Bruce Pepich and his work here in Racine are known across the country and beyond. In November, the executive director of the Racine Art Museum was named a 2012 Honorary Fellow by the American Craft Council. And the prestigious award — which recognizes individuals and organizations for excellence in craftsmanship and significant contributions to the field of contemporary American craft — brought Pepich, the RAM and Racine further into the spotlight of the art world.
National recognition is something the RAM has been earning since opening its doors at the corner of Main and Fifth streets nearly 10 years ago. Pepich, who also serves as its curator of collections, deserves much of the credit for RAM’s success, and has received other awards for his work in recent years. Yet, those who know the director well know that his contributions reach far beyond the walls of the award-winning building that he helped transform from an old bank into one of the country’s most prominent craft museums.
Getting to know him
Getting to know Pepich means looking all the way back to 1974, when the Elmhurst, Ill., native first came to Racine to work at the Wustum Museum of Fine Arts as a project manager. He was fresh out of Northern Illinois University at the time, with a degree in art history and a plan to stay here for only a few months. Pepich was on his way to graduate school at the University of Minnesota — or so he thought — when he realized that the work he was doing at Wustum was the same type of work that would be required for his master's. “And here, I was being paid to do it,” he said.
His decision to stay in Racine brought Pepich the title of museum director at Wustum in 1980, It also gave him the opportunity to meet his wife, artist Lisa Englander, who Pepich says has also played an important role in both his and the RAM’s successes.
The pair met at Wustum in 1977 when Englander — who was taking graduate classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee — entered the museum’s Watercolor Wisconsin competitive exhibition. Two of her paintings made it into the show, with one earning a third prize and the other being purchased by the museum. A couple years later, the museum offered to show her work in a solo exhibition. And those connections led the director and artist to form a bond through their shared passion for art and long conversations on the subject.
“I think we started talking the day we met and I don’t think we’ve stopped since,” said Englander, who is originally from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Next year marks their 30th year of marriage — one that has not only survived time, but the challenge of working together at the museum. For many years, Englander taught classes and ran the gift shop at Wustum. Today she is principal, guest relations and retail division, at RAM. While she and Pepich don’t actually have much contact at work on a daily basis, their shared vision for RAM and the community is mutually supportive.
In addition to Englander, Pepich gives much credit to the museum’s other numerous supporters, from main benefactor, Karen Johnson Boyd, to the RAM board of directors, staff, members and visitors. The fact that so many people throughout the community have nurtured and supported the museum and his position there for so many years is what has enabled Pepich to pursue his career here and build the museum’s craft collection to be one of the largest in the U.S., including seminal works by international artists.
“Nobody in a position like this does this alone,” he said.
Becoming an inspiration
Pepich also said he hopes that his recent ACC award can be an example to young people working in the field of art that they don’t have to move to New York or Los Angeles in order to be successful or have an affect on the field.
There are many other cities like Racine, with medium-sized cultural institutions, where he hopes people might take a chance and immerse themselves where they are and “see where it goes.”
Art also plays a central role in the home life of Bruce Pepich and Lisa Englander. The couple, who live in North Bay, are passionate collectors of small craft objects and fine art, from prints to children’s pop-up books, antique fans and Halloween decorations in various media.
Their collecting, though, is budget-driven, Englander said. “We look at estate sales, auctions and other places that people on a budget do,” she said.
“People often think you have to have great wealth to do this, but you don’t,” added Pepich.
People might also be surprised to know that one of his and Englander’s favorite things is having a free night to spend at home with their dog, Jackson.
Englander loves to cook and bake, and she and Pepich have dinner at home most nights. She also still carves out time to paint, and her artwork can be found in collections around the country. And Pepich, in his spare time, frames her work.
The couple also still enjoys talking about art. And, says Englander, “We make each other laugh.”
American Craft Council Fellow
The title of Fellow has been bestowed to artists by the American Craft Council since 1975. Fellows are nominated and elected by their peers; must have demonstrated extraordinary artistic ability; and must have worked 25 years or more in the discipline or career in which they are being recognized.
In addition to being honored as a Fellow at the ACC’s Awards Ceremony at the InterContinental Hotel Chicago on Nov. 2, Bruce Pepich was featured in a program called “A Conversation with Bruce W. Pepich” at the 19th Annual SOFA (Sculpture Objects Functional Art) Art & Design Show at Chicago’s Navy Pier on Nov. 3.
Other 2012 ACC Awards recipients include Sharon Church, Anne Currier, Andrea Gill, Lewis Knauss, Tom Loeser (also from Wisconsin), Dante Marioni, Sherri Smith, Stephen De Staebler, Sidney D. Rosoff, and Nancy M. McNeil. Each is featured in the October/November issue of “American Craft” magazine, www.americancraft.org.
The annual Watercolor Wisconsin show — which served as the catalyst for Bruce Pepich and Lisa Englander to meet — opens this afternoon at the Wustum Museum of Fine Arts, 2519 Northwestern Ave., and runs through April 27. For more about this exhibition, see Thursday’s Out & About section.