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Arts/Industry: A Winning Combination

Kohler Arts Center’s diverse offerings

Feb. 5, 2014
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What happens when a venerable Wisconsin manufacturing company and an art museum sustain a 40-year partnership? Visit the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC) to find out. Opened in 1967, the Arts Center has been headed by Director Ruth DeYoung Kohler since 1972. Granddaughter of the museum’s namesake, DeYoung Kohler’s many accomplishments include founding the internationally acclaimed Arts/Industry Residency Program. Its 40th anniversary defines this year at JMKAC through a retrospective titled “Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation” (March 23-Aug. 31).

The Center’s emphasis on education and inclusion of diverse communities is profound. Through programs such as its Footlights and Ex-AIR residencies, it connects established artists in the performing and visual arts with local school children, families and the public. Deputy Director for Programming Amy Horst also stresses continuity between various offerings as a means to create a “series of entry points for people coming from different perspectives.” For instance, this year JMKAC’s Youth Art Month (Feb. 9-March 2) centers on Arts/Industry, including the contributing K-12 artists in the year’s overall exhibition theme.

JMKAC’s modus operandi is unique in that it relies primarily on its own enormous collection to build exhibitions. Of particular interest to DeYoung Kohler and her staff are the works of artist-environment builders, artists who spend years transforming their homes into massive installations comprised of repurposed or found materials. These usually self-taught artists create a unique sense of place and time, and JMKAC is arguably the world’s premier organization for preserving their oeuvres and displaying them in their entirety. Registrar Larry Donoval notes these artists’ tendency to “make something and keep making more and more” and explains the museum’s collection methodology as an effort to show the “artist’s whole soul” to the public.

JMKAC currently holds 22 complete environments and its central Collections Gallery—described by Curator Karen Patterson as the “kernel of information” informing the rest of the galleries—usually hosts an exhibition of this kind. The most recent environment offering is Emery Blagdon’s “Healing Machine” (on display through April 6), a modular shed installation comprised of wood, found objects and paintings. A decade after acquisition, the work now greets the general public for only the second time since the artist’s death. Of the power of the “machine,” DeYoung Kohler says, “Some patrons believe that even though it’s been moved, it does still have the power to heal. People come in and lay down in the exhibit!”

Other artist-environment builders in JMKAC’s collection are India’s renowned Nek Chand and Wisconsin’s own Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, some of whose photographic prints were featured in the esteemed Venice Biennale exhibition last year.



Up Next at Kohler

Continuing the discussion on “Arts/Industry,” DeYoung Kohler and Horst describe the uniqueness of the residency and its impact on all involved. Drawing from a pool of about 450 international applications per year, the program allows for 13-16 residencies, requiring that artists create works using Kohler equipment, engage in educational outreach and leave behind artworks for the permanent collections (the basis of this retrospective exhibit). The factory equipment allows artists to experiment with grand scale, industrial multiplicity and, oftentimes, materials and techniques previously unavailable to them.

When the program was founded, collaboration between fine arts and industry was virtually unheard of and, DeYoung Kohler recalls, the Kohler associates agreed to share their foundry and pottery only with skepticism. Within a week, though, they “found out that the artists did know their own trade” and were “soon asking them to go hunting and fishing with them.” The artists, for their part, developed a keen respect for the Kohler artisans who, in Horst’s words, “had been working at that one skill often their entire careers.”

Asked what she is most proud of 40 years down the line, DeYoung Kohler cites “the fact that we persevered even in tough times when the company was having financial problems. Everyone said, ‘We don’t want this program to die.’ There was always this sense that it was important, not just for the artists, but everyone involved.”

This summer’s exhibition will feature work by more than 300 Arts/Industry alums spanning the program’s entire history. Diverse techniques and subject matter are apparent, but DeYoung Kohler recommends we look for certain recurrent themes, such as the use of blue and white in porcelain pieces—the standard colors of Kohler Co., which many artists chose to include in their work.

Of the evolving program, Donoval highlights the impact that advancements in casting processes have had on artworks produced: “The show will cover the whole gamut, from ’70s toilets that look like toilets to pieces that don’t look like they came out of a factory now.” In Clayton Bailey’s Toilet that Flushes Up and Cup (1979), for example, the familiar form of a Kohler toilet is modified to resemble a colossal teapot. Recent works, such as Justin Richel’s Endless Column (2013)—a porcelain sculpture of pastries and plates stacked to a dizzying height—shows just how far the program has come in potential for novel forms. A sampling of works, including Richel’s, is already on view in the House Gallery. 

Fascinating and far-reaching as JMKAC’s visual arts exhibitions are, be sure to keep their abundant performance offerings on your radar as well. Coming up next is TaikoProject All-Stars, a performance series featuring choreographed Japanese drumming and music (Feb. 18 and 20). Also, “Festive Fridays” offer live music, dancing and food on the first Friday of each month through May.

Finally, keep an eye out for “Culinary Art Car,” a combined food truck, performance space and delivery system for the farm-to-table food program, Nourish. Burning Man artist Mac Maker will spearhead decoration of the double-decker vehicle, and its unveiling is scheduled for the Midsummer Festival of the Arts (July 19-20).

From atrium washrooms breathtakingly adorned by artists Matt Nolen and Cynthia Consentino to major installations like “Art/Industry,” JMKAC has something to capture every imagination, and is a testament to the idea that industry is one of the best things to happen to art.


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