Will Painting Return to Governor’s Mansion?
Painting of urban children commissioned for state mansion was removed by Walker.
When Tony Evers becomes Wisconsin’s 46th governor on Monday January 7th, 2019, not only will he move into a suite of offices in the state Capitol, but he and his wife Kathy will also be able to move into the 34-room, 23,455-square-foot Executive Residence, a home on Lake Mendota with nine employees. The new digs are substantially larger than the couple’s 1,559-square-foot condo a block away from the Capitol which they bought new for $370,000 in 2003. That unit has two baths, two bedrooms and one fireplace.
By contrast the Executive Residence, which has housed governors since it was bought by the state in 1949 for $47,500, has 13 bathrooms, 7 bedrooms and 7 fireplaces.
When the new first couple explore their living room, located somewhere within their half-acre under roof, they might pause to consider an appropriate painting to place above the fireplace. Such a painting exists. It was commissioned for, and once hung in, that very spot. Since 2011 it has been in Milwaukee, and therein lies a story.
Wisconsin Executive Residence Foundation
The Executive Residence is a public building, drawing some 20,000 visitors each year. In 1966 Dorothy Knowles, an interior decorator and wife of Governor Warren P. Knowles, established the Wisconsin Executive Residence Foundation to furnish, maintain and preserve the giant governor’s mansion, as it’s often been called. The first lady traditionally plays a role in the group; Tonette Walker is currently on the 14-member non-partisan board.
During the administration of Jim Doyle [2003-2011], it was determined that the home, then somewhat generically furnished, could benefit from a collection of Wisconsin art and furnishings. Around mid-decade, the then-WERF board, with significant input from first lady Jessica Doyle, decided to commission a site-specific painting from Milwaukeean David Lenz to hang above the mantle in the living room.
Lenz, whose work combines photo-realism with social realism, had won the First Prize of the Outwin Boochever Protrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006. Part of the prize was a commission to paint a portrait of Eunice Kennedy Schreiber, a champion of the disabled and founder of the Special Olympics. With that portrait complete in 2009, he set to work on the one for the Executive Residence, with funding provided by the Richard and Suzanne Pieper Charitable Foundation.
A Painting Unveiled
The Lenz composition features three children. They are shown on a cold winter street, blowing bubbles in the crisp air, in a composition entitled “Wishes in the Wind.” The African-American girl had spent months in the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, the Hispanic girl was a member of the Boys and Girls Club, and the Caucasian boy’s father and brother had been killed by a drunken driver in 2009.
The painting was installed in a ceremony in November, 2010. Doyle left office in January, 2011, and within months the painting was removed by the new occupants, to be replaced by a painting of an eagle named Old Abe, a Civil War mascot for Wisconsin troops. After Lenz criticised the removal, a spokesperson for Scott Walker said the decision was made to furnish the home with contemporary items in homage to the 150th anniversary of the great conflict.
Tonette Walker contacted the Milwaukee Public Library to arrange for the Lenz painting to be displayed there, and it has been since June 2011. But now, with a new administration in office, is it time for Milwaukee to relinquish the painting and for it to be returned to the spot for which it was intended? A number of people, including the artist, the donor, and a former WERF board member think so.
The Donor’s Comments
The removal of the painting was seen by some as a political act. Richard Pieper emphatically avoids this characterization, preferring to focus on his “Servant Leadership” principles. In a telephone message, he said that he wanted the painting to hang in the mansion to remind visiting legislators about the powerless in society, in particular young people like the boy who lost a father and a brother to drunken driving.
“I have a whole area of my life that revolves around serving others and helping lift them up,” Pieper says. “We have a good society. We have to define what’s working, not what’s not working. You can criticize anybody,” he says.
“The governor’s wife asked that it be put in the [Milwaukee Public] library because their genre they have in the [Executive Residence] was going to be Civil War or something like that. … So we gave permission to put it in the Milwaukee Public Library.”
Pieper, who is one of state’s top donors to Republicans, hopes for the painting’s return. “It likely will go back. It’s up to the foundation and it’s up to the new governor,” he says. “I don’t know if the new governor is aesthetic, or if he understands it any more than the Walkers did. They had their agenda and I understand it. It’s their choice.”
A Board Member’s View
Others were not as reticent as Pieper to criticize the Walker decision to remove the painting. Milwaukeean Catey Doyle is a former board member of WERF and was involved in the decision to commission the Lenz painting during her brother’s administration. She shared her thoughts on the unveiling and subsequent events in a written message:
The event was one of the nicest that I attended. The painting was installed above the fireplace in the living room and brought warmth and joy to the room. David Lenz and his family were there. The 3 children and their parents were also there and their stories were told. One was chosen by the Boys and Girls Club of greater Milwaukee, one by the Milwaukee Rescue Mission and the boy’s father and brother were killed by a drunk driver. It was very touching to see how excited the children were to be recognized in this way. The Piepers, of course, were there. The installation was particularly special because of the depiction of an urban setting (although it is Milwaukee, it could be any number of cities in Wisconsin) and urban children. At that time, there was very little recognition of urban Wisconsin in the art in the Residence. A very memorable event. The fact that the removal of the painting seems to have been one of the first things Gov Walker did was particularly shocking and heartbreaking. It felt like a rejection of the message and meaning of the work of art.
In a Facebook post, Doyle adds: “I still feel the same anger and heartbreak that Scott Walker apparently did not want to look at these beautiful children. It would be a happy happy day if it’s returned to where it belongs.”
The Artist Responds
During the removal controversy in 2011, Lenz was critical of the decision to remove the painting, offering early criticism of the Walker administration. According to a Journal Sentinel article by Dan Bice, “‘This seems symbolic,'” said Lenz, referring to Walker’s proposed cuts in state funding for Milwaukee schools and city and county services, something he said would have a disproportionate impact on low-income youngsters. ‘You would think we could all agree on the need to support the hopes and dreams of children.’ He added, ‘The homeless, central city children and victims of drunk drivers normally do not have a voice in politics. … This painting was an opportunity for future governors to look these three children in the eye, and I hope, contemplate how their public policies might affect them and other children like them. … I guess that was a conversation Governor Walker did not want to have.'”
In response to a request for a comment for this article, artist David Lenz shared his thoughts:
I would love to see the painting return to the Executive Residence. … if the Governor-elect wants the painting back at the residence, then I do believe the Piepers would accommodate that request. The Pieper Family Foundation has always owned the painting, it was on loan to the Executive Residence, and now to the Milwaukee Central Library.
It is interesting that this has become so political, because I tried really hard to make the painting advocate strongly for the forgotten children of the state, but without being critical of one side of the aisle over the other. The painting was completed before Scott Walker was elected, however while I was working on it he was a candidate. I specifically included the little girl in the right corner, Dimitria Campbell, because her family was helped by the Milwaukee Rescue Mission –a Christian homeless shelter that Country Executive Scott Walker personally supported.
DeAngel Beckworth, the girl on the left was chosen by the Boys and Girls Clubs, everyone supports the B&G Clubs, they are beyond reproach. And finally Brogan Calvillo is the boy in the middle; his father and brother were killed by a drunk driver, a huge heartbreaking issue in the state, and one in which both sides of the aisle have tragically sat on their hands.
Lenz adds, “Even if the Piepers are willing, you still have a large missing piece… and that is whether our new Governor-elect Tony Evers would like to have the painting return. I hope he wants it, but still I don’t think it should be assumed.”
The Evers transition team did not have an immediate response to a number of inquiries about the subject as of deadline.
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