Bruce Murphy
Back in the News

Wisconsin Center Accused of Censorship

Eliminating literary art installation in preparation for Republican National Convention?

By - Apr 11th, 2023 01:20 pm
Photo by Meg Strobel.

Photo by Meg Strobel.

The controversy over the planned destruction of a literary art installation at the downtown Wisconsin Center, first reported by Urban Milwaukee, continues to generate news. A story by the Green Bay Press-Gazette today has a headline declaring that “Indigenous writers decry apparent planned destruction of literary exhibit” and offers criticism of the decision by Dr. Kimberly Blaeser, a former Wisconsin Poet Laureate and a citizen of the White Earth Nation Ojibwe in Minnesota, who has work featured in the exhibit installed in 1998.

The installation was a public project, overseen by the Milwaukee Arts Board and public officials, featuring texts from the works of 48 Wisconsin writers through four centuries, including many prominent Indigenous artists and people of color. The texts are wide-ranging in their voices and concerns, but as Blaeser noted, some of the works by Indigenous writers remind visitors of the colonial history of Wisconsin and how Indigenous people and the atrocities committed against them had been forgotten.

“I don’t understand why our leaders would be afraid of history,” she said. “It’s such a tragedy that there would be this erasure.”

Opponents of the removal argue the ongoing, $456 million expansion of the convention center does not require the removal of the exhibit. A group of Wisconsin writers issued a press release blasting the decision and questioning whether the removal is part of an effort to prepare for hosting the Republican National Convention next year and part of a rising national trend of censorship by conservative activists.

“Censorship of school curriculum. Banned books. It would be hard not to see this action in Wisconsin as a part of those larger efforts,” said Blaeser, in a statement. “The literature on the walls of the Wisconsin Center includes Indigenous voices, the writing of early ecologists, working-class voices, African-American voices, Latino voices, Asian voices, etc. We worked hard to make it representative of all Wisconsinites. All Wisconsinites should be outraged by the plans to demolish this literary archive.”

Besides Blaeser, the writers featured in the exhibit include Folami Abiade, Antler, Martha Bergland, Black Sparrow Hawk, Mountain Wolf Woman, the Ojibwe tribe, the Potowatomi tribe, Frances Brock Starms, B. J. Buhrow, Daisy Cubias, Susan Engberg, Edna Ferber, Zona Gale, Horace Gregory, James Hazard, Peggy Hong, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ellen Kort, Margery Latimer, Aldo Leopold, Joel Lipman, Ben Logan, Charles McClain, Juliette Magill Kinzie, Anja Malesa, Tom Montag, Lorrie Moore, Kyoko Mori, John Muir, Lorine Niedecker, Louise Phelps Kellogg, Carl Rakosi, R. M. Ryan, Carl Sandburg, Guadalupe Solis, Denise Sweet, Bruce Taylor, Larry Watson, Glenway Wescott, J. D. Whitney, and Karl Young.

“This is a one-of-a-kind piece and likely the world’s largest poetry and text-based public artwork, to my knowledge,” said Jen Benka, a national literary leader who served for a decade as president and executive director of the American Academy of Poets. “The notion that these diverse voices will be thoughtlessly erased and that this significant artwork will be thrown in a dumpster for no reason is unconscionable.”

Because the work was permanently installed, it cannot be removed in any way that will preserve it. The work will be destroyed in the process of removing it.

Wisconsin Center media presentative Sarah Maio told Urban Milwaukee the process of taking down the literary artworks would begin on April 10, which was yesterday. She also confirmed that the decision to remove the work was made by Wisconsin Center District CEO Marty Brooks and that he never consulted the center’s 17-member board of directors, most of them elected officials, including three Milwaukee Common Council members (Bob Bauman, Milele Coggs and council president José G. Pérez), two legislators from Milwaukee (Sen LaTonya Johnson and Rep. Kalan Haywood), the city and county comptrollers (Aycha Sawa and Scott Manske) Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride. The private board members include Greg Marcus, whose father Steve Marcus created the Sculpture Milwaukee exhibition and whose company, the Marcus Corp., runs St. Kate The Arts Hotel.

