Bruce Murphy

Wisconsin Center Makes Deal to Save Literary Artwork

CEO Marty Brooks agrees to compromise to save installation.

By - May 1st, 2023 04:04 pm
Wisconsin Center art installation. Photo by Meg Strobel.

Wisconsin Center art installation. Photo by Meg Strobel.

Wisconsin Center District CEO Marty Brooks has made a deal that will save most if not all of the literary artwork in the downtown convention center that he had previously planned to dismantle and destroy as part of a $456 million expansion plan for the center.

Brooks, who had made this decision without consulting the WCD board of directors, wrote a memo to them today noting that after collaborative meetings with representatives of the installation’s creators, they had agreed to an approach that will “retain the integrity of the modernization plan” for the expanded convention center “while exploring ways to incorporate the works of the contributors into a new interpretation of the art.”

“I’m happy to share that the effort has yielded a revised and final plan for the installation.”

The nationally unique literary artwork, entitled “Portals and Writings Celebrating Wisconsin Authors,” was installed as part the then-new convention center in 1998, 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. A committee of seven people working with the Woodland Pattern literary center, spent a year researching and choosing all the texts, and sculptor Jill Sebastian designed the installation.

The installation took three years to create, as  Karl Gartungretired artistic director of Woodland Pattern told Urban Milwaukee, which broke the story on Brooks plan to dismantle the artwork. “It seems like an act of cultural vandalism,” he said.

There was an uproar from the Milwaukee arts community with some accusing Brooks of censorship and many signing a petition to save the artwork. Several WCD board members called on Brooks to delay the dismantling. In response Brooks reached out to Sebastian and the current co-executive directors of Woodland Pattern, Laura Solomon and Jenny Gropp, and asked them to offer a counter-proposal on how to handle the artwork within the context of the expanded convention center.

The work is exhibited in two ways: much of the lettering is part of the surface of painted walls, which can be repainted to match any design change Brooks seeks.

That portion of the work, the “Landscape and History” installation and “representing a significant percentage of the entire collection – will remain completely intact,” Brooks promised in a detailed agreement he sent to Sebastian and Woodland Pattern. “Please note as part of the modernization of the south building, it is anticipated the wall will be painted (to which Jill Sebastian has previously indicated the letters are meant to be painted the same color as the wall ….. ‘even purple’).”

The other part of the installation used metallic letters mounted on wood-grained portals to present the text. This work would be dismantled, but with the understanding that it could be recreated and re-installed near the other texts. “The WCD is offering Woodland Pattern use of up to eight (8) of the eleven (11) circular and rectangular support columns, located immediately east of the entrances to ballrooms A/B, along with the western facing facias of the escalators connecting the first and second floors…for the reimagining of any passages being removed. The WCD agrees to pay up to $35,000 for the cost of the creation and installation of this new ‘work for hire’ art,” the agreement states.

Solomon and Gropp told Urban Milwaukee they were pleased with the agreement, as did Sebastian.

“We don’t know if every single word and every single author can be saved but we hope to preserve as much as is possible while also preserving Jill’s artistic integrity,” Gropp said.

Under this plan “the work will be concentrated in one area of the building,” which could result “in a beautiful re-imagining of the work,” Gropp noted.

“I look forward to bringing Wisconsin Authors to its second fruition in the convention center,” Sebastian said.

Solomon called it “a big win for public art.” The controversy got national attention with coverage by The Bulwark.

“We are extremely grateful to the public for the support of this one-of-kind literary arts installation, which Milwaukee and Wisconsin are so lucky to have,” Solomon said. “This definitely would not be happening without the support of so many people wanting to preserve the art.”



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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

8 thoughts on “Wisconsin Center Makes Deal to Save Literary Artwork”

  1. Polaris says:

    Great news that a workable compromise to maintain the integrity of the work has been reached. I look forward to seeing it, sometime!

    That said, how many rank-and-file Milwaukeans—let alone those of who have a bit more than passing interest in downtown and the city—even knew that this work existed. Seems to me the biggest piece of local public art Milwaukee never talks about, let alone promotes or publicizes.

    Maybe that will change…

  2. says:

    Many more people than you even realize are aware of these artworks and their importance and impact–regardless if you visit the convention center regularly or not. I am pleased a resolution was found. I hope this teaches Marty a lesson about communication with stakeholders that need to be included–particularly when it involves valuable and historical works of art. It may not mean much to some, but it is important to this city. Perhaps more people will stop by now that we have had this controversy. With an expanded convention center, we will be able to welcome many more people through its doors.
    Thank you to all who helped bring about a positive resolution.

  3. Thomas Gaudynski says:

    Well In 1998 it was a big deal. We even had a local and independent newspaper with art and architecture critics that wrote about it then. Even a mayor who was supportive of the arts in a visible way. Things do change, don’t they.

    I recall touring the facility at a big open house with my wife and six-year old daughter to our delight.

    Perhaps after the upgrade and reinstall the community will be invited back for another big open house.

  4. Polaris says:

    I’m not saying the work isn’t worthwhile, simply that it’s largely unknown and unacknowledged.

    The Milwaukee Downtown (BID 21) doesn’t seem to know about it:

    And neither did Milwaukee Mag in its 2019 piece on under the radar public art:

    Heck, it took 3-4 articles in Urban Milwaukee before anyone know what name to call it. I’m not denigrating the piece. A work of such import deserves to be better known and publicized.

  5. lccfccoop2 says:

    Thanks to everyone who came together to make this compromise possible. And to Urbban Milwaukee for publicizing the issue.

  6. Marty Ellenbecker says:

    Good news.
    As a blueprint for future needs, the discussions, lessons and resolutions may be as important as the artwork.

    Let’s make certain those are as well preserved as the art.

  7. matimm says:

    Nice to see local journalism and public scrutiny leading to an outcome like this.

  8. mpbehar says:

    I have traveled to many a city’s convention centers for professional conferences over the last 50 years. I have NEVER seen anything that approaches what we did with this unique and incredible literary installation. It is vital that it be maintained and promoted! This is evidence of what makes Milwaukee and Wisconsin great! (Revisited in January, 2024!)

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