decided to pursue Masters degrees—Schreiner with a full ride to attend Northwestern University in Illinois, Witte at the University of Illinois-Chicago—they moved back to the Midwest. There, Witte continued his curatorial career at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and finally landed at Columbia College Chicago, where he was given the opportunity to start curating much larger shows. “I found that not only did I like planning it, but I loved working with the artists and I loved giving them a platform and trying to support them in the presentation of their work,” Witte says. “It was very rewarding to me and also gave me access to really interesting people and artworks.”
After seven years at Columbia College Chicago, Witte transitioned to his current position as Curator and Director of the Cleve Carney Museum of Art. “[DuPage] has always had a strong reputation for its exhibition program,” he says. “The previous curator had done really ambitious shows and it seemed like a great opportunity to step up to the next level.” Supported by the worldly and well-connected community at the college, Witte dove into his curatorial practice and was given the opportunity in 2017 to host an exhibit of work by Frida Kahlo. “Both of us decided together that we were going to do it, because I couldn’t have done it without Olivia,” says Witte. Although it turned into a four-year project because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibition was a resounding success.
While Witte pursued curation, Schreiner maintained a thriving artistic and educational practice. She mainly works out of a studio at their house in Oak Park, Illinois and produces paintings. “I wanted to go to grad school so I could teach,” she explains. Now an adjunct instructor at the College of DuPage, Schreiner also regularly shows work in the Chicago area. “It’s amazing to see the discipline of her practice because she always finds time to keep it going,” says Witte. “When those opportunities come up, she has the work to show. And people are always interested, so it’s pretty phenomenal.” Schreiner laughs, “It’s a real ‘live, work, parent’ balance!”
Both Schreiner and Witte remember their experience at MIAD with affection, and not just because their relationship started at the college. They fondly remember Ron Bitticks, professor emeritus of fine arts. “He instilled, for me, a real discipline and love of the craft,” says Witte. Attending a small college was also important: “Our programs were so small that we were living, eating, breathing the school and the classes… we were just in the studio all the time,” says Schreiner. Both artists emphasize the importance of taking full advantage of the opportunities available to MIAD students, from study abroad courses to training in labs and workshops to collaborating across majors. Witte also recommends students venture outside their comfort zones, saying “Every time something good came [for me] is when you felt that uncomfortable uneasiness and you took the risk and you did it.”
When Witte and Schreiner spoke with MIAD, Witte was in the midst of a press day for the Cleve Carney Museum’s new exhibition, a collection of work by Andy Warhol. With this large-scale project currently at the forefront of his mind, Witte shared his philosophy on curation: “For me, the driving force throughout is staying true to the artists and the artwork I’m presenting … It’s not about how you’re trying to use it. If you keep that focus when you’re working on an exhibition, you’re not going to go wrong. You have to trust the artists.”
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