What single destination stands for all that is good, beautiful and unique in Wisconsin? Madison’s Capitol Square on a summer Saturday? The State Fair in West Allis during early August? Green Bay’s Lambeau Field in autumn?
Add the newly opened Museum of Wisconsin Art to your short list. The sense of place is strong and all-inclusive inside this downtown West Bend attraction, which began as a 1961 gallery to display paintings by Milwaukee native Carl von Marr (1858-1936). Since then, the archives has grown to around 2,000 pieces of art and 8,000 other resources about Wisconsin art and artists.
The new museum, a $10 million project, more than doubles exhibit space in a triangular-shaped building that itself is a work of art. Designer Jim Shields of HGA, Milwaukee, presents a window-lush space with high ceilings and brilliantly stark walls that sits between the Milwaukee River and the 25-mile Eisenbahn State Trail for bicycling.
The architect, during a recent Wisconsin Public Radio interview, noted that the highest honor in his profession used to be cathedral design work. Now museums are apt to be the showpiece compositions.
HGA “created an environment where the art comes first,” observes Laurie Winters, museum executive director. “The architecture doesn’t compete. It lets the art speak for itself.”
And what does the art say? The beauty is in the wide range of perspectives and many types of materials that pay attention to rural and urban life. Add a sense of pride that stems from all the Wisconsin connections, Port Washington and Portage as well as Madison and Milwaukee.
At the two-story museum’s grand opening, up-close quilters marveled at the handiwork of Milwaukee native Terese Agnew’s 1999 “The D.O.T. Straightens Things Out,” a large composition of fabric art that intricately meshes a transportation grid over tranquil woodlands.
For hunters: the 2002 “Up North Stele,” a multimedia mix of taxidermy, wood crafting and rural autumn scene, put together by Gary John Gresl of Manitowoc.
For farmers: the bigger-than-life “Husk-a-Ruckus” 2012 art installation by Michael Meilahn of Ripon, ears of corn from blown glass that dangle from spindly bronze husks.
Wisconsin’s best-known artists also are represented. That includes wildlife art by Fond du Lac’s Owen Gromme, a fool-your-eye still life by Monona’s Aaron Bohrod and a willow-branch assemblage by Truman Lowe of the Ho Chunk Nation.
There is room for ethnic and folk art, Frank Lloyd Wright furniture and the sleek industrial designs of Brooks Stevens. Much of what isn’t on display hangs in a see-through storage area; anyone can peek at these panels through a wall of glass.
Finally out of storage is Carl von Marr’s 1899 oil painting, “The Flagellants,” which extends almost 14×26 feet. The most contemporary marquee piece is the recently commissioned “Interconnection,” 180 glass globes that hang in three strands from the rafters at the museum’s apex; they are the work of glassblowers Doughlas and Renee Sigwarth of River Falls.
Laurie figures the U.S. contains at least 30 state or regional art museums. What makes this one true to Wisconsin? There is no single answer, of course, or it wouldn’t be art.
“For me, a sense of place comes through here,” the executive director explains. “The landscapes, wildlife … there is an extensive openness” shown by some artists. “They treat the land and sky with a sense of reverence that seems almost spiritual.”
She mentions the mystical landscapes of Tom Uttech, who works from a converted barn near Milwaukee, as an example. She aspires to make her new museum fun and inspirational as it catches visitors off-guard.
To foster a feeling of ownership and relationship, annual and affordable museum memberships are sold instead of charging single-visit admission fees.
“As we live in a global society that becomes more a part of our everyday lives, that which is close to home becomes more important,” Laurie notes, and this is a place to connect with the familiar in unexpected ways.
The Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend, opens at 10 a.m. daily but is closed on Mondays. Annual membership is $12 for one person, $24 for two and $50 for families of three or more. Membership allows unlimited museum visits. For more: wisconsinart.org, 262-334-9638.
If “museum” means “stuffy” in your vocabulary, consider the levity of gift shop T-shirts, which proclaim “Best Wedgie in Town.” That slogan is a reference to the building’s shape.
In place until early summer are three temporary exhibitions.
A Wisconsin Regional Artists Association show celebrates the works of non-professionals, especially those from rural areas. Up until June 23.
“Reginald Baylor: Repetitive Patterns” shows the Milwaukee native’s deliberate doodling on cloth, wood, the computer screen, the painting canvas and more. Up until June 30.
“Antifragile: Contemporary Glass” presents glass as a glistening art form that exudes playful, bigger-than-life and moods with brilliant hues. Up until July 28.
West Bend is Kettle Moraine country, “Eisenbahn” is German for “railroad” and the Eisenbann State Trail’s former train tracks weave from this community to Kewaskum, Campbellsport and Eden. For more: dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/eisenbahn/
For other reasons to visit West Bend: wbachamber.org, 888-338-8666. The city intends to spruce up its riverfront by refining its riverwalk and providing incentives for Main Street businesses to beautify backyards (which face the new museum).