Art director Debrah Brehmer discusses Portrait Society Gallery

On Wednesday, Feb. 17, Debra Brehmer joined Lawrence community members over Zoom to discuss her career in the art gallery and the world of art at large. Currently, Brehmer holds the director position at the Portrait Society Gallery, a contemporary art gallery in Milwaukee, which prides itself on representing both academic and self-taught artists regionally and more locally. However, as soon as she was introduced, she revealed that she had never set out to run a gallery in the first place; rather, the position came to her. 

The path that led to the Portrait Society Gallery started when Brehmer’s colleague at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, where Brehmer previously taught art history, asked her to collaborate on an online art magazine called “Susceptible to Images.” They rented out a 350 square-foot room to use as an office and ran the magazine out of there for several years before it sputtered out. It wasn’t what she wanted to be doing long-term, so, she turned the office space into a little gallery of interesting exhibitions, mostly portrait commissions, before it gained wider attraction. She said, “Early on with the gallery, I wasn’t thinking it would be a commercial gallery or a money-making thing. It was more like, ‘Oh, here’s this space where we can stage shows and do projects!’ We kind of got to play.” As more space became available in their building, Brehmer “drifted” into the spaces that were left behind, and, slowly, the gallery grew. Eventually, the building asked if she would like to remodel to become a more cohesive space, and, incrementally, the gallery became what it is today.  

Brehmer’s background in art history during graduate school led to an interest in artists who found their way into the art world through non-traditional means or who departed from the traditional art world to create their own “art environments,” as Brehmer described them. This background drives the way the Portrait Society gathers the artists it represents. Brehmer emphasized that she wanted to embrace artists who came from many different paths, showing them together without having to distinguish between those who had gone to art school and those who had not. She is proud of this programming, which has led to diverse representation in the gallery. Brehmer noted, “You create your own ideal world in a gallery, as a gallerist. That’s what you do … What kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of people do you want around you? What kind of thinking do you want to do? And you build that out of art.”  

As well as representing a wide range of individuals, Brehmer has created ways that bring the art world outside of the gallery space, which, in turn, help the gallery reach a wider audience and gives her a chance to work on tasks outside of solely administrative work. She calls gallery work a calling for the “mentally restless.” The newsletter for the Portrait Society puts out content that Brehmer contributes to, specifically the stuff she finds creative and challenging. She also provides opportunities to the regional artists she represents by bringing them and their work to art fairs where they can get greater exposure and connect to a wider audience. Additionally, social programs, such as their non-profit, On the Wing, allow under-served adult populations to fill out sketchbooks over the course of several weeks, which the gallery then purchases from them. Eventually, these become available for the public to access somewhere in the city. Her intention is to “cross divides, become friends with people who [she] would have no way of meeting otherwise and share this language of art-making.” She believes that art is what gives people a voice and that these kinds of programs create the kind of world that she wants to live in. Her thoughts for those interested in art, and the gallery space in general, are that it is all about having someone in your corner, to create a group of people to join with in conversation. Smaller art communities like the Portrait Society give space for collaboration in a way that larger galleries just are not able to.