KAssay                           mosset



The Poor Farm was founded in 2009 to facilitate and present artist’s projects and yearlong exhibitions at the former Waupaca County Poor Farm (built in 1876) in Little Wolf, Wisconsin.

The Poor Farm’s programming runs parallel with, and in extension with the exhibition spaces The Suburban, founded in the Chicago, IL suburb of Oak Park in 1999 and relocated to Milwaukee, WI in September 2015.



I couldn’t make it to the Poor Farm

by Linda Nochlin

For Moira on her birthday,  July, 2010

I couldn’t make it to the Poor Farm

But It I know what it’s like,

I’ve seen it in my dreams, always on a hill

A lawn of weeds in front, a few bent figures

Scattered here and there, postures unforgiving,

Anonymous staffage.

I know what it is like from reading

About the dispossessed in England, the misérables in France,

The Depression in the U.S. of A.  I know what it’s like from

Jacob Riis’s clever photos

That dull the glance, reveal the glare

Of poor folk’s pots, the

Messiness of their bedding,  I know

from Daumier, Courbet and the London Illustrated News.

I know what the Poor Farm is like and what it’s not

It’s not nice.

Starting in England in 1834 or thereabouts, with the new

Poor Laws and “scientific” social planning,

They—those in the know, with the power, with the reasons—purposely

Made the Poor Houses as off-putting as possible

So the conniving poor wouldn’t choose to go

Unless absolutely desperate, out of work; the old, the children, those

With nothing to eat and nowhere to go: they made it to the Poor House.

If you were decrepit, had no work, no family and couldn’t afford

The price of a loaf or even a slice of bread, you went.

The Poor Farm was cold;

The Poor Farm was mean;

The Poor Farm licked your old bones clean.

And you worked, you bent, you stitched, you dug, relentlessly

Pleasure?  Leisure? Respect?

Not for a moment.

The idea was to make it so bad that you’d rather

Lie on the pavement and hold out a cup, but you weren’t allowed

Because you would then be a Public Nuisance, a shame to the

Good name

Of the Community.

So you went off to the Poor Farm, the last resort, too sick, too sore,

Too tired, to poor for anything, anywhere else

But the Poor Farm on the Hill.

What a spirit of generosity; what a sense of charity what public spirit!

Those Poor Farm taxes made every fat farmer, every portly banker,

Every solid, tax-paying citizen into a complacent donor, though over my dead body

Said some.

But when all was said and all was done,

Some old woman, some old man

Couldn’t fall back on anything; to tell the truth,

Nothing was left, so down

Into the pit of dispossession, wretchedly clinging to

Some last shred of self-respect, some fading memory of self

Crept the derelict into not-quite-prison

The derision of their betters ringing in their ears

(Though they were mostly deaf, poor dears,

And couldn’t hear so it’s just a figure of speech.

Nevertheless, they felt it.)

I never made it to the Poor Farm on the hill—

But I might still.

Count no man happy til the day he dies, said

The Greek writer.

Maybe it’s better to die than to go to the Poor Farm,

But still it’s probably better to be alive, to be kept alive

If not to thrive.

What is it all about, this way of treating poor folks?

It’s about Capitalism, about Free Enterprise, about old

Malthus with his logical lies.

Too many people, not enough stuff?

Prune them down, make life tough

For those who can’t produce, those surplus beings

Who reduce the chance of plenty for the rest of us.

Its law—capitalism’s—ruled the world and rules it now.

Keep working til you drop: work, work and never stop,

And if you stop you’re doomed, even if you’re laid off.

Work even if you’re old and sick, even if you can’t stand up.

Minimize the rations;

Keep the hovel cold;

Clothe their bones in rags,

Drape them in contempt

Nobody’s  exempt

from the laws of supply and demand.

Utilitarianism  drives the heart of charity

So whip the slackers into shape,

The poor, the old, the helpless are Other, like the blacks,

The dim provincials overseas on obscure continents

Grouped in tin-rooved shacks or ragged tents;

All richly deserve  to shiver in the cold.

Yet surely all these terms are shifters: “poor”,” old”

“Other”. Even we could easily be here,

Be knocking at the Poor Farm door.

These are not permanent conditions

Inscribed in DNA at birth, au contraire

They lurk in potens for us all.  Any one of

Us could crawl or could have crawled up to

The hateful Poor Farm door.

I never made it to the Poor Farm

But I might.  In the middle of the night, in the

Twinkling of an eye lose my money

And my reason and my friends and my position

And my pride, take a ride, slip and slide


Like them all

Who had nothing left

Who were bereft.

There is no God

There are no angels

Only judges, beasts and strangers

TV Commercial for the Poor Farm