Riches deep on Spaight St.
Andrew and Sonja Weiner are Madison's guardians of international art. Since 1980, their elegantly weathered near east side home at 1150 Spaight St. has been the local gateway to the wide world of art.
Andrew, better known as Andy, typically answers the door with a slightly rumpled, professorial amiability. Jazz plays softly in the background.
Familiar patrons enter the art-filled living space like family members planning to raid the refrigerator. Gallery newcomers quickly feel at home as well. The Weiners readily chat about the art on the walls because they are both passionate collectors and teachers.
That sense of sharing has made this place a rare, invaluable resource that has helped this city's tastes in artists grow from the local to the global.
Madison's guardians of art are now moving on, to Massachusetts, due to major changes in their lives and changes in their art market, which is now predominantly Internet-based.
One might speculate that Madison has gradually begun to take Spaightwood Galleries for granted. It is slightly off the beaten path in a residential area.
Whatever the combination of factors, the gallery is currently holding its final Madison show, through Aug. 15. Andy, for years a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of English, and Sonja, an instructor in English at Madison Area Technical College, recently announced their retirements. They plan to move to a church in Upton, Mass., which they will renovate into their new home and galleries.
In a recent interview, they spoke of their years in Madison with a sense of both appreciation and disappointment:
What prompted your decision to close here and move?
ANDY: The decision to move has partly to do with my retiring from the UW. I would not have retired for several years, but then they announced the budget cutbacks and eliminated so many teaching assistants. So I asked them what might help the TA situation and they said two or three professors would have to retire. So the next day I announced my retirement.
We were originally going to move three doors down from here but when we saw the house it had very little wall space for hanging art. So we ended up making a commitment to our family, which is out east and who all live a short distance from the place that we found.
SONJA: We decided that we didn't want to ever do to our family what Andy's parents did to us. They shut us out when they started to decline. They refused any help or assistance.
So we found this place. We walked in and saw the staircase and the woodwork. Andy and I looked at each other and had the exact same feeling we had when we first saw this house. It was like magic. We knew that was it. It wasn't because we were looking to do anything immediately.
You have been known for modern abstract art and yet many of your shows include a rich array of figurative art. You both share a deep regard for Kathe Kollwitz, the figurative German artist.
SONJA: I think that's true. With Kollwitz, you often feel the whole weight of humanity -- and she once said the love of humanity is what drove her to make art.
ANDY: In America, abstract art has been able to be taken on aesthetic terms. But virtually everywhere else abstract art has always been a powerful political statement that said, "We defy everything you stand for." Why else would Hitler have condemned so many of these artists as "degenerate" and immoral? Even a satirical painting by Rudolf Schlichter, who is represented in our show, forced him to spend time in a prison camp.
There's that famous passage by Antoni Tapies about Miro -- that Miro's art is made of the stuff of the stars and that no petty force could take that away from him.
When I look at a Miro it is a very spiritual experience for me. I like transcendent things that take me out of the world and its petty concerns, and me and my petty concerns.
At the same time, you would also seem to believe in art for art's sake.
ANDY: We believe in art for people's sake. I don't think we could live in a world without art.
SONJA: I don't think that we believe in art for art's sake in the sense that the critic Clement Greenberg meant it. There's a certain danger in espousing it in a purist sense.
How has the Madison art market changed since you first opened the gallery?
SONJA: We knew international art and didn't know enough about the business, that you tailor to your market. It's obvious the market was almost all local artists at the time. Fanny Garver had a few non-local people. But we began showing our artists and eventually there was a growing sense in Madison that you don't necessarily need to go to New York or San Francisco to see those sorts of things.
Or people saw things there but noticed on our Web site that we have it for less. Our evolution was not only what we could find for ourselves but for others, especially with an Internet presence. At first, it was literally word of mouth. We had more customers from Europe and outside of Madison.
The artists we've been interested in, like Claude Garache and Pierre Alechinsky, we have brought here and the people have come. Then there was the Museum of Modern Art story on Tapies, which asked, "How is it that a gallery in Madison, Wis., has more works by Tapies than anyone in the country?" And they borrowed things from us for their Tapies retrospective.
ANDY: The local art scene has changed for the better in that the Elvehjem Museum has done more adventurous shows and more people know about international art. On the other hand, the proliferation of coffeehouses and hair salons has confused the market about what good art is.
Not that those places don't have good art, but it makes it harder for places like us to maintain an identity. People still don't know how to find art that isn't local, and you can get international art that isn't expensive from us or the Madison Print Club, where you can join and get a Judy Pfaff or a Philip Pearlstein for $175.
I think that people in Madison don't have a big-city sense of "It's Friday night. Let's go and see what's in the galleries."
But this is known as a culturally sophisticated city.
ANDY: I think people go off to Chicago or they go to Milwaukee to see the new Calatrava wing at the Milwaukee Art Museum. But it's more of a social event.
Statistics show that each year more people go to cultural events than sporting events, and yet there is so little arts coverage in newspapers, and so much of sports. There's a real disconnect there that I don't understand.
We remember with extraordinary vividness the impact of Goya's "Disasters of War" or Rembrandt's etchings. Do you remember any athletic contest from the 16th or 17th or 18th century?
I wonder if you wouldn't find the same cultural challenge in most cities.
ANDY: I don't think it's unique to Madison. But the art scene in Madison is sort of like "The Perfect Storm." It's the Art Fair on the Square.
People here think they just have to buy one piece of art per year and it's usually at the same place. Or they go see something they like when they're doing something else, which is fine. But it's not easy to get people's attention.
For all that, we will miss all the friends and people we've met through the galleries.
SONJA: We want people to know that our hearts will remain in Madison and that Spaightwood will still have a presence here, through spaightwoodgalleries.com.
Published: 5:42 AM 5/05/04