Jeramey Jannene

Wisconsin Center Pauses Art Removal

CEO says he thought matter was resolved with grant, only for conflict to emerge.

By - Apr 14th, 2023 03:20 pm
Photo by Meg Strobel.

Photo by Meg Strobel.

The Wisconsin Center District (WCD) is pausing its controversial decision to remove a series of literary artworks that have adorned the convention center’s concourse for 25 years.

But the decision doesn’t mean sculptor Jill Sebastian‘s literary piece, which features quotes from many writers, will be preserved as is.

As first reported by Urban Milwaukee, the decision to remove the pieces was made by CEO Marty Brooks and the district’s staff without the consulting the public organization’s board. As part of the $456 million expansion, the board gave Brooks decision-making power on a wide variety of measures to execute the project. That included efforts to harmonize the new facility with the existing one.

In an April 13 letter to the board obtained by Urban Milwaukee, Brooks said the modernization of the existing building “is a critical piece of the overall expansion project.” He said the artists whose pieces would be removed were notified in January, with some electing to remove them if possible.

But Sebastian’s artworks reportedly can’t be removed. As a result, Sebastian and Woodland Pattern, which helped create the exhibit, accepted $20,000 from WCD to partially fund a book of photographs. Brooks’s email says the agreement was signed March 27.

Urban Milwaukee editor Bruce Murphy wrote an article that broke the news of the removal on April 4.

“Since then, and like many of you, WCD has since fielded public responses calling for status quo. Some of those individuals have been local, some outside of Milwaukee. Appreciating the need to absorb conflicting perspectives, I have spent many hours contemplating the right path forward and I appreciate the support and guidance so many of you have given,” wrote Brooks.

The installation was created in 1998 as part of the facility’s construction and features quotes from famous Wisconsin writers like Laura Ingalls WilderZona Gale, Aldo Leopold, Edna Ferber, John MuirLorine Niedecker and more contemporary names like Antler and Martha Bergland. The installation includes texts by 48 different writers going back 400 years, including lyrics from an Ojibe Tribe song.

“My first action was to direct the construction team to continue on south building work, but to pause any decommissioning of the prose. As of this memo it is all still in-tact, allowing me time to reflect and respond to the voices commenting on the work which we own,” wrote Brooks.

Brooks said he met with Sebastian and Woodland Pattern on April 13. “My objective is to ensure we are exploring collaborative options while still moving forward and not negatively impacting the timeline or budget of the overall project,” wrote the CEO.

Sebastian and Brooks, wrote the CEO, will now walk through the space with members of the design team to discuss the piece and the modernization needs. “I will keep you appraised as progress is made,” wrote Brooks.

A naming rights agreement with Robert W. Baird and Co. was announced in March, with the completed facility to be known as the Baird Center. The expansion plans call for adding 112,000 square feet of space to the exhibition hall, creating a 300,000-square-foot room. A rooftop ballroom will have a 2,000-person seating capacity and outdoor terraces. A total of 24 meeting rooms are being added to the building, bringing the total to 52. The expanded facility will have 22 loading docks and a 400-stall indoor parking structure. Operationally, the facility will be able to host two conventions simultaneously. That will allow one show to load in or out while another operates, eliminating “dark” days. The front door of the facility will be reoriented north from W. Wisconsin Ave. to W. Kilbourn Ave., while still aligning with N. Vel R. Phillips Ave.

General contracting is being led by a partnership of Gilbane Building Company and CD Smith. Design is being led by a partnership of tvsdesign and Eppstein Uhen Architects.

Bruce Murphy contributed to this report.


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More about the Wisconsin Center District Literary Arts Installation Controversy

Read more about Wisconsin Center District Literary Arts Installation Controversy here

More about the Wisconsin Center expansion

Read more about Wisconsin Center expansion here

2 thoughts on “Wisconsin Center Pauses Art Removal”

  1. Thomas Gaudynski says:

    A breather anyway.

    Also important to realize Baird has skin in this game too.

  2. Polaris says:

    Ha! Pausing is sometimes the first step toward not doing… 🙂

    On a related note (aka, my idea of moving and reimagining the installation in a more public space), in my current work with a museum, I came across this wonderful space I never new existed, but that celebrated its fifth anniversary in October 2022, Alumni Park in Madison:

    This is the kind of thing I would love to see the Wisconsin Center installation turn into. Uber-public, interactive, multi-media.

    Let’s think big on this. While it’s great to preserve, it well might be greater to reimagine…

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