WEST BEND, Wis. - For the first time since it decided to change its name in years ago, the Museum of Wisconsin Art seems like an actual museum.
Although it has been researching and refining the story of art in Wisconsin for more than 20 years, the otherwise modest-sized, regional museum has not had the square footage or museum-quality space to showcase the breadth of its collection.
At the beginning of April, the museum opened a striking new building that doubles its exhibition space and makes it possible to unfurl that story more fully.
The modernist structure, which comes to a glassy point, is a bold, corrective statement. It sends a signal that the museum, which has been focused mostly on the art of the past, is now rooted in 21st-century ideas about museums.
The acutely triangular building sits on a sliver of land on the banks of the Milwaukee River, just south of the bend that gives West Bend its name. The building facade also bends gently. The curves are carried inside, creating a sinuous sweep to a glass-and-concrete staircase and opening views out over the river.
"An art museum is a unique, one-of-a-kind, rare sort of building," said Jim Shields, the architect with HGA Architects who designed the building. "It should be exceptional."
One of the goals of the museum's new director and CEO, Laurie Winters, is to reconsider how to think about the art of the state and the role that a museum can play. With no contemporary art museum in the region, save the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, she's interested in finding ways to cultivate connections with contemporary artists, for instance, and has created an advisory board of working artists, curators and critics.
"We've really loosened up, that's for sure," Winters said on a tour through the galleries. "We've come to think of it more as about artists who've had transformative experiences in Wisconsin.
"When you go through the galleries, you begin to see that there is a regional identity, and we want to explore that more fully."
Most of the art resides on the museum's upper floor, which is bisected by walls at regular intervals, creating a series of discrete galleries that showcase works from the permanent collection in an informal chronological order, from early 19th-century objects to the work of living artists. The museum's art storage, normally hidden away from the public, is visible inside a glass-enclosed room, giving visitors a behind-the-scenes peek at the doings of the institution.
The modest-sized temporary exhibition space, which is being inaugurated with a group show featuring contemporary glass artists titled "Antifragile," is smaller than the sprawling spaces in lots of art museums, like the Milwaukee Art Museum. But it feels just right to Winters.
"It's not too big," said Winters, who was previously the director of exhibitions at MAM and also runs an international think tank about museum practices called The Art Consortium. "One thing we learn from all of the brain specialists is that people can only take about 20 minutes inside an exhibition. So, when you do big exhibitions, you are kind of wasting your time and your energy."
One of the best exhibition spaces in the building is not in the main galleries at all; it's the soaring atrium space, where light falls through the building's glassy entrance, creating a dance of shifting forms across the concrete floors. In this dramatic space is a single work by artist and critic Tom Bamberger titled "OK." The piece cycles more than 6,000 archetypal images and explores the way the mind constructs narrative from randomness. The illuminated piece has a potent material and conceptual presence that serves as an apt precursor to the museum experience and what it means to respond to images.
Above on a long balcony with an exquisite, gently bowed, glass edge is another space for art called "One," which will open with several works by Reginald Baylor, including a fantastic animation, a medium he's not worked in before. It's a lovely space for people but a bit awkward for art, at least for certain kinds of pieces, since viewers cannot step back from the work.
"Antifragile" features many artists working in studio glass, often in rural outposts, which is prevalent in Wisconsin. The show runs from exceptional conceptual work exploring rich issues such as genetically modified foods, climate change and materialism to work that is simply decorative. Two pieces by Beth Lipman, including one of her still-life-like tables, and an array of giant corn cobs by Michael Meilahn are standouts.
Steven Feren's life-size moose, made of concrete and embedded with glass, is like a contemporary update of Fred Smith's concrete park, one of the state's more known artist-created environments. It's also a fabulous foil for a massive painting by one of Wisconsin's great artists, Tom Uttech. Uttech's glowing moose, a piece titled "Dream Net," situated at the entrance of the main galleries, serves as a symbol for museum's sense of possibility, Winters says. It's shocking, unexpected and very Wisconsin, she says.
In the gallery reserved for contemporary work, broad but distinct tendencies among Wisconsin artists are explored. It's a look at artists working with pattern and excess in their practice and those working with realism and surrealism, Winters says.
The result is a somewhat random but quite interesting exhibit that draws out unexpected relationships. I never would have thought that a biomorphic abstract painting by Carl Holty would have much to say to an apocalyptic scene by Norbert Cox, or that an obsessive, North Woods-inspired assemblage by Gary John Gresl and a minimalist wood piece by Truman Lowe would make for a worthy visual conversation. But they do.
While there's newer work in this space, including a lovely tondo painting by Michelle Grabner, a recent painting by Fred Stonehouse and ambrotype by John Shimon and Julie Lindemann, many of the artists represented have been established for many years. Artists who have emerged or come to prominence in the last decade or so are strangely absent, save Baylor out in the atrium.
Some artists who were going to be included in the inaugural exhibition were omitted, including a few living artists such as Evelyn Patricia Terry, Fred Fenster, Don Reitz and Warrington Colescott. Terry has been especially critical of the museum for this. Winters, who came on board as director in November, said the works were removed from the show because they did not contribute to the themes that were being explored.