James P. Danky ’70 curates political cartoon exhibit to run in Milwaukee, Ripon

James P. Danky ’70 is the guest curator for the exhibit “Pow-litical Comics: From Ripon to the RNC,” to run April 12 to July 22 at St. Kate — The Arts Hotel in downtown Milwaukee. An opening reception will be held from 6-8 p.m. April 19. The exhibit is scheduled to coincide with the Republican National Convention July 15-18. It features 40 political cartoons by artists with Wisconsin ties, on topics ranging from the birth of the Republican party in Ripon in 1854 to examples that reflect the 2024 presidential election and the contemporary moment in U.S. politics.

“American political cartoons have a long and illustrious history that originated with Thomas Jefferson in the late 18th century,” according to the Museum of Wisconsin Art, which is presenting the exhibit. “Cartoonists from every era since have used humor to comment on events and influence public opinion from Civil War caricatures of Abraham Lincoln to the bloated, corrupt Tweed bosses of New York City in the 1920s to the free love activism of the 1960s. And, who could forget Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, whose storied lives unfolded as bumbling, witless caricatures in nearly every American newspaper? Today’s political stew is no different, and, as is often said, sometimes you just gotta laugh.”

The work of more than two dozen Wisconsin artists “covers a range of social and political perspectives, from the campy, butt-kicking superheroes of Peter Poplaski to the sophisticated social commentary of Paul Noth, staff cartoonist for The New Yorker.”

After its run in Milwaukee, the exhibit will be shown at Ripon College Sept. 6 through Oct. 4.

Danky recently was appointed adjunct curator of comics at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. For 35 years, he was the newspapers and periodicals librarian for the Wisconsin Historical Society. He also served as a member of the faculty at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he taught a course on race and media, and often advised graduate students and faculty.

He also helped compile “Wisconsin Funnies” in 2020, the first exhibit to present the rich history of comics in Wisconsin, and he is the co-author of “Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics,” published by the Museum of Wisconsin Art in 2020.

“Comics combine text, usually, but not exclusively, with images and offer their creators one of the richest mediums to express their thoughts,” Danky says. “For readers, comics are a gateway to worlds, real as well as imagined, that can fuel their own lives onward.”

He says editorial cartoons are an immediate medium, quicker to respond to events than someone composing music or creating a painting. “With editorial cartoons, a story breaks and the cartoonist creates one. That immediacy rends a particular power to comics.”

Danky says cartoons have been seen as a lower medium than other fine arts media, and have been unfairly disparaged in American culture. “Cartoons are the most sophisticated of media,” Danky says. “It has all the emotions that people have — anger, joy, etc. — it expresses those just like paintings, music, film.”

To assemble the exhibit, Danky first had to “ferret out” political cartoonists who had connections to Wisconsin, whether that be by birth, residence or education, and reflect their takes on our current political moment. “I have enjoyed the fact that I could connect the exhibit back to Ripon and the Little White Schoolhouse,” Danky says. “It’s a chance to remind people of Ripon’s role in national affairs.”

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James P. Danky '70


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