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Why Art Thrives in Hartford

Schauer Arts & Activities Center hosts theater, dance and more

Nov. 14, 2012
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Schauer Arts Center
Large cities naturally serve as a destination for the arts. Theaters, galleries, music and art classes can be found easily in Milwaukee or Chicago. But don’t count out smaller towns, like Hartford, Wis. Hartford, 40 minutes northwest of Milwaukee, boasts a thriving arts scene—a scene that has steadily grown since the Schauer Arts & Activities Center launched in 2001.

In the late 1990s, local art patrons recognized a need for an arts center in the Kettle Moraine area. Following a search for the right location, they settled on an old canning factory that was next to the Wisconsin Automotive Museum, the largest such museum in the state.

When renovations to the old factory were completed, the Schauer Arts Center opened, offering the region a modern facility for the arts and art education. The center contains the 571-seat Ruth A. Knoll Theater, the Suckow Family Art Gallery, a cabaret space that doubles as a banquet room, a rehearsal hall, a dance studio and meeting rooms.

With its 12th season under way, the Schauer Arts Center welcomed a new executive director, Brenda Lee Johnston. Johnston brims with enthusiasm as she talks about having a positive influence on the organization. “I’m very much about community engagement and connecting people to and through the arts,” Johnston says.

Schauer puts on about 40 shows a year in the Knoll Theater. “It’s quite a variety,” Johnston says. “Our Mainstage Series brings comedy shows, musical theater, dance and musical performances for all tastes—everything ranging from classical, Irish, country, popular and, recently, even big band.”

The theater takes on a decidedly international flair at times. February will bring a performance by Cirque Zuma Zuma, an African-style Cirque du Soleil-type show that some people may have seen on “America’s Got Talent.” The Vienna Boys Choir performs in March, and a Russian folk music trio, Moscow Nights, comes in April.

The center offers a family series that is all about children’s theater, magic shows, school matinees and family art workshops. A preschool program in the cabaret space is geared for young kids who do better sitting on the floor instead of in theater seats. 

Tickets do sell out, depending on the show. “We’ve found we have fewer ‘day of’ or ‘at door’ tickets sold because people are finding it’s better to buy ahead,” Johnston says.

The center is home to four resident groups: the Hartford City Band, the Hartford Community Chorus, the Hartford Players and the Kettle Moraine Fine Arts Guild. The band and chorus perform a couple of times a year, and the Hartford Players typically perform three shows a year. The Fine Arts Guild does one show a year of its own work; it also helps with display setup for other shows throughout the year. 


Arts School

The Schauer Arts Center also runs a Community School of the Arts (CSA). This consists of dance classes, youth choir, youth symphony, visual arts classes and theater classes. Anyone can take classes at the CSA; in fact, the classes “pull from quite a large area,” Johnston says. “Some travel upward of 40 minutes to attend classes.” The classes are so popular that the CSA recently leased an old racquetball club about a block away from the main building and turned it into a second dance studio to accommodate the 500-600 students in the school of dance.

The CSA’s children’s theater program is also vibrant. The program works with the North Shore Academy of the Arts for a children’s theater performance each year. The Missoula Children’s Theatre travels from Montana, auditions local kids and casts 50-60 of them to perform in an original play after a week of rehearsals. Every summer, Milwaukee’s First Stage Children’s Theater partners with the CSA to host a day-camp theater academy.


Art Gallery

The Suckow Family Art Gallery focuses on local and regional artists. It also features some traveling shows. Mostly the gallery displays fiber arts, fine art, photography and folk art. “This summer we even had a plein-air show,” Johnston says. “We like to show a little bit of everything.” Once a year they have a children’s art show that displays the work of local schoolchildren.


What’s Next?

“I’d like to do more art out in the community and tie it all back to what we are doing here at the center,” Johnston says. “We’d really like to make art accessible to everyone. I’m excited to see what we can do, who we can partner with and what we can develop.”

For more information about the Schauer Arts & Activities Center, call 262-670-0560 or visit www.schauercenter.org.

Susan Harpt Grimes is a freelance writer living and working in the Milwaukee area. She has been contributing to the Shepherd Express since 2010.


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