Open View

Open View is an abbreviated arts guide for Milwaukee, WI.

Interview: Polly Morris

Work from 2014 Nohl Fellow Emily Belknap: Cornfield, 2015

Work from 2014 Nohl Fellow Emily Belknap: Cornfield, 2015

In November 2015, Open View sat down with Polly Morris, who in her capacity as executive director of the Bradley Family Foundation administers the Greater Milwaukee Foundation's Mary L. Nohl Fund Fellowships for Individual Artists program. 

Open View: What were some goals of the Nohl Fund when it was first developed 2003?

Polly Morris: We first put this together back in the period after Mary Nohl died in 2001. At that time, one of my main concerns was that artists seemed to be leaving Milwaukee in droves. Another concern that first became apparent to me when I was working in the dance field, was choreographers who don’t have their own companies have the same problems as the visual arts, in that they can’t get money as individuals. This problem was particularly bad in Milwaukee. Milwaukee is a place where most philanthropic dollars are going towards institutions. And even back in 2003, it was clear to me that the structure of a 501c3 is a huge burden to impose and it certainly did not fit the model for individual artists.

OV: You co-founded Danceworks after moving to Milwaukee, how did this experience influence your vision of the Nohl Fund?

PM: I was particularly interested, as someone who wasn’t from Milwaukee, in building as many bridges as possible with the outside world. Visual artists and choreographers have similar needs in terms of space and touring their work. One of the things I borrowed from the dance field for the Nohl Program was the Suitcase Fund--a way to support Milwaukee artists as they took their work out into the world. I think that part has been extraordinarily successful. Over 250 artists have received Suitcase funding over the years, and they’ve traveled all over the world. Because the Suitcase uses a different selection model than the fellowship (fellows are chosen by a panel of jurors; Suitcase awardees are chosen by whatever institution has extended an invitation to show or screen, and as long as artists have a legitimate opportunity and we have funds left, we give them the money) we have been able to fund a very diverse group of artists.

OV: What are some of the connections you have witnessed develop?

PM: I’ve always been interested in seeing how the jury connects with artists who don’t necessarily win the fellowship. Anne Kingsbury was chosen as a fellow this year after applying on and off for years. Several years ago, in 2008, there was a juror, Laurel Reuter,  who was really interested in Anne’s work after seeing it during the jurying, so we arranged a studio visit and she went on to offer Anne a show at the North Dakota Museum of Art. That became a long relationship independent of the Nohl but now it has come back full circle, because Reuter wrote the essay about Anne for the 2014 Nohl Exhibition catalog. I love to see things like that happen. It’s not just about the exposure, it really is about the connections.

OV: This year is the first time the funding structure has been altered. What is the reasoning behind this change?

PM: Well, there are a few things that made us change it. One of them was that when we started this back in 2003, $15K was a lot of money for a program like this and $5K was a nice amount for emerging artists. For a long time, it seemed that artists preferred that more people receive the Fellowship than that we increase the size of the award. But we have done a lot of research about the dollar amount for regional fellowships like this one and found that we were falling behind. We decided that it would be best to hand out fewer fellowships but increase the size of the awards. We are curious to see what kind of effect that has.

OV: The exhibition element of the Nohl seems to be a great yearly snapshot of Milwaukee artists.

PM: Yeah I’ve always seen the exhibition as a sort of outreach, not just to the artist community, but to the larger community--an opportunity to see the work of local, practicing contemporary artists. I don’t think Milwaukee has enough of these opportunities. Even some of the smaller project venues who try and show local tend to have exhibitions that can be ephemeral and hard to get to. Rarely are they at the scale of what artists can achieve for the Nohl exhibition.