The Four Buildings
Milwaukee Art Museum
Paul Burmeister, Leaning a Little, Burlington, 2013
Mary Nohl House
On Saturday I went to a Brewers game. I haven't been since high school, and it was different than I remembered it to be. Maybe it's because I had never been to a Saturday night game before, or maybe because I had never attended a game when the Brewers were doing so well. Whatever the reason, there was a sense of electricity in the air that I did not recall from previous games, and it was not entirely due to the thunderstorm outside. It reminded me of an experience I had in college once, when I attended a party at Phi Tau house the night that the new members had been inducted into the fraternity. The entire house was like a playground. Excited people were in every corner of the room, dancing and drinking on every surface. Sliding down railings. Standing on tables. I recall this experience as one of the best nights I had in college, although I was not particularly invested in the fraternity or any of its members before that night.
That's kind of how I felt after the Brewers game. In general, I don't care about the Brewers, or any other sports team. I don't think I would watch a game on TV even if the Brewers were 20-0. But on Saturday night I felt like I cared. In the same way that the Phi Tau boys transformed their house into a jungle gym of elation, the Brewers fans turned the stadium into an intoxicated whirlwind of baseball pride. People were crying and chanting. A fan was diligently displacing a bar stool from the upper loge decks to the first floor as we walked down the twisted ramps. People wore face paint. People drank beer. People were So. Infectiously. Happy.
So of course it got me thinking about something completely unrelated, which is the Milwaukee Art Museum. If you haven't heard, they're expanding, and although the expansion is a positive step for the museum in the eyes of many people (entrance on the lake side of the building wahoo!), it is being scrutinized by others.
It reminds me of stuff. Stuff that's going on now, and stuff that's happened. When I was in fifth grade, I did a current events report on the di Suvero/ Calatrava controversy at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Long story short: there is a large sculpture by Mark di Suvero located in front of the brise soleil if you are approaching the building from the west. To some it looked like a bird taking off into the sunset. To others it was an obstruction of a view of a beautiful new building. Although the heated debate has cooled down since I was in fifth grade, I would imagine that there are some who still deliberately look beyond the sculpture when approaching Art Museum Drive.
Another thing I remember from my youth is the controversy over Miller Park. I was young, but I got the gist. Tax payers didn't want to pay public funds to support a building for a privately owned sports team. A sales tax that Milwaukeeans still pay today, propelled to a higher level of acrimony when literal blood was shed in the construction of the stadium.
A more recent but just as heated issue is the fate of the Mary Nohl House in Fox Point, which will be dismantled and moved to Sheboygan this summer. For those of you who don't know anything about the issue, you can read an article on it here. Much like the di Suvero/ Calatrava debate, it is such an intense argument that if I was in fifth grade right now and did a current events report on it I would still probably remember the details eleven years later.
Maybe this isn't related, but I'm also reminded of a painting that I saw recently at the Charles Allis Art Museum on N. Prospect. The exhibition was "Forward 2014: A Survey of Wisconsin Art Now." Seeing as how I also recently saw the Wisconsin Artists Biennal at The Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) I can comfortably say that I'm pretty much up to date on what artists are currently doing in Wisconsin. Burmeister's painting of a disheveled grain elevator in Burlington was one of my favorite pieces from Survey to Biennal. Flat as a board, but packed to the brim with implications. The artist brilliantly managed to blend a feeling of bland apathy with a feeling of his own desperate nostalgia for a type of building that is so critical to the identity of Wisconsin. I succeeded in finding a bit of related noise on the topic: The Wisconsin Barn Preservation Program which is spearheaded by the Wisconsin Historical Society and the University of Wisconsin-Extension. All it says to me is, it's history, folks. We sure ain't gonna build anymore grain elevators. It's not exactly controversy, it's just kind of a nice gesture.
I'm pretty sure what I'm getting at here is that Wisconsin is a bizarre place. When I went to the Brewers game on Saturday I felt kind of guilty for having such a good time, and it's because I usually feel like people place more importance on and generally just enjoy sports more than they do the arts. But the whole time I was there I was thinking about the Miller Park and MAM controversies from my childhood, and the Mary Nohl controversy, and the dumb stupid grain elevator and its apparent lack of controversy. We're tearing things down, we're building things up, and the way we're reacting doesn't make any sense.
Why does the same state that made such a stink about a new stadium have so much freakin' fun at the games?
And why does one city have the same intense feelings for said stadium that it has for the placement of a sculpture at an art museum?
In addition, why is this state politely preserving a historical barn or two while at the same time viciously rejecting the preservation of a beloved art environment?
And if in 50 years MAM starts to fall apart will we fight to save it, or will we conveniently tear it down because it's easier to do that than it is to accommodate the changes that it would take to preserve it in all its glory?
It sounds like I'm mad, but I'm actually not. I love the complexities of Wisconsin and its people more than I love anything else that I think about. But if I were to hear an outsider's perspective on my home state I might feel a little bit embarrassed. It appears that we have a bit of an identity crisis as to what we deem to be important. As someone who has lived here almost my entire life, I know that the turbulence stems from an enigmatic blend of ideals; stagnant comfort as a cushion for progressive change. We're afraid to take risks on new things, but once we do we maintain a fierce conviction that we've done the right thing.
My recommendation, and I know you won't take it, because you're from Wisconsin: wear a few different hats. Not Packer hats, because they're tacky. Metaphorical hats. Make this state into your jungle gym of elation, and play in it. Enjoy its many facets, instead of fixating comfortably on just one. I'll be there, if you want to hang out. Maybe we can tailgate outside MAM this summer. Or maybe we can show up at Miller Park and quietly ponder the progression of the game.
If you look up you'll notice that either building opens and closes at a fixed point in the direction of the sky.