A Grand (re)Opening for the Museum of Wisconsin Art | wisconsinacademy.org
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A Grand (re)Opening for the Museum of Wisconsin Art

Containing arguably the best collection of historic and contemporary Wisconsin art in the world, the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) in West Bend recently went through a move and expansive rebuild project to create a stunning new facility in downtown West Bend.

With 12,000 square feet of gallery space, approximately 7,000 square feet of facility rental space for special events, a gift shop featuring Wisconsin-made items, two education studios, and an outdoor sculpture garden, the new Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) is the culmination of a $10 million capital campaign begun by the museum board of directors and now-emeritus executive director Tom Lidtke in 2007.

Lidke, who announced his retirement in November of 2012, led the movement to expand the small, family-run gallery’s collection and focus it on Wisconsin art. He had been executive director at the museum since 1982, when it was called the West Bend Gallery of Fine Arts, and he was central to the establishment of the museum’s Early Wisconsin Collection and subsequent name change to the Museum of Wisconsin Art in 2007.

Home to the best single collection of works by Milwaukee-born, Munich-trained artist Carl von Marr (including his 1889 magnum opus, The Flagellants), MOWA shows more contemporary Wisconsin artists, has a larger, more comprehensive archive—with over 8,000 files on artists plus many books, documents and audio-visual resources—and a deeper collection of historic Wisconsin art than any other institution in the state. 

The new MOWA building was built to showcase this collection and provide a more public gathering space for the exploration of Wisconsin arts and artists. Designed by the architectual firm of Hammel Green & Abrahamson Inc. and built by Mortenson Construction, the triangular edifice occupies the nook of a downtown West Bend lot diagonally bisected by the Milwaukee River.

Crafted in Contemporary Modern style, the museum itself is a work of art. Striking in profile, the new museum is composed of three almost imperceptibly different white panel colors that bring life and visual interest to the outer walls.

Courtesy of MOWAEnclosed with glass (and giving the building the look of a luxury yacht or spaceship), the acute angle of the wedge houses a stairway with soaring views upstream views of the river. At the southwest corner another convergence of glass creates the entrance to the building, allowing views of the city and river from an atrium balcony. A long glass corridor that serves as a community gallery provides more direct views of the river as well. 

With almost 5,100 square feet of windows, the building is a luminescent wonder that draws natural light from both the sky and adjacent river surface.

According to Laurie Winters, who took over as MOWA’s executive director in November of 2012, this window-filled design style mirrors the museum’s philosophy of transparency and intentions of modern relevancy.

“We are the custodians of Wisconsin art—telling the story of our state by connecting creative arts with our cultural heritage—and we now have a facility that does justice to the contemporary arts scene in Wisconsin,” says Winters. 

Visually stunning from the outside, the internal composition of the building is equally compelling. Designed as an energy-efficient structure, it features high-efficiency glass, radiant heat flooring, and rain gardens. A displacement ventilation system for the galleries circulates air at visitor level (rather than blowing air down from the ceiling). In addition to saving on heating and cooling costs, the ventilation system also helps to mitigate dust-attracting static charges associated with typical, ceiling-mounted systems.

One of the most innovative features of the new building is a visible storage area, with a capacity of 13,620 square feet of hanging space for artwork not currently on view in the galleries. The only system of its type in an art museum in Wisconsin, the glass-encased room allows visitors to see artwork as it hangs in climate-controlled storage. Conveniently located between the main exhibition gallery and the collection gallery, the storage area allows the museum to display additional artwork while simultaneously providing visitors a behind-the-scenes peek into the challenges of housing a massive permanent collection.

Visitors will find most of the art on the museum’s upper floor, which contains a series of movable partitions in which are nestled discrete galleries that showcase works from the permanent collection in an informal chronological order, from early 19th-century objects to the work of contemporary artists.

Winters says that the museum’s mission isn’t just as a showcase for some of the biggest names in Wisconsin art. “We see as equally important our role in cultivating our region’s artistic future and next generation of artists,” she says.

The new facility opened on April 6, 2013, to much fanfare. Opening exhibitions included Antifragile: Contemporary Glass, which featured some of today’s hottest glass artists, and Milwaukee artist Reginald Baylor’s new Repetitive Patterns exhibition. The museum’s State Gallery hosted works from the Wisconsin Regional Artists Association, which works with UW–Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies to offer workshops, exhibitions, and critiques to help nonprofessional artists learn and flourish.

The museum welcomed over 5,000 visitors during the three-day Grand Opening celebration. Since then, MOWA has attracted thousands more to see the new state-of-the-art building and world-class art on display in both the permanent collection and the changing exhibition galleries.

For more information or to plan your visit to the new Museum of Wisconsin Art, visit wisconsinart.org.


From 2008 to 2021 Jason A. Smith was the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of its quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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