Made for clay: Racine Art Museum: Victor M. Cassidy relates the history and future of a Midwest US art museum.
ENTER THE RACINE ART MUSEUM (RAM) and the first thing you see is crafts and more crafts, ceramics especially. Craft works large and small are housed in two rows of spacious wooden display cases on the ground floor. Step into the sunny 30 foot atrium lobby and you have clay to the left of you, clay to the right of you and much more upstairs on the second floor. The entire 46,000 square foot museum was designed from day one for the exhibition of three-dimensional craft objects and to be an energizing, welcoming place.
There is no need to walk in the door because the curators have put changing exhibitions of ceramics, glass and metal objects into three foot deep, 75 foot long windows along the museum's south side. Locals view this art from the street or their offices and sometimes telephone the staff with questions and comments.
As Bruce W. Pepich (Executive Director and Curator of Collections) explains, RAM collects 20th and 21st century textiles, metalwork, baskets, glass and clay but ceramics are the main event. There are major works here by artists who explored ceramic functionalism and utilitarianism during the second half of the 20th century, according to Pepich. Also represented is the "more Modernist approach to clay with a propensity toward abstraction over decoration and truth to materials and concept that was primarily characteristic of mid-century ceramics."
Examples include a very early 1950s Peter Voulkos pot and seminal pieces by Ruth Duckworth, Otto and Vivika Heino, James Lovera and Gertrud and Otto Natzler.
"RAM's collection is strongest in works that typify post-1970 aesthetics," Pepich continues, in which American clay artists incorporated "pattern and decoration, allegory, narrative, a concern with the figure and sculptural form, references to industrial society and historicism" into their work. Among these pieces are Adrian Saxe's Untitled Ewer (French Curve) (1989), Richard Shaw's monumental sculpture Light (1994), Jack Earl's Raphael Worked Close to Home and Ken Ferguson's Lidded Hare Tureen With Four Legs (1992). Many of these artists have several works in the collection--and RAM recently acquired formal and conceptual drawings by Rudy Autio and Adrian Saxe which make "in-depth study of their creative process" possible, Pepich states.
RAM occupies a corner on the main street of Racine, Wisconsin US, a town of 80,000 that is halfway between Chicago to its south and Milwaukee on the north. Though RAM opened in 2003, the museum dates to 1941 and owes its success to a 30 year partnership between Pepich and Karen Johnson Boyd, the visionary Racine art collector whose gifts have helped make RAM a national destination.
"Clay is art with the common touch," says Pepich, informal, utilitarian, and reasonably priced. Just about everyone owns mugs or plates that they bought at art fairs and many people have relatives who threw pots in an art class. "Our lives are becoming more electronic," he states. "Ceramics come from the earth: this is not lost on the public." Crafts are a niche that is "narrow but deep", he continues. It only makes sense to exhibit crafts next to paintings, photographs and works on paper since the artists who made them are dealing with similar visual issues.
Hired out of school in 1974 by Racine's Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts, Pepich became its director after seven years. The Wustum, as locals call it, occupies a converted mansion on a 13 acre homestead at the edge of town. The property was donated by Jennie E. Wustum, a local businesswoman, in memory of her late husband. When the Wustum opened in 1941, there was no collection so it had temporary exhibitions by Wisconsin artists. Soon it received gifts of textiles and 1930s era works on paper.
A few years after Pepich took command, the Wustum sought a new collecting direction that would not place it in futile competition with much larger, better funded museums in Chicago and Milwaukee. In 1989, the museum announced a focus on works in craft media by American artists within the context of international developments. Two years later, Karen Johnson Boyd, who was already a key donor to the Wustum, gave it 200 clay works, baskets and jewelry pieces of such quality that the Wustum had a nationally significant collection overnight. "We received seminal works by the Monets and Rembrandts of craft--Wendell Castle, Dale Chihuly, Lia Cook, Albert Paley and Toshiko Takaezu," says Pepich. "We could never have afforded contemporary painting or sculpture at that level."
Boyd's munificence attracted such attention that it drew important donations from other collectors. The Wustum's collection soon doubled in size, mostly through gifts of craft works. "Crafts are a more accessible, democratic field than painting and sculpture," says Pepich. "There is less money involved and a smaller secondary market, which means that estates are less tempted to sell work because they car't make a big capital gain. Many collectors donate to museums while they're still alive."
Karen Johnson Boyd, the Wustum's key backer, comes from Racine's Johnson family which has manufactured Johnson's Wax, Windex[R], Pledge[R] and dozens of other familiar household products for more than 120 years. Boyd collected lake stones, shells and pine cones as a child and credits her grandfather with awakening her to art. She made paintings and won a prize for a pastel drawing in high school. At college, she studied art history and ceramics.
After her marriage, Boyd began to collect American Indian and pre-Columbian artefacts. During the 1960s, she helped the Johnson Company assemble Art USA Now, a group show of contemporary work that toured the US and went overseas. She was drawn to clay because it is so approachable. "You can touch ceramics," she says. "You must stand back to see a painting and mustn't touch."
