Bruce Murphy
Back in the News

Wisconsin Center Dispute Goes National

The Bulwark condemns decision to remove artwork while WTMJ defends it.

By - Apr 25th, 2023 04:27 pm
Wisconsin Center art installation. Photo by Meg Strobel.

Wisconsin Center art installation. Photo by Meg Strobel.

“Tearing Down Art to Spare Republican Snowflakes Feelings?”

That’s the headline in a new story by the conservative-leaning but very anti-Trump publication The Bulwark, which declares that “In advance of the 2024 RNC, a Milwaukee convention center director decided to destroy a potentially MAGA-triggering public display of literary art.”

Yet the story by longtime Wisconsin journalist Bill Lueders, an editor-at-large for The Progressive, takes a more even-handed approach, noting the decision by Wisconsin Center District CEO Marty Brooks to take down the literary art installation comes at a time of rising censorship both in Wisconsin and nationally, but may or may not have been done for this reason. “Brooks has ducked media requests for comment, making it hard to gauge what motivated him to propose destruction of the installation,” Lueders writes.

Certainly his decision suggests he saw little value in a nationally unique literary artwork featuring texts spanning four centuries from a diverse group of 48 Wisconsinites. Included are lyrics from an Ojibwe tribe song, indigenous voices Black Sparrow Hawk and Mountain Wolf Woman, and writers Aldo Leopold,Carl Sandburg, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Edna Ferber, John Muir, Lorine Niedecker, Zona Gale, Antler, Kyoko Mori, and Lorrie Moore, among others.

People who’ve talked to Brooks say he’s been shocked by the reaction to his decision. In response he has delayed taking down the artwork which, because it’s permanently installed, would result in its destruction. On April 13, in a letter to the WCD board, Brooks announced that he would suspend demolition. He has since met with representatives of Woodland Pattern, which oversaw a committee of seven who worked for a year to choose the literary texts, and sculptor Jill Sebastian, who designed the artwork.

Sebastian told Lueders that she and Woodland Pattern crafted “a counterproposal” to deliver to the Wisconsin Center District board on Tuesday, April 25 — that’s today. The counterproposal will suggest alternatives that will downsize the project “without compromising its artistic integrity,” Sebastian said, and while still presenting a diversity of voices.

Meanwhile, Brooks was interviewed about the controversy by the 620WTMJ radio morning show on April 19, where the hosts suggested this was an attempt to protect indigenous artwork, and that it shouldn’t get any more consideration than artwork by white people. In fact, most of the texts are by whites, including just about any well known writer in state history. (WTMJ didn’t ask Woodland Pattern or Sebastian for comment.)

In the interview Brooks said that the work was created when the convention center was run under a different governmental authority, by the city. While it’s true the convention center was run for years by the city, that ended in 1994 under state legislation creating the Wisconsin Center District, which was four years before the literary art installation was created.

For good measure, the hosts offered the observation that the guy who did the grout work in the WCD’s bathroom could have his work destroyed by the expansion and why shouldn’t his work be protected?

Lueders story also noted that Brooks never responded to a request from Urban Milwaukee to cite the 2020 resolution passed by the WCD which “authorized the CEO to manage and mitigate every decision and challenge” of the expansion, as his vice-president of marketing and communications Sarah Maio described it. In response to an Urban Milwaukee story about this, Alderman Bob Bauman, a member of the WCD board, asked Brooks to “Please send me the document or documents that contain the ‘manage and mitigate’ language,” and copied his fellow WCD board members, Alderwoman Milele Coggs and council president José G. Pérez.

Urban Milwaukee made an open records request to Bauman asking for any response he received from Brooks and received that today. Brooks responded to Bauman on April 19 quoting language that did not include the “manage and mitigate every decision and challenge,” but did note bylaws from 2001 stating “the President shall in general supervise and control all of the business and affairs of the District” and a 2015 resolution stating that “the President and CEO did not need board approval to enter into contracts or other instruments with a value of less than $125,000.”

The total cost of the literary art installation was a good deal more: $166,480, according to Sebastian.

And is a public art work created through a public competition in the same category as, say, a contract to do the bathrooms’ grouting? That is presumably for the WCD board to decide.

The next regular board meeting of the Wisconsin Center District is May 19.

Update 10:30 a.m. April 25: Sarah Maio emailed Urban Milwaukee to note that “The spirit of the language ‘manage and mitigate’ used in the April 4 memo to the Board was intended to be a succinct description of the CEO’s broad day-to-day management of business and affairs of the District, not a direct lift of legal copy…The April 2, 2020 resolution lifted the $125,000 boundary for contracts related to the expansion project.”


5 thoughts on “Back in the News: Wisconsin Center Dispute Goes National”

  1. lobk says:

    The whole affair is sad regarding this one-of-a-kind exhibit, but one thing has always been certain: Trying to hide from controversies and scandals as CEO Brooks tried to do initially always comes back to bite you. In this case, the story has gotten much more attention than it might have otherwise. And TMJ? Comparing this to grout in the bathroom? Really?

  2. mkwagner says:

    Public art appears to have less value to Brooks than his damaged public image. Why else would he refuse all requests for comments except that from reactionary mouthpiece, WTMJ. Brooks has yet to explain why he thought a public art installation approved by the Center’s board of directors could be destroyed without the board’s knowledge. Goes back to what Brooks values. He obviously does not value his board’s opinion. Time for Brooks to go.

  3. Virginia Small says:

    Rewriting the WCD’s institutional history. Bypassing its bylaws.

    Flouting state statutes for open records.

    It’s all of a piece in eroding democracy and erasing collective culture and other public goods. As reported above, these are not minor things.

  4. lccfccoop2 says:

    So glad Bruce took on WTMJ morning show. It reaches huge numbers in morning drive time. I listen for traffic, weather, Tauscher and I don’t mind too much of local reporting. BUT Vitrano and supporting cast are over their heads/out of their depth consistently on policy issues. And consistently lean right wing. They went into the Brooks interview with any serious background knowledge – just an agenda to attack “woke” or “politically correct.”

    Brooks is an arrogant jerk and all they did was throw him softballs.

    But they do real damage sometimes because of the size of their audience.

  5. says:

    Jill Sebastian and Woodland Pattern stand tall against the removal of this public art. It is a beautiful piece which looks just right where it is. Keep the faith and negotiate hard to retain the works essence!

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