The completed new building. Images courtesy of MOWA.
For the past five years, one of the largest paintings ever rendered and perhaps the most famous work of Wisconsin art has sat in storage, out of sight and unappreciated, gathering dust instead of critical acclaim. The massive oil painting, which measures 14 feet by 23 feet, is called The Flagellants and it was considered the magnum opus of Carl von Marr, a 19th-century Milwaukee-born and German-schooled artist.
The breathtaking piece belongs to the Museum of Wisconsin Art, which has had it on permanent loan from the City of Milwaukee since 1976. But the West Bend museum had been forced to stash the unwieldy painting because of space constrictions and other reasons.
It was a shame not only because the work was the institution’s centerpiece, but also because the museum had originally been established in 1961 to specifically exhibit von Marr’s art. And yet, just a couple of blocks from the quaintly popular downtown Main Street, in an exceedingly ordinary brick property, the great work remained hidden.
But now, as the museum moves into a new building with more than twice the gallery space, The Flagellants is back on display, occupying an entire section of spotless white wall. On Saturday, when the new building in downtown West Bend officially opens to the public, the painting will again drop the jaws of awed visitors.
Museum and city officials are hoping the edifice itself has the same effect on West Bend.
A dazzling and unconventional creation of brilliant white panels and 5,100-square feet of shimmering glass, the triangular-shaped structure was built to specially fit the shape of the site, which is cut by the adjacent Milwaukee River. The building, which was built on a budget of around $9.3 million, was designed by HGA, the architecture and planning firm that also fashioned Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin.
It’s undeniably avant garde, but as Laurie Winters, the new executive director, says, in essence it’s just a big wedge.
“We want to have fun with it,” she says, “so we’re calling ourselves the best wedgie in town.”
An artist's rendering of the von Marr gallery.
Winters, who was brought on late last year to help oversee the museum’s change of address, is also spearheading an attitude adjustment.
First, there’s a slight branding change, tweaking the former MWA acronym to the more comprehensible and trendier-sounding MOWA. Then Winters decided to do away with admission fees, instead instituting an everyone’s-a-member philosophy that offers unlimited visits throughout the year for a one-time fee ($12). She’s also placing an emphasis on technology and transparency, showcasing digital art, utilizing climate-controlled spaces and becoming the state’s first art museum to house a visible storage area that allows visitors to see the art that’s not currently on the walls.
But all of those changes pale on comparison to the upgrade to MOWA’s luminescent, new building.
With a glass-enclosed aperture at the acute tip of the triangle that’s lit up at night, the museum becomes a “lantern for the city,” Winters says. Another glass aperture at the southwest corner, which creates the main entrance, allows visitors a view of the river and the city that the staff hopes will serve as a “community gallery.”
The new museum is the first step in West Bend’s plan to revamp the riverfront, a process that’s already in the works, and revitalize the downtown area. Winters hopes to create a cooperative campus that connects MOWA to the nearby shops and restaurants on Main Street and the riverfront, which she envisions becoming something like what San Antonio boasts in terms of culture, beauty and development.
The city has already invested more than $800,000 to build a pedestrian bridge across the river to link the cultural side with the commercial side, and other old bridges could be reconstructed, as well.
“MOWA may well be the economic engine that provides a spark for downtown commerce this year,” says T.J. Justice, the West Bend director of development. “Its impressive presence is now a cornerstone of the city’s downtown infrastructure.”
The “synergy” Winters hopes to generate with the rest of the city is one reason MOWA elected to enact a no-admission policy.
“What we’ve done is create a structure so that anyone who comes in is a member,” she says. “Museums today talk about how they want to engage the visitor and build those relationships and yet they don’t walk the talk.”
Though Winters hesitates slightly when asked how the museum can remain financially viable without admission, she notes the help of the city and the generosity of donors. And, she says, MOWA is not “on that hamster wheel of trying to get people in around special exhibitions … we’re not dumping half a million dollars into marketing.”
A panoramic rendering.
The museum also waived school group fees. Winters insists that, despite its attractiveness and community impact, MOWA is an academic, artistic institution first. “We’re not an entertainment center,” she says, though she admits it will be available to host some events and gatherings.
Winters says the aim is to build authentic relationships – partnerships as she calls them – where the museum strives to understand its visitors, and visitors are enticed to come back again and again.
“With a single admission for one day,” she says, “once people are out the door, you have no idea who they are, why they were there, what interests they have. We decided to make it as simple as possible because we want people to come back; we want them engaged with the museum.
Less intuitive is the arrangement of the artwork inside the building. Winters says the decision was deliberate to not lay out the pieces chronologically or geographically. Thus, patriarchs and matriarchs of Wisconsin art from the 17th and 18th centuries are placed alongside modern contemporaries, and Fitchburgers next to Kenoshans.
“It creates a dialogue,” Winters says. “The works have a conversation between themselves.”
There’s computer-screen digital art by Milwaukee’s own Tom Bamberger (who sometimes writes for Milwaukee Magazine); watercolors by Emily Parker Groom, who moved to the state in the 1930s and lived to be 100; oil paintings by Oshkosh-native Michelle Grabner; and hyper-realistic pieces by Northwoods-animal-loving Tom Uttech of Merrill, who Winters gushingly calls the “greatest living American nature landscape artist.”
A massive Uttech landscape stands on the second floor at the top of the stairs. It depicts a stark white moose standing in a vividly colorful forest and reflected by the water in the foreground. Nearby, another animal startlingly welcomes visitors to the upper level: a giant, glass guerilla sculpture by Steve Feren. “It adds an element of surprise,” Winters says of the creature. “That’s not your grandmother’s glass.”
Inside the climate- and humidity-controlled temporary exhibition gallery, the current centerpiece is Michael Meilahn’s Husk-a-Ruckus, a cast-bronze and blown-glass installation of hanging corn adorned with dice.
Graeme Reid (left), the smartly dressed assistant director of MOWA, is explaining to donors-in-training that Wisconsin was the forbearer of the studio glass movement. In his blue-and-white-checked tie and sharp vest, Reid stands among the huge, suspended vegetables and talks about how the art has a deeper message than meets the eye.
Meilahn is a corn farmer from Pickett, a tiny, unincorporated community northeast of Ripon, who does art on the side. A proponent of genetic modification, Meilahan knows his income depends on the success of the corn harvest, which is an annual gamble (thus the dice). He believes genetically modified corn seeds reduce the risk of a bad yield, which would secure both his family’s livelihood and his ability to continue making his beloved art.
Outside the warmth of the temporary exhibition gallery is the large visible storage area. Its all-glass exterior allows visitors a sneak peek at the museum’s not-yet-displayed collection.
“Most museums hide their collections in the bowels of the building,” Winters says. “People love behind the scenes, but also museums should be open and accessible.”
Still, with more than twice the gallery space of the old building, fewer works have to be in storage at all at the new MOWA, so more, like The Flagellants, can be showcased.
Winters still calls the monumental piece the “anchor work of the institution.” But, she says, it’s not the sole definition of the museum anymore because “now we have expanded the vocabulary of our collection.”
Just as the von Marr anchors MOWA, the museum – with a new building, a new leader and new priorities – is now the core of West Bend, something that puts the city on the map and attracts people to its burgeoning downtown.
Graeme Reid hopes MOWA becomes a destination, a place art-lovers from all over will want to go.
“This is not just a box, it’s a custom-built museum building,” he says. “It’s a jewel for the community, a jewel for the county and a jewel for the state.”