The Art Preserve isn’t quite a museum, because it doesn’t mount exhibits. And it’s not exactly a storage space, because the artworks inside it are never put away, hidden from public view. It’s like both of those things. But it’s something else entirely.
The sprawling Sheboygan facility, which officially opens its doors to visitors on June 26, is the legacy of Ruth DeYoung Kohler, who died in November at age 79. A tireless advocate for the arts, Kohler ran the John Michael Kohler Arts Center for more than 40 years and helped turn it into one of the world’s largest and best repositories of vernacular art.
JMKAC Associate Director Amy Horst says that Kohler began talking about the idea of building a new facility to house, and display, the entirety of the organization’s ever-growing collection in 2007. But then the recession hit, and she tabled her plans to secure a new space until around 2015, when the organization had enough resources to begin looking for a site in earnest.
DID YOU KNOW? Most museums only display a tiny fraction of their collections. In many cases, that means that only about 2%-4% of the works can be seen at any given time.
Now, 14 years after Kohler first cooked up the idea as a complement to JMKAC, the Art Preserve is finally a reality. The building, which hugs the side of the hill it was built on, is itself a work of art. In fact, it was constructed using the same materials, wood and concrete, that many of the artists featured inside its walls favored. And the interior is just as thoughtfully designed. “We developed the space in response to the unique needs of the collection, instead of modeling it on an existing institution,” Horst says. When you step inside, you’ll see what appears to be a full-size dive bar to your left. It’s an homage to the real-life tavern that Fred Smith – who created a sculpture park in Phillips, Wisconsin, in the 1950s – built and ran. And if you belly up to the bar at the Art Preserve, you’ll be able to order up a craft lager brewed by John Riepenho , a contemporary Milwaukee artist who also likes to get creative with hops, barley and yeast.
Further in, you’ll find more than 200 of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s paintings hanging on rows of portable metal racks that can be reordered at a moment’s notice. And dozens upon dozens of the late Milwaukee artist’s ceramic vessels and sculptures fill curio cabinets nearby. The works aren’t given the same amount of real estate that they’d typically get in a museum or gallery. Only the paintings on the outermost rack are initially visible. And the vessels are arranged close together, like mugs lined up in a cupboard. But the thing is, they’re all there. A scholar or student of Von Bruenchenhein’s work could stroll into the Art Preserve (which owns 14,300 of the artist’s works, slides and archival objects) and see nearly everything the artist made over the course of his lifetime, all at once.
WHAT’S VERNACULAR ART? Ruth Kohler was particularly interested in artists who trans- formed their own homes, yards or possessions into idiosyncratic works of art that they lived in or with. Often, these creators were self taught and largely ignored by the gatekeepers of mainstream art institutions. The term “artist-built environments” can also be used to describe their work.
“We’re the only institution with holdings of a lot of these artists,” curator Laura Bickford says, adding that she hopes that more art historians will begin studying the work of vernacular artists, now that they have such ready access to their work.
She also says that she hopes visitors will realize that art is more than just paintings by old masters hanging in gilded frames behind glass cases. It’s anything that brings a little more light and beauty into the world. A handmade figurine you found at a thrift store. A macramé hanging your mom made for you. A doodle a friend scrawled on the back of a piece of scrap paper. “There’s no separation between art and life,” Bickford says.