How Laurie Winters Transformed a Museum
The impact and membership of the Museum of Wisconsin Art is growing ever greater.
When Laurie Winters agreed to take the reins at the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) almost two years ago, she wasn’t sure how her vision would unfold, but she knew it had to be something ambitious.
“Once I decided to come here, I guess my DNA kicked in and I decided that if we were going to re-imagine the museum, we were going to do it really well,” Winters says.
For starters, she decided to take advantage of MOWA’s new location in downtown West Bend. “The old building was more suburban without a lot of space for parking. Now we are in the heart of downtown,” she says, gesturing across the Milwaukee River to the rear facades of the buildings that comprise West Bend’s core.
“Architect Jim Shields is designing a bridge for the city (to be completed in the spring of 2015) that is going to cross the river bank-to-bank and then the city is redoing the area between two buildings to create a park pathway to Main Street. We have a great relationship with the mayor and we really do think about this as a campus. We are the first stake in the ground that is going to lead to a larger transformation of downtown West Bend.”
Spurred on by MOWA’s innovation, the downtown businesses have agreed to upgrade their facades to create elegant backs of the buildings. Soon there will be outside seating along the riverfront. And the entire riverfront will be redone in the summer of 2015 with native plants and pedestrian-friendly pathways. Winters says it will resemble the riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas.
Winters thinks big. And her vision can be seen in all facets of MOWA. Winters wants MOWA to be different from any other museum in the world. Take the museum’s gorgeous facility, for instance. The 31,000-square-foot space (designed by Shields) is open and airy and filled with light. The acoustics are excellent and the building is energy efficient. MOWA’s art storage room is located on the main gallery floor behind a wall of glass, so visitors need not wait for their favorite pieces to be featured in an upcoming exhibit; MOWA’s impressive variety of pieces are always on display.
“We’re the only art museum in Wisconsin to have visible storage,” says Winters. “Most museums keep their storage in basements. Eventually we hope to have artists come in and hang work in interesting ways.”
There’s a gift shop that sells items by Wisconsin artists and craftspeople. And, since the building is wedge-shaped, visitors canpick up a “Best Wedgie In Town” t-shirt, a true MOWA original.
“99 percent of everything that we carry in the gift shop is by a Wisconsin artist,” Winters says. “And the wedgie shirt is very popular!”
Meandering through MOWA with Winters results in a wonderfully informative Wisconsin art history lesson. She is quite serious about MOWA’s mission to be THE museum of Wisconsin art, in all genres. For instance, in MOWA’s permanent collection, early Wisconsin art comingles with more modern pieces.
“We didn’t want to hang pieces in chronological order,” Winters says while standing amongst the permanent collection. “We wanted to view modern and contemporary art as a relationship. Wisconsin artists tend to work in one of two ways—they either embrace realism and there are those who work in pattern, so at MOWA the juxtaposition of styles becomes a dialogue.”
Pieces by self-taught artists like Mary Nohl are mixed in with contemporary works. Frank Lloyd Wright’s furniture finds its home among paintings and modern sculptures. There’s an exhibition space on the second floor balcony called the ONE Gallery reserved for one artist at a time. Currently, Milwaukee artist Tyanna Buie is featured. Buie flushes out the intricacies of her dynamic and troubled past by creating works that use a combination of screen printing, collage, and ink-on-paper.
MOWA is also a place meant to develop the next generation of Wisconsin artists and audiences. Winters had the inspired idea of charging visitors a one-time entrance fee of $12, which then gives them a membership card that’s good for an entire year. The museum then has the new members’ email addresses and can send them updates on new exhibitions. There’s also the Three + membership which is a new take on the old family membership, reflecting the changing shape of modern families.
“We want people to come back to see us repeatedly,” says Winters. “We want to make it easy for people to visit us for an hour on one day and a whole afternoon the next.”
It seems no idea is too over-the-top for Winters. At the opening of the John Steuart Curry show a couple of baby barnyard animals grazed on the museum’s lawn. There’s also the annual Members’ Show. The first 250 members/artists to register online are included in the exhibition and works of all varieties are allowed. This year’s Members’ Show is Comic Con-themed. At the opening reception on Friday, November 21st, guests are encouraged to come in full cosplay. There will even be a Batmobile!
“One of the things we’ve wondered is how can we become a petri dish for artists in the state,” says Winters.
In the fall of 2015, the works of UW-Madison professor and artist Fred Stonehouse will be on display—alongside the works of his students.
“I’ve never actually seen two exhibitions running simultaneously,” Winters says. “It’s not just exhibiting the work, but how do you create a culture and environment where artists can flourish? The idea of showing a master artist with his students fits really well with that philosophy.”
Winters is also extremely proud of the team of staff she’s gathered around her, like “Project Runway” alumna Miranda Levy. Levy is working with both the West Bend School District and Bay View High School on a class called Phoneography where high school students will make short Vines, learning that their smart phones are actually vehicles for creating works of art. Phoneography classes will be led by six different native Wisconsin artists, including Levy, some of whom now live in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Staying true to Phoneography’s mission, the artists-cum-teachers residing outside of Wisconsin will Skype in to teach their classes. At the end of the semester the students’ video projects will be featured in an exhibition at MOWA.
“We hired Miranda because we wanted to do things differently. We decided to eliminate the nominal fees associated with children’s classes like Studio Saturdays. Any child can come on any Saturday and participate in a studio, working on any project,” says Winters. “We want to have traditional education programs, but we also want to do things that are non-traditional, so Miranda fits that bill.”
You can actually measure Winters’ impact on MOWA mathematically: the museum has grown from merely 676 members to just under 10,000 since she took over. And MOWA’s tentacles reach all the way to Europe thanks to the inaugural artist-in-residence program in Luxembourg. Winters’ vision is global indeed.