New Arts Lab at the Peck School

Million-dollar gift will transform Kenilworth 620

Sep. 14, 2016
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Kenilworth 620 looks like an airplane hanger with the best view in town. In recent years the high ceilinged, steel-beamed room with big lake view windows on the top floor of UWM’s Kenilworth Square East (1915 E. Kenilworth Place) has been the sporadic site for performances of various sorts.

But at a Sept. 13 reception in the room, UWM Peck School of the Arts Dean Scott Emmons announced ambitious plans for the site on the strength of a $1 million donation from Jan Serr and her husband, John Shannon. Kenilworth 620 will now be called the Jan Serr Studio, a multi-purpose space, a “laboratory” in Emmons’ words, where each of the disciplines taught at the Peck School can be represented. It will also become a venue for performing arts groups in the greater Milwaukee area and a performance space for touring artists.

Private philanthropy at a public university such as UWM has a long history. The university inherited privately endowed scholarships from its predecessor colleges, including one that benefitted Serr in her student years. Recently, as state funding tightened, donors have earned naming rights for the Lubar School of Business and the Peck School of the Arts.

Shannon was pointed in his remarks. “Madison is not even paying for the maintenance of existing facilities,” he said. “If we don’t do it, who will? It’s not going to be Madison.”

Serr shared a story that perhaps explains the couple’s attachment to this particular site. In 1968, when she was a fine arts major at UWM, the university rented a studio for her in the Kenilworth basement, then a largely disused former automobile plant. Serr displayed a portrait she painted under the light of a single bulb in that windowless room.

For the past decade, Kenilworth Square East has enabled hundreds of aspiring