By 1992, Johnson and other patrons across the country had built the Wustum's collection so generously that the museum only had space to display five percent of its holdings in rotating shows each year. A growing educational program made the crowding worse. The Board of Directors considered expanding the Wustum or purchasing an empty retail structure in downtown Racine but rejected these schemes on financial grounds.
Sam Johnson, Karen Boyd's brother, facilitated the donation of an empty three-story downtown bank building to the Wustum and gave seed money to renovate the structure that now houses RAM. Today, the Wustum has regional art exhibitions and community art classes while RAM is a separate museum that anchors Racine's revitalized main street. The structure that RAM received consists of three buildings conjoined with parts of four others. Floors were at different levels and structural repairs were needed. Above all, the structure was forbidding from the outside and gloomy within. The Board raised $10 million to get RAM started ($6.5 million for the building and $3.5 million for furnishings and endowment).
RAM hired the architect Bradley Lynch of Brininstool + Lynch, Chicago to design the new museum. Lynch grew up in Racine where Frank Lloyd Wright has many buildings and he lives in Chicago where Mies van der Rohe worked for many years. Though Lynch's Modernist design owes much to Mies, it is distinctively his own with long rectilinear spaces, a subdued palette, close attention to proportion and detail and none of the silly posturing that mars much of today's architecture. Lynch respects the objects and lets them be his statement.
Pepich calls Lynch "one part architect, one part magician on this project. He found great qualities of light in a dark space that nobody in town thought could possibly make a suitable museum." A key initiative was to remove the building's entire eastern facade and replace it with glass to flood the interior with natural light and give visitors a view of Lake Michigan.
Craft objects are challenging to display in a museum setting, says Pepich, because craft "tends to be hand-made, hand-held and either the individual pieces are small or the components are small". Lynch designed RAM's display furniture, floor to ceiling cases and an environment in which building details do not interfere with the artwork. RAM's curatorial staff designs the installations and initiated the idea of holding back on risers and other display furniture. The staff also placed objects on the floor of the built-in cases to minimize interference with them. Result: RAM is an intimate, non-threatening place where the objects have space to breathe, talk to each other and communicate with the viewer.
RAM may show as many as 200 works in a single gallery, but nothing looks crowded. The museum educates and delights visitors but never overwhelms them. Some display cases are just three feet high so children can look down upon the objects within. RAM's lobby is bright and inviting with light-safe objects in cases or on the wall. Turn to the left and you enter a large windowless room that is intended for the exhibition of basketry, works on paper and other objects that sunlight might harm. An 'L' shaped divider in the middle of this gallery separates it into smaller spaces as it maximizes the display area.
On the second floor, you will find an 18 foot-high sky lit gallery divided in two on an east-west axis. The tall ceiling allows RAM to display large objects such as Toshiko Takaezu's six-foot-high ceramic works. When these were shown in the galleries at the Wustum, the works looked compressed beneath its nine foot-ceilings. Presented in this atrium space, they expand and come to life.
The ground-floor museum store stocks postcards and such but also small works by many of the artists in RAM's collection. Pepich, who is horrified by the 'artsy junk' that many museum shops sell, wants to encourage visitors to collect crafts by offering them top quality work. The prices of these objects range up to four figures.
The most dramatic element in RAM's design, the one that everyone notices and applauds, was born of necessity. Much of RAM's construction budget went into structural realignments and when the time came to clad the building, there was little money left. Warned that cost overruns were unacceptable, Lynch solved his problem by wrapping the museum facade in translucent acrylic panels, which he mounted on an aluminium framework with lighting behind, such that the building literally glows at night. "What could be cheaper than plastic?" says Lynch. RAM did go over budget, but only by three percent.
Karen Johnson Boyd and Bruce W. Pepich are full of plans for RAM's future. Both want to bring in more shows from the outside and draw visitors from Chicago and Milwaukee, which are nearby. They especially want to expand attendance in Racine, an ethnically diverse working class community that is wary of museums. "We are trying to build up our image," says Boyd. "Children are enthusiastic when they come here. We want them to return and learn more about art."
RAM hired the architect Bradley Lynch of Brininstool + Lynch, Chicago to design the stew museum. Lynch grew up in Racine where Frank Lloyd Wright has marry buildings and he Lives in Chicago where Mies van der Rohe worked for many years. Though Lyneh's Modernist design owes much to Mies, it is distinctively his own with long rectilinear spaces, a subdued palette, close attention to proportion and detail and none of the silly posturing that mars much of today's architecture. Lynch respects the objects and lets them be his statement.
"RAM's collection is strongest in works that typify post-1970 aesthetics," Pepich continues, in which American clay artists incorporated "pattern and decoration, allegory, narrative, a concern with the figure and sculptural form, references to industrial society and historicism" into their work.
Victor Cassidy is a writer on the arts from Chicago, Illinois US.