MMoCA’s upcoming exhibits showcase the museum’s impressive permanent collection

Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s permanent collection consists of 5,939 objets d’art.
Installation Gallery
Courtesy of Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
“Carousel” by Sam Gilliam, 1970

Louis Pasteur once said that fortune favors the prepared mind. That applies to Madison’s once nascent arts scene and a surprise gift given more than a century ago.

In 1913, Florence Shirlaw, widow of landscape artist Walter Shirlaw (a former bank note engraver who helped found and served as president of the Society of American Artists), contacted what was then the Madison Art Association. She’d been donating her late husband’s pieces to museums across the country and wondered if the association would like two of his landscapes. Officials happily accepted the gift, which became the seedlings of one of Madison’s largest troves of hidden artistic treasures.

Today, Shirlaw’s canvases are part of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s permanent collection of 5,939 objets d’art. Paintings, drawings, photographs, videos and sculptures regularly rotate through the museum’s multiple galleries, the collection’s curator, Mel Becker Solomon, says.

“We decided early to become a collecting institution,” Becker Solomon says. “We also joke that while we’re a contemporary art museum, we’re also the oldest museum in the area.”

MMoCA made news in 2020 with its show featuring the acquisition of the Mark and Judy Bednar Collection of Chicago Imagism. This increased the museum’s holdings of 1960s- and ’70s-era work it already had from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to 227 individual pieces — one of the largest in the country.

Even larger gifts in the past helped the museum’s collection grow by leaps and bounds. In 1968-69, it received 1,089 works from collector and University of Wisconsin–Madison mathematics professor Rudolph Langer and his wife, Louise. The Langers traveled frequently to Mexico to buy art. Their donation included “Pitahayas,” a 1938 still life by acclaimed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo — they’d purchased it at auction in 1952 for just $500. Becker Solomon declines to disclose the painting’s current value, but other Kahlo works have sold for more than $2 million. She also declines to reveal the assessed value of the entire permanent collection, saying only, “Whenever someone gifts us a work we assess its value. As time passes and the artist becomes more famous, we may have to reassess the value.”

In 2018, MMoCA loaned “Pitahayas” to the Museum of Cultures in Milan, Italy, for the exhibit “Frida Kahlo: Beyond the Myth.” Becker Solomon personally accompanied the painting on a cargo flight from Chicago to Milan.

The 10-by-14-inch oil on aluminum Kahlo painting figures prominently in the forthcoming showing of MMoCA’s Mexican Modern print collection, scheduled to open Sept. 17. Works from the permanent collection will be paired with visiting pieces from five regional artists from Mexico now living in the Midwest, allowing viewers to assess both style and themes over the ages.

The showing falls in line with new museum director Christina Brungardt’s initiative to improve cultural and racial balance within MMoCA’s collection. Brungardt placed a two-year moratorium on accepting new works.

“Our new director’s mission for the museum is to assess, correct and amend the historic collection,” Becker Solomon says. “The active pursuit of diverse representation is important not only for Madison as a community but the contemporary art world as a whole.”

Starting in July and drawing from the collection’s 900 photographs, a yet-to-be-named exhibit will showcase works that illustrate the concept of “in between.” Selected pieces will include images in shadow, scenes of houses at night, comparisons of inside versus outside environments and any image that marks a visual transition or contrast.

Visitors can also request to view a single piece from the collection by appointment at no charge.

“You can have your own private moment with a piece of art,” Becker Solomon says. “Madison is very fortunate to have a collecting institution.”

Michael Muckian writes this arts and entertainment column monthly. Reach him at