For over seventy years, the Neville Public Museum has hosted the Northeast Wisconsin Art Annual. Through the years, this juried art competition has been one of the primary venues where local and regional artist have had the opportunity to present their work to the public and have it appraised by critics. For much of the Art Annual’s history, the Neville has made a point of collecting works that it has considered to be representative of the talents of our regional artistic community. This year, in lieu of a juried competition, the Neville has chosen the occasion to present a retrospective of this Green Bay tradition.The first Art Annual opened in November of 1942 under the direction of Earl G. Wright and the curator, Nile Behncke. A grand total of sixty-five works of art were shown, falling into one of two categories: oil paintings and watercolor paintings. Living up to its name, the Art Annual took hold as an institutional tradition, growing larger by the year. By the 1950s, it was not unheard of for the exhibit to consist of well over one hundred works of art, and in 1960, there were one hundred and ninety works of art listed in the exhibit catalogue! As the popularity of the event grew, so did the region from which it drew. In the early years, only artists residing Brown and nine or ten nearby counties were eligible to participate. By the early 1990s, the Art Annual had expanded its territory into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. As a sign of this continuing success, next year a total of thirty-eight counties in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan will be eligible to participate in the 70th Art Annual!
The goal of this retrospective is not merely to haul out works of art that haven’t been seen in decades. Instead, the artwork should be considered along with the criticisms of past jurors and the history of the event itself. Since the first Art Annual, where only painting–oil and watercolor–was represented, the event has grown to include a wide range of media, from metal sculpture to ceramics, to prints and the graphic arts, as well as textiles and even jewelry. Critics have often cited this diversity and broadening of scope as a point of praise. Also, more often than not, the technical aptitude of the artists has caught their attention.
Artists and their work, however, have had their fair share of constructive criticism leveled at them as well. On more than one occasion, jurors have found it necessary to comment on a lack of individual style. Too often, they’ve observed, it appeared that artists had simply chosen to work in a given style without considering the implications, limits, or purpose of that style. This signals two potentially disastrous trends. First, it indicates that artists—as one juror observed—are being inspired by other artists instead of looking for their own unique voice. This, another juror states, leads to the second and grimmer consequence: it produces art that is irrelevant. Overall, jurors have had good things to say about the artwork that the Neville’s Art Annual garners. Accompanying this praise is always a hope that artists will steer away from relying on work that is derivative and instead use their obvious technical abilities to create work that is unique, modern, and relevant to viewers.
As the Neville approaches its centennial, this retrospective hopes to highlight this important cultural tradition. It is our intent to use this opportunity to spark a dialogue among artists and the public about the value of such a tradition at the Neville Public Museum. What is the purpose of such an event? What expectations should the public have, if any, of the art displayed? What expectations should the artists have of the museum, the jurors, and the public? Most importantly, what is at the core of this event—what is its legacy for future generations?