Polymer Art’s Superhero: Meet Bruce Pepich

Bruce W. Pepich, Executive Director and Curator of Collections at the Racine Art Museum.

I’ve witnessed Philippe de Montebello trying to weave his magic on a potential major donor to his Metropolitan Museum of New York. Philippe’s pitch, smooth and seductive, had a well rehearsed air to it. Across an antique dining room table in New Jersey, with works by Miró, de Chirico and Edvard Munch adorning the walls, he glided through a presentation that had obviously worked so effectively for him with countless other donors. Although the man’s skills were impressive, the hosts this evening didn’t sign over the painting and sculpture collection that he was after, which went instead to the Portland Museum in Maine.

Years later, with the intent of finding an ideal home for our own modest collection of contemporary polymer art — not a Renoir or a Rodin in sight – my wife, Elise Winters, and I flew out to Chicago and then drove to Racine, Wisconsin in order to meet Bruce Pepich and get our first look at the Racine Art Museum. I’d expected that as minor potential donors, with the emphasis on minor, the museum director would put up with us for about 20 or 30 minutes before getting back to his real work. I slipped enough coins in the parking meter in front of the museum to give us one hour’s time.

When Bruce met us, the expression on his face as open and radiant as a sunflower, I began to finger my pocket for more quarters. His guided and personalized tour of RAM gave us instant clarity about the value of the institution that he had devoted his life to for the previous thirty years. And then the invitation to sit down for a short chat in the conference room.

During that conversation, I had to leave twice to refill the meter with another two hours’ worth of quarters. By the end of our visit, Elise and I both felt that we had just experienced what would naturally lead to a deepening friendship with a man, and a long-term  commitment to support his museum. Bruce was that endearing, that compelling both as a personality and as a spokesman for the institution that he had built. Rather than being a pitchman, Bruce was an avid questioner and rapt listener, a curator who clearly wanted more than anything else to learn about the art medium we had brought to his attention.

Since that first meeting, Bruce has embraced our personal polymer collection and convinced his museum's board to establish a major permanent collection of polymer art at RAM.   His engaging personality and devotion to the institution is infectious.  Pepich is an ardent supporter of craft as well as the artists who create it.

So that you may come to know him as we have, we posed a few questions to Bruce and here is what he had to say:

Please tell us something about your background.  Where did you study?

BP:      I have a degree in Art History from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. It is about 60 miles west of Chicago and had a large visual arts program with close connections to the Chicago arts community. My area of concentration was Contemporary Art. While working on my degree, I served as the university’s first curator of the campus collection and also worked as a volunteer arranging exhibitions in the Student Union Art Gallery. The Union Gallery hosted two regular national competitions—a print and drawing show and a craft competition—and purchased works from these shows for the collection. From these early experiences, I was very comfortable working with works on paper alongside works in contemporary craft media. I always saw these works as being on the same parity level. I was able to carry on this interest in bringing craft together with painting and sculpture when I began organizing exhibitions in my first museum job.

Tell us about your tenure at RAM.

BP:      I was hired by Racine’s Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts straight out of college in 1974 on my way to graduate school. I soon realized I was able to conduct original work in the field on a daily basis there and stayed. RAM opened in 2003 as an outgrowth of Wustum Museum and as home to its permanent collection. In the 1990s, I established one of the most significant contemporary craft collections to be found in any US art museum at Wustum. I continue to oversee Wustum as our visual education campus. RAM, located two miles away in Racine’s downtown development district, is where we present artists with national and international reputations. I am celebrating my 35th anniversary at the same institution this year and have been Executive Director since 1981.

I have had an incredible amount of freedom in creating this collection over the past three decades. Knowing I have personally walked most of the works in the 4,500-piece collection into the museum has provided me with an intense relationship with this museum and its core mission. This unique opportunity has held me at RAM. I have also had an extremely supportive relationship with RAM’s major donor, Karen Johnson Boyd.  She inaugurated RAM’s Art Jewelry collection with a gift of about 30 major works in 1991. We share many beliefs about blending art from a variety of disciplines and media and a respect for the artists. It is easy to do good work when you are supported and encouraged as a professional and this environment has provided that for me.

What value do you see for the polymer collection in a context of the RAM's permanent collection.

BP: The Racine Art Museum is home to one of the most significant contemporary craft collections of any art museum in the United States. The recent arrival of a substantial collection of polymer artworks establishes holdings in this field that are of national importance. The polymer works augment RAM’s existing collections of artist-made jewelry, ceramics and furniture to create a more detailed picture of these different media and contributions polymer makes to these fields. The collection will formally debut at RAM with an exhibition and publication in 2011-2012. With its expansive approach to collecting and documenting the contemporary crafts field, RAM offers polymer a platform on which it can reach a broader public, while advancing the medium to new levels of professional accomplishment and acceptance.

RAM’s polymer collection, representing gifts from a consortium of collectors, artists and teachers working in the medium, inaugurates a serious, museum-based documentation of the development of polymer over the past 20 years. This in-depth selection of a broad range of work, records the ways in which polymer has begun to develop into a medium for serious artistic activity. The arrival of substantial examples of polymer works at RAM greatly enhances RAM’s ability to thoroughly chronicle the contemporary crafts movement and conduct programs of public education for followers of the field and the general public alike.

What are your criteria for adding new work to the collection at RAM?

BP:     We have a small acquisitions endowment fund, and have used the income it generates to make a few acquisitions. For the most part, we are dependent upon the gift of actual works to build the collection. We are constantly seeking new additions through gifts of works from collectors and artists. Most collectors assemble … collections, they usually offer us multiple works—say four to 15—at a time. We certainly welcome single pieces, in fact, we are always seeking to fill holes and if we have to do this one step at a time, we do. We do have a wish list that we work off of in determining what we need to acquire to create the most detailed and well-rounded representation of the field. I am always interested in seeing the work of artists who are mature in their career development, but new to me.

In considering where to place our own collection, we were most impressed with RAM’s exhibition philosophy and how the donated works would be utilized.  Can you explain that for our readers?

BP:    Many of our donors select RAM because they are interested in our philosophy of how we utilize the collection for changing exhibitions and to conduct programs of public education. RAM completely changes all of its galleries three times each year. This accommodates both temporary shows brought in from the outside and also rotating thematic shows curated from the collection. It is the constant rotation of collection works to place them in different contexts that gives a constant sense of life and vitality to RAM’s collection.

I would suggest that collectors examine not only how a potential museum recipient exhibits its collection and how often works come out, but also take into consideration the kinds of education programs produced in conjunction with these shows. How will the museum live with these works after they enter the collection? What will the museum’s programming do for the understanding of the field, the advancement of the artists’ careers and the encouragement of further collecting and new artists?

I also like to remind artists that they own important archives. Not only do they have examples of their own work, but also the work of others, plus their paper archives. These must all be properly managed and treated seriously as part of our nation’s heritage.

Woody is an accomplished poet and recognized writer but his most important role is as muse to Elise