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Anthony Petullo's gift will expand Milwaukee Art Museum's already healthy collection

By Mary Louise Schumacher of the Journal Sentinel

Sept. 29, 2010

As an art collector, Anthony Petullo compares himself to the artists he loves. For more than 20 years, he has honed a deeply personal vision and hunted down art objects with a relentless fervor.

His collection is one of the most significant - if idiosyncratic - troves of self-taught and outsider art in private hands. Now Petullo is giving the bulk of his collection to the Milwaukee Art Museum, more than 300 drawings, paintings and sculptures. Many were created by artists who lived in secluded places, suffered traumas or were psychiatric patients.

Building on the museum's already exceptional holdings of work by folk and self-taught artists, Petullo's gift will make the museum one of the more important repositories of art by untrained artists in the United States.

"I feel as if a lot of my children are leaving me," Petullo said of his beloved artworks, many of which have been taken from the walls in his private, Third Ward gallery in anticipation of the move. "But I'm told that I will have a lot of visitation rights."

The museum plans to install a rotating selection of Petullo's artworks, many of which are fragile and can be shown for only limited periods, on the second floor of the museum's older wing in the coming few years. A major exhibit is also planned for 2012.

What sets his collection apart is its strength in European works, which date from the 1920s to present. The collection includes 63 artists, mostly men, including works by artists such as Adolf W├Âlfli, Alfred Wallis and Scottie Wilson. American artists such as Bill Traylor, Henry Darger and Minnie Evans are also represented.

"The Petullo Collection is amazing in paying attention to the very sensitive and thoughtful European artists that really haven't been seen in the U.S. very much at all," said Leslie Umberger, senior curator at Sheboygan's John Michael Kohler Arts Center and an authority on the genre.

The Petullo collection will complement works in the permanent collection at MAM, which has been acquiring folk and self-taught artists since 1951. The new infusion of art will build on the Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art and the Richard and Erna Flagg Collection of Haitian Art, one of the better collections of 20th-century work from Haiti.

Petullo, the founder and former president of Olsten Staffing Services in Milwaukee, started collecting in 1990 with the idea of giving what he acquired to the museum.

By 1993, he had amassed enough work that a traveling exhibition was organized called "Driven to Create." As is often the case with a show of so-called outsider artists, people who for various reasons exist outside mainstream society and the influence of art traditions, some critics took issue with the ways the artists were categorized. Writing for The New York Times, art critic Holland Cotter wrote that some of the works were by academically trained artists that didn't fit the collection.

The collection started with an almost archaic-looking drawing of a brown mule made in the 1930s by George Traylor, a former slave from Alabama. Using simple materials like pencil and cardboard, Traylor had apparently started making art suddenly one day in front of a pool hall not long after his wife died. After that, Petullo bought another piece by English artist Alfred Wallis, who, it turned out, also started making art after his wife died.

The biographies of the artists, the stories of how they disengaged from the world and created their own realities, are part of what attracts Petullo. Many of the artists began making voluminous quantities of art inexplicably, suddenly and obsessively, speaking of spirit guides or visions.

As he expanded his collection, Petullo got advice from the museum's former director Russell Bowman, who was well versed in the area, and for many years Petullo gave several works to the museum each year. That continuity was lost when Bowman left, Petullo said.

But even collecting with the museum in mind, Petullo never set out to create an encyclopedic collection or buy according to the museum's needs. He bought what he loved, often quite viscerally.

"The heart of that collection stems from a very personal place, from private moments that perhaps were never meant to be shared and have something very powerful in them," Umberger said.

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