The decision to remove the work wasn’t “reported to the board or debated or voted on,” as Milwaukee Alderman Bob Bauman, who serves on the board, told Urban Milwaukee. Bauman sent an email to Brooks asking that he delay taking down the work and give board members a chance to consider the matter, and received no response.

Brooks has steadfastly avoided media question: he did not respond to request for comments from Urban Milwaukee or the Press-Gazette.

Opponents of his decision have charged that a tax-supported government entity overseen by elected officials should have had a public process for removing a taxpayer-funded work of literary art.

“The Wisconsin Center District Board would seem to have an obligation to due process, such as a public hearing,” Blaeser wrote in a letter the Wisconsin Center’s board members. “The citizens who supported the creation of this one-of-a-kind nationally recognized installation deserve a chance to express their concern about its future. … I ask that you show leadership and raise your voice to stop the wanton destruction. Wisconsin and the larger arts community will be watching what happens in Milwaukee.”

Martha Bergland, whose four published books include co-authoring a biography of Increase Lapham, noted the history behind the installation’s creation: “Nearly 30 years ago, many artists, poets, and writers began working to put on the walls of Milwaukee’s new convention center words written in and about their state. Words written over the past 400 years. Words from towns and farms and cities, forests and fields of the state. No one in any other state has done this. Hundreds of the people of this place worked together in the making of this audacious work…  Thousands of people have stood silent and stepped back, looked up and read the writing on the wall. People have been surprised by, moved by, informed by the words of their ancestors, their neighbors, in a graceful weave of interconnection.

“Now one man prefers ‘silence’ and ‘whiteness’ to the richness of these words. One man has enlisted demolition crews to take hammer and chisel to these words, to our treasures.”

Supporters of the exhibit have organized an online petition to stop the demolition.


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7 thoughts on “Back in the News: Wisconsin Center Accused of Censorship”

  1. ZeeManMke says:

    Why is the Board being dictated to by this guy from Mequon? Do Board members have no authority and are there hanging like ornaments on a Christmas tree? The WCD is one strange thing. It claims to not be a part of any government but can force people to pay it taxes. Sure sounds like the government to me. Let’s go back, the Board should call a special meeting. Then have Brooks explain what he is doing. If that answer is not satisfactory, the Board can then just vote Marty back to Mequon.

  2. Ed Werstein says:

    Thanks for this article, Bruce. When I read the original story in UM. I sent it to all the writer organizations that I’m connected to. For many of them it was the first they had heard of the issue.
    You mentioned April 10th as the projected start to the demolition. Does anyone know if things are moving forward already?

  3. kaygeeret says:

    Are there any protests planned?

    A sit in perhaps to prevent the destruction?

  4. Bill Werner says:

    Thank you, Bruce, for this research. I am skeptical that the wall “cannot” be saved. Is this the opinion of an objective person? How about bringing in restoration experts to assess the potential for moving the work? Time for the board to speak up.

  5. Polaris says:

    I’ve been struck lately by how Urban Milwaukee (writers and commenters) appears to have a real impact on how things play out in current events. This matter is a great example. The JS actually cites UM in its recent coverage. I consistently see what appears here reappearing 12-24 hours later on other sites. Same for the now dead proposal to build that cookie-cutter veterans memorial on the lakefront, and even the now dead plan for FPC Live’s blatantly questionable partnership with the nonprofit Milwaukee World Festival/Summerfest to build on MWF property in the Third Ward.

    My take is that officials, civic leaders, and other journalists follow what happens on UM, and that the reporting and conversations on UM make a real difference.

    Go, team!

  6. lobk says:

    Agree with you, Polaris, on Urban Milwaukee’s apparent wide-reaching influence. I’ve recommended membership to many colleagues. Frankly, the reporting at UM surpasses local traditional media sources.

    I passed this particular story on to my friends in the broadcast media and so far have only seen it on 58. I do not understand why this issue isn’t receiving more buzz.

    Me thinks Marty may have too much power and it’s gone to his head. If the literary artwork truly can’t be saved successfully, I have no problem with recreating it elsewhere. But to dismiss it secretly without any thought or discussion wreaks of something foul.

  7. lobk says:

    Sign the petition at least & pass it on.

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