Interview: Debra Brehmer
Debra Brehmer is a writer and art historian who runs a contemporary gallery called Portrait Society in the Marshall Building of Milwaukee’s Third Ward. In 1986 she initiated Art Muscle, a bi-monthly art magazine with a circulation of 20,000, which she ran for 9 years until its sale in 1995. The publication is currently being digitized for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Special Collections.Open View: Years ago you ran an arts magazine called Art Muscle for nearly a decade. Tell us about it.
Debra Brehmer: We printed 20,000 copies every two months which were distributed free in Milwaukee and sold nationally through a distributor. It was the only time Milwaukee ever had a publication or a definition of its art community that was exported nationally.
Art Muscle was all hand type-set. It was really cumbersome to do but it was a lot of fun to plan visually. And it was a different era when people were used to reading longer things. Regular features included artists opportunities, reviews, artist profiles, and a thorough calendar that Therese Cantz headed up spanning two months into the future. We were constantly striving to expand the definition of what art is or was in Milwaukee. We also had a feature called “The Letter Home” where we would invite someone originally from Milwaukee or the State who had moved away and they would write a letter home about their experiences abroad and their distant perspective looking back on Milwaukee.
The great thing about Art Muscle was that there was this intense level of participation from people that were writing for it, and we paid everybody. Every single person who wrote, who shot a photograph, who designed an ad was paid. That was my insistence from the beginning: if this is going to be professional, we have to pay people. It really helped. We hit the streets and sold ads to support our budgets.
OV: What inspired you to begin that publication?
DB: I was in graduate school in Art History at UWM at the time and we were in a little seminar. It was such a great time to be in UWM — Michelle Grabner and Jerome Schultz were in the class to name a few. Jerome said we should really start an art publication because Milwaukee didn’t have one. And I was like “OK.” So we got a group of people together including my art history professor and his wife, and started meeting together regularly and deciding what the publication was going to be.
One thing we did from the get-go that I feel really insured the ongoing success of the magazine was that I went around to art galleries and businesses prior to launching the first issue and I made them sign a contract that if we started an arts publication in Milwaukee, that they would be willing to support it with their advertising. So before we even started I had these contracts from all these people in the community. And when it came to support the launch of the first issue selling ads, if organizations would try to back out I would remind them: “But you signed this contract with us saying you would support this, remember? Will you at least buy a $50 ad?” So from the very first issue we raised enough money to cover the publications release.
OV: What was the shared goal?
DB: There was a little bit of upheaval in the beginning. I had a very distinct vision of what the publication would be [that it would be supported commercially] and others had a very different vision. They wanted it to become a non-profit, academic publication that would serve the art world, but I wanted to create a publication that would serve a broader audience and be supported by advertising participation.
So after the first issue, the group that wanted the more academic focus left and we carried on. What I felt was successful was that we were sharing the art world with a broad public, but we were not dumbing down the writing; the articles were full of insight and depth but edited to be readable. And readers loved it. We always ran out of magazines.
OV: Why did you choose to stop?
DB: I was pretty young. After the magazine took off more than I thought it would, I took off grad school but I really wanted to go back and finish my degree. Around the same time I got married and had a baby, my first child. There was a juncture for me when I felt I am had to commit to publishing the art magazine nationally–upping the ante and providing national coverage. And I wasn’t sure that’s what I really wanted to do with my life. I knew if I chose to move the publication nationally, it would probably be another 5 or 10 years of trying to push it into a broader realm. I wanted to do other things with my life. I felt good about Art Muscle and what it had done. So I sold it. Unfortunately the buyer didn’t keep the publication going.
OV: You mentioned the magazine is currently being archived for web accessibility. When will this be available and what do you hope people gather from it?
Yes! UWM was gifted the entire archive of Art Muscle. And this spring with the support of a patron, they are working to scan and digitize the entire archive so it can be searched and shared. There’s talk about a possible exhibition in tribute to Art Muscle, too.
I hope the archive helps inform people about what happened in Milwaukee’s cultural past. From the breadth of topics covered — exhibitions, theatre, performances — to the depth of skill of the many writers and designers who contributed, it’s an incredible historical record of 1986 through 1996 in Milwaukee. Most of the people who were in Milwaukee's art scene during that decade either contributed or were covered in the magazine at some point.
OV: Did your experience running Arts Muscle influence your decision to open the Portrait Society Gallery?
DB: I didn’t think they were related until I started thinking about similar they are. At Portrait Society, I try to cross a lot of party lines and attract a broad audience. With the gallery, I wanted to create a place where multiple types of people came and found something interesting and cross as many lines of age or ethnicity as possible. The shared thread was the portrait or the theme of human identity.
Shows at Portrait Society change every two months. The magazine came out every two months. Each magazine was a new deal and the shows at the Gallery often look totally different. And now much like Art Muscle, the gallery is supported commercially. I want the city to support my effort, just like Art Muscle. If advertisers wouldn’t have supported Art Muscle, I thought, “What good is it?” It’s about the community. And we need people to all say “Yes.” We want this. This is really useful. And I feel the same way about the gallery. I want to sell art. I want people to buy art. And I want artists to get paid. Every time I can write a commision check to an artist, I am so happy and they’re happy too. So philosophically, I’ve never been interested in the non-profit approach.
OV: How did Portrait Society Gallery begin?
DB: Around the time of selling Art Muscle, a friend of mine, Kat Murrell, contacted me and we started online publication called “Susceptible to Images.” It was an online art publication that had a few columns and online reviews that we started updating with new content weekly. It was insane. We soon went to bi-weekly, and then monthly. But as time went on I really didn’t want to run another arts publication; I wanted to run a small gallery. Kat and I had rented an office for “Susceptible to Images”, and that office was were the first show of Portrait Society was held. I loved doing those small shows. Kat and I decided that at that time there was no way to really leverage income for “Susceptible to Images” without selling ads or taking it on formally as a business, so we let it go. But I kept the room and kept hosting shows under Portrait Society Gallery starting in 2007. I felt like the portrait was such an unpopular and maligned genre. (It seemed like there was no worse genre in the art world than the portrait at the time). And I liked how democratic the portrait was; no matter your background or economic status, you have pictures of people hanging in your house or saved on your phone. Portraits unite us in a shared conversation and they requires an intimate exchange between two people. And there isn’t much scholarship about the portrait out there. I looked for every contemporary theory book I could find when I was teaching an art history class at MIAD, and there were very few that addressed it through a philosophical lens. To have a share in that conversation with the gallery is really exciting.