Press Release
Press Release

Writers Decry Wisconsin Center District CEO’s Imminent Cultural Erasure


By - Apr 10th, 2023 10:19 am

The Wisconsin Center District‘s CEO Marty Brooks has unilaterally decided, without any public input or board oversight, to remove and destroy a nationally significant literary arts installation from the walls of Milwaukee’s convention center, beginning Monday, April 10th.

“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 until recently served for a decade as president and executive director of the American Academy of Poets. Titled “Portals and Writings Celebrating Wisconsin Authors,” it incorporates the work of 48 highly diverse writers who resided in Wisconsin during four centuries, including long before it became a state.

Brooks’ top-secret plan was reported by Bruce Murphy in Urban Milwaukee on April 4th. The publicly funded installation covers the walls of two floors of meeting rooms and was designed in concert with the architecture. It remains a mystery why Brooks decided that the artwork should be removed during the construction of a new wing.

Brooks has not released any public statement about his stealth actions. Brooks’ spokesperson Sarah Maio confirmed to Murphy on April 4th that the Wisconsin Center District board had not been consulted but noted that the board’s approval of the 2020 resolution to approve expansion “authorized the CEO to manage and mitigate every decision and challenge” of the expansion. Murphy also reported that after the story broke Brooks sent an email to his board members, casually noting that some art in the south building was being “decommissioned” in order to keep a “keen focus on maintaining visual cohesion between the north and south buildings.”

Wisconsin Center District, a tax-funded governmental body, is governed by a board whose members are appointed by elected officials. The public convention center under its umbrella is undergoing a $456 million expansion. It will be among the facilities used to host the Republican National Convention in 2024. Benka and others have questioned whether removal of the diverse storytelling installation is related to that event.

The artwork scheduled for demolition was designed and installed under the direction of award-winning artist Jill Sebastian in 1998. She collaborated with Woodland Pattern Book Center and several renowned writers from Wisconsin. The project was transparently overseen by city officials and the Milwaukee Arts Board and received broad community input and support. It celebrates Wisconsin’s history, unique heritage, and the state’s many significant contributions to American literature. Among the 48 notable authors from the state, past and present, are Carl Sandburg, Lorrie Moore, and, importantly, writings from the Ojibwe and Potawatomi Tribes; Black Sparrow Hawk; Mountain Wolf Woman; and Kimberly Blaeser.

Martha Bergland, who has written four books, including acting as co-author of Studying Wisconsin: The Life of Increase Lapham, described the project’s genesis: “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. Since these words have been on the walls, thousands of visitors have been reading them–stopping, stepping out of the busyness of the moment, to pause and read words that make quiet sparks. 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. What are the words for his action?” asks Bergland.

Kimberly Blaeser, a former Wisconsin Poet Laureate, founded Indigenous Nations Poets, a national organization that was recently celebrated at the Library of Congress. Blaeser, the author of eight books of poetry, professor emerita at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and MFA faculty for the Institute of American Indian Arts, served on the project’s curatorial committee. In response to the shocking demolition news and lack of any transparent process, Blaeser said: “This looming erasure seems a part of a larger effort to silence particular voices and ideas, or if we are honest, we would say to censor. The attempt to remove this art is part of a backlash that is national. The work of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) writers has finally begun to achieve visibility. The histories we carry and our bid for social change frightens those who have held the reins of power.

“Make no mistake, they are coming for us with their sand-blasting systems. Censorship of school curriculum. Banned books. It would be hard not to see this action in Wisconsin as a part of those larger efforts. 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,” said Blaeser. A petition opposing the removal began circulating Sunday online.

Sign the Petition
Save the Wisconsin Center Literary Displays!

During the long planning process for this expansion, Brooks kept his intentions to destroy the installation a secret from his board, from taxpayers, and from city leaders. Benka, who is familiar with best practices for ethical decision-making about cultural works, said, “This capricious decision was made without transparently consulting art and literary experts, historians, the Milwaukee Public Library, project artist Jill Sebastian, the living poets with work in the piece, as well as the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin and Potawatomi Tribe.” After unequivocally committing to destroying the “Portals” installation, Brooks notified the project’s coordinators of its imminent destruction. They were told that no recourse was possible and were sworn to secrecy until April 3rd, when they were allowed to pay “last respects” before the installation is demolished.

“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,” said Benka. She noted that the thoughtful words in the piece “took on new meaning, as art and poems often do, as it recently provided Milwaukee residents comfort and solace as they waited in line at the convention center for their COVID-19 vaccinations during the pandemic.”

Brooks’ professional experience has included operating sports and entertainment venues, and he managed the Miss Universe pageant, including for a time during Donald Trump’s ownership. Brooks moved to Milwaukee in 2018 to take this position. Despite calls for Brooks to meet with his board to discuss the matter, he has refused to do so.

Regarding democratic process and justice issues of this consequential decision, Carol Ann Amour asked: “If the Wisconsin Center District Board does not perform duly diligent oversight of a $456 million public construction project, and an appointed administrator asserts that his board may not question his actions no matter what, that board has ceased to serve its democratic function.” Amour, author of five books and many national and regional articles, is a co-founder and public relations/education consultant for the Waaswaaganing Institute of Indigenous Teaching and Learning.

WCD Board Letter

NOTE: This press release was submitted to Urban Milwaukee and was not written by an Urban Milwaukee writer. While it is believed to be reliable, Urban Milwaukee does not guarantee its accuracy or completeness.

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