The former home of artist Mary Nohl is being moved from its original location. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
When the advocates who came to the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Lubar Auditorium settled into their seats Thursday night, they presumably came expecting answers for the question on everyone’s mind: Why was the John Michael Kohler Arts Center moving the former home of Fox Point artist Mary Nohl – a site internationally recognized as a noteworthy art environment – from its original location on Beach Drive up to Sheboygan County?
The decision to move the home, announced abruptly in March, was a controversial end to a saga 27 years in the making
, in which the JMKAC and the preservationists at the Kohler Foundation had worked to save Nohl’s work, a stunning example of vernacular art (art that transforms an environment using untraditional materials unique to the location).
Thursday's public forum was designed to "reset" the discussion of Nohl's home (sometimes referred to as “the witch’s house”) and preservation in the wake of that controversy, according to artist Polly Morris. Morris was one organizers of the forum, and she also administers the $11 million artists' grant Nohl left to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. The purpose of the evening, she said, was to ask "What does it mean to preserve or save a building?" and to get a better idea of the "nuanced sense of obstacles" faced by the JMKAC.
It was a premise that resulted in a strangely sedate atmosphere, with public commentary eschewed in exchange for a series of speakers who alternately touched on Nohl’s work itself or the nature of historic art environment presentation on a macro level, including one of Morris' fellow organizers, Deb Brehmer, who runs Portrait Society Gallery in the Third Ward and wrote her master’s thesis on Nohl. (Brehmer also contributes to Milwaukee Magazine.)
Lisa Stone, a professor and curator at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, piggybacked an introduction to Nohl’s work delivered by Brehmer to put the environment in the broader context of international vernacular artists. She described Nohl’s work as just one of many “powerful, spacial, historical narratives” built and preserved across the United States and the world. However the work in Fox Point represents a rarer specimen due to its creation by a female artist – one of a small handful still existing, including the Bottle Village of Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey in California and the Owl House of Helen Martin in South Africa (a woman whose work inspired the play The Road to Mecca, coincidentally performed by Renaissance Theaterworks just last year).
Following Stone, preservation architect Matthew Jarosz and local historian John Gurda each gave slightly overlapping overviews of the many other historic sites, artistic and otherwise, that have been saved or lost in Milwaukee over the decades.
But there was a shift in the crowd’s attitude at the very end, when John Michael Kohler Art Center director Ruth DeYoung Kohler prepared to speak. This was the story they came for. The behind-the-scenes narrative of how this could have happened. By and large, Kohler delivered, with a chronologically focused presentation that stuck strictly to the facts – although she warmed up as the crowd responded positively to her details.
Kohler’s portion of the evening was as uncontroversial as she could make it, even choosing not to mention the most prominent neighbor in opposition to the museum, Eric Fonstad, by name – although plenty in the audience were willing to do it for her, and one even spontaneously demanded he stand up to defend himself, with no response. (Oddly, Kohler applied the same strategy to criticize comments made by Brehmer in Milwaukee Magazine’s feature on the case without using her name. Brehmer herself had already left when DeYoung spoke, though we can’t say why.)
But there was enough passion in her words to win over the hearts and minds of most in the room. “I know that some people do not accept this as the right direction,” she said late in her presentation, “and we don’t like it either. … Our hope is either you will come up with some miracle, or you will agree that we have done everything we could.”
Whether the miracle shows up on a comment card remains to be seen. The standing ovation that followed her words, though, suggests for many, an explanation might have been all they needed.