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.
"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.
IF YOU GO:
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: email@example.com