"There are probably 100 Wisconsin artists that could be in this gallery for opening week," Winters said, referring to artists working at a high level. "But the conversation we are having (with the art) took priority."

The museum was founded in 1961 with a core collection by 19th-century realist painter Carl von Marr, and a central gallery is still dedicated to his work. The ceiling was bumped up a bit to make room for his wonderfully strange and massive painting, "The Flagellants."

In other galleries, look for a suite of landscapes by Harold Hall from the turn of the 20th century, some Frank Lloyd Wright artifacts and an early painting by photographer Edward Steichen, among other treasures. The museum hopes to emphasize the history of design and architecture as well.

The museum's design strikes a good balance between being an attention-nabbing presence and having the kind of restrained composure befitting an art museum. The facade reads like a brilliant white form, a gleaming white wedge set off from the older brick buildings of downtown West Bend. At close range, the facade melts into a lovely variety of shades of white, like dabs of paint in an Impressionist painting or variations in a Wisconsin snowscape.

The building is artful in its own right, but there's no showboating. The crisp, rational geometry of the building doesn't spar much with the art inside. The galleries, with warm wood floors, are lined by enfilades, side corridors with polished concrete floors that are about as pretty as terrazzo. The spaces are filled with diffuse up-lighting that makes the space feel pleasant and open.

Although the galleries are incomparable to those in the previous facility, they seem in some ways less than ideal for art.

The building does create a sort of regimented program, with art history progressing down to a point in a triangle-shaped building. There are no suitable spaces for film or video work, which creates challenges for a lot of 21st-century work, an area of strength in the region. And showing work on the angled side walls in the main galleries is at times awkward.

These things may simply be constraints for the creative curator rather than actual shortcomings. Time will tell.

The river-hugging building was not Shields' first design. He shifted to an even greener, leaner approach after the economy turned south and fundraising slowed. It was built for $225 a square foot, which is almost unheard of for an art museum, Shields said.

"This is an art museum for a whole culture that uses coupons," he said. "This is a frugal state. This museum was built with fundraising done in the teeth of the recession.

"What we tried to do was wrest really good value out of the little money that we got, and I think we got a good building out of it."

It's also a cost- and energy-saving building, he said. Sequestering most of the art on the second floor, the amount of space that requires special temperature controls is limited and consolidated. And the ventilation system delivers cool and warm air at floor level, rather than blowing air down from above, which should save costs and is potentially less damaging to the art.

In its previous location, which was closed part of last year, the museum had fewer than 10,000 visitors in 2012. Winters expects that number to increase to at least 35,000 annually.

The museum will offer membership to visitors automatically on their first visit. The $12 entrance fee will enroll visitors into a membership, which allows them to return as many times as they'd like within a year for no extra charge.



The Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. On Thursdays, it is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is $12 and includes membership for the year, which entitles visitors to return as many times as they'd like free of charge. For information, go to http://www.wisconsinart.org or (262) 334-9638.


Mary Louise Schumacher: mschumacher@journalsentinel.com