RAM Director Celebrates 35th Anniversary

RAM Director Celebrates 35th Anniversary

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Night view of the Racine Art Museum. Photo Christopher Barrett, Hedrich Blessing, Chicago.

If, as Emerson said, “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” then it might not be a stretch to say that the Racine Art Museum is the shadow of Bruce W. Pepich, its executive director and curator of collections, now celebrating his 35th year at this institution.

Opened in 2003, in a handsomely renovated building in downtown Racine, WI, RAM is one of the foremost museums in the country dedicated to contemporary craft. It is an outgrowth of the Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts, a modest house museum founded in 1941 some distance from downtown, with a collection of works on paper and textiles produced under WPA programs. Pepich, who graduated from Northern Illinois University, De Kalb, with a degree in art history in 1974, was hired by the Wustum as project manager the same year and became director in 1981.

Building on the Wustum’s tradition of solo shows of artists working in craft media, Pepich, who’d long been interested in the subject, moved the museum toward a craft specialization, making it official in 1989. Pepich notes about Racine, “Craft was always warmly received by the local audience and not comprehensively covered by other museums in the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor.” During the ’90s, Pepich assembled an outstanding craft collection, starting in 1991 with a gift of over 200 works by local collector and craft supporter Karen Johnson Boyd, ultimately receiving gifts from donors in 30 states.

A new building was urgently needed to house and display the rapidly expanding collection, and under Pepich’s solid leadership, $10.1 million was raised to build ram, from the framework of two 19th-century buildings; an additional $5 million was raised in 2005-7 to increase ram's operating endowment. Today the museum houses more than 5,000 works from internationally recognized artists in ceramics (the largest portion of the collection), fibers, glass, metals and wood, as well as works on paper. There are nearly 400 contemporary basketry works and important holdings in art jewelry.

Pepich regularly curates exhibitions from RAM's collections - he was “particularly thrilled” by the inaugural show of masterpieces from the collection, when he realized that he had “hand-walked each of these works through the accessions process” - and he is proud of a series begun in 2009 of solo shows for artists whose work the museum owns in depth. He also oversees the Wustum, which now functions as RAM’s visual education campus, offering studio classes and hands-on programs for people of all ages.

Asked what he has enjoyed most about his career, Pepich says, “It’s the people. I have made lifelong friendships with artists, curators and collectors. There is something about sharing this passion for art that unites many of us in an almost spiritual way.” It has been essential to Pepich ”to place contemporary crafts within the context of other fine art media in our exhibitions and collection. We named the new museum the Racine Art Museum,” he says, “to make explicit that we see crafts as an active part of the fine arts world.”