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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Coronavirus: New Sheboygan art museum making use of postponement


John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s Art Preserve

Art Preserve building of John Michael Kohler Arts Center. (Durston Saylor)

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (WFRV) – With the coronavirus affecting progress on John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s new Art Preserve, the center has rescheduled the art museum’s grand opening event to June 26, 2021.

According to a press release: The postponement is allowing for finishing touches on interior construction and completion of the installation of works of art.

The Art Preserve is a 56,000-square-foot, three-level building. It will provide exhibition space and visible storage for more than 25,000 works in the center’s trademark collection, which includes complete and partial environments by more than 30 vernacular, self-taught and academically trained artists. As a satellite campus, the Art Preserve will complement the center’s main location three miles away in downtown Sheboygan.

Considered a local treasure with an international presence, the center holds the world’s largest collection of artist-built environments, a unique art form created by artists who often transform their homes and yards into multifaceted works of art. Works by more than 30 artists are included in the center collection.

Thirteen of the Art Preserve’s artists will be represented with major installations of their work, including Levi Fisher Ames, Emery Blagdon, Loy Bowlin, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Jesse Howard, Nek Chand, Annie Hooper, Mary Nohl, Dr. Charles Smith, Fred Smith, Lenore Tawney, Stella Waitzkin and Ray Yoshida. Two of these artists were recently featured in exhibitions at the center: “Dr. Charles Smith: Aurora,” and “Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe.”

“Despite the delay, excitement continues to build for the opening of the Art Preserve,” said Sam Gappmayer, center director. “Over 10 years in the planning, the Art Preserve serves as a contemporary setting for our distinctive and expansive collection and for the ongoing explorations and investigations into these unique sites and their creators. We’re proud to be an institutional steward of the works, and people are talking about Sheboygan being on the cusp of becoming an art destination.”

Prior to the June grand opening, on Jan. 2, 2021, the Art Preserve will open to allow visitors to watch the completion of the Dr. Smith, Tawney and Bowlin collection areas. Arts center staff will work in public view – a practice for which the building was designed. The “soft” opening offers the opportunity to showcase the experimental nature of the Art Preserve and to engage with the public about the fragile nature of the collection. In addition, the completed collection areas will be open for viewing.

“This invitation for public input will provide an opportunity for staff to interact with the visitors in the space and respond to their experiences,” said Amy Horst, center associate director. “The Art Preserve is conceived and created as an open-ended series of responses to the needs of a unique collection; it seems a natural progression to include our visitors in that process.”

The $40 million Art Preserve is located at 3636 Lower Falls Road, Sheboygan, within a natural setting on 38 acres. The Denver-based firm Tres Birds served as planners and architects for the project.

The design incorporates materials favored by the creators of art environments into the building’s exterior façade and interior, and enhances interaction with the artwork while addressing exhibition and preservation concerns. The building is a primarily concrete structure, a material choice in keeping with the prevalence of concrete as a medium in the creation of many art environments.

Soaring timbers, angled like the trees growing on the site, form the entrance. These “timber shades” shield the collection from direct sunlight while allowing views out to the trees, river and meadow. The Art Preserve also incorporates other innovative structures and technologies that protect the artwork while allowing the natural setting to permeate the space. Complementing the surrounding habitats, the design respects land conservancy initiatives related to adjacent acreage along the Sheboygan River.

The Art Preserve will emphasize Wisconsin’s noted place in the field of artist-built environments while also presenting national and international artists. John Michael Kohler Arts Center possesses the largest collection available of many of the artists’ oeuvres. The Art Preserve will house a wide range of work that was made around the world, from Chandigarh, India, to rural Mississippi to the Hotel Chelsea in New York City. Previously, the 25,000 works in the collection could be seen only when on view at the center or on loan for exhibition at other institutions.

Among the installations:

+ Emery Blagdon’s “Healing Machine” (incorporating bent wire, masking tape, sheet metal, aluminum foil, minerals, lights and mechanical odds and ends), which he believed could channel Earth’s electricity and harness curative powers.

+ A facsimile of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s pastel-colored Milwaukee home, inside of which is a selection of his photographs, paintings, sculptures and other works presented based on historical photographs; with additional works that can be viewed in curated storage cabinets and on racks.

+ A re-creation of Lenore Tawney’s loft studio environment, where the innovative fiber artist surrounded herself with only those things that enabled creative work.

+  A homage to Levi Fisher Ames’ background as a musician with a space that serves as a home for his elaborate wood carvings and as a location for small performances.

“Whether walking through the installations or discovering the contents of curated storage shelves and racks, visitors will have unprecedented access to this fascinating art form,” Gappmayer said.

The Art Preserve also addresses growing scholarly interest in these artists and includes an education area, library, study collection and other spaces that will provide access to the collection for researchers, tour groups and the public. Archives of such artists as Nohl, Von Bruenchenhein and Howard will be accessible to scholars and researchers seeking deeper understanding of the artists’ processes and inspirations.

The Art Preserve has been built with low embodied energy with the goal of achieving low operating energy. The building is built from 70 percent local river rock, which requires no manufacturing energy and uses very little transportation energy. Like a wine cellar, the Art Preserve is built into the side of a hill, tapping into Earth’s constant underground temperature. This relationship helps the building maintain more consistent interior temperatures.

Tres Birds worked in collaboration with the global engineering, design and consulting firm Arup on innovative and sustainable design features including specialized heating and cooling systems, integrated lighting, acoustic and MEP (mechanical, electric, plumbing) design solutions that provide energy savings, feature and preserve artwork and enhance the patron experience.

The acoustic design includes specialized and strategically located sound-absorbing treatments to help mitigate noise propagation throughout the museum and promote intelligible speech from museum docents to enhance learning.

In addition, the default state of the building is darkness, which is rare for a museum. The energy-saving lighting system utilizes motion-activated controls to light exhibition spaces when patrons are near the art and turn off when no one is nearby. All of these elements of the Art Preserve are interconnected to create a system with reduced fossil fuel usage.

Founded in 1967, John Michael Kohler Arts Center is dedicated to making innovative arts programming accessible to a broad audience that ranges from artists to academics to families. Central to its mission is promoting understanding and appreciation of the work of self-taught and contemporary artists through original exhibitions, commissioned works of art, performing arts programs, community arts initiatives and publications.

The center’s collections focus primarily on works by art-environment builders, self-taught and folk artists and works created in the Arts/Industry residency program. Since the 1970s, the center has preserved, studied and exhibited art environments. Today, with more than 25,000 individual works of art by 30 creators of art environments in the collection, the center is the world’s leading center for research and presentation of this work.

Looking to the future, the center plans to continue to foster creative exchanges between an international community of artists and a diverse public at its New York Avenue and Lower Falls Road locations.

The center is supported by corporate and foundation donors, government grants and its many members. The center is not an entity of Kohler Company or its subsidiaries.

The center is located at 608 New York Ave., Sheboygan. Admission is always free.

Center info: Art Preserve info:

Tres Birds is a planning, architecture and general contracting firm based in Denver, Colorado. Founded in 2000, Tres Birds often repurposes regional materials. The company’s goals include reducing carbon footprints, building sustainable communities, respecting nature and sparking innovation as it works in the disciplines of architecture, art, engineering and science.

Projects range from mixed-use developments and corporate headquarters to net-zero energy homes, museums and city parks.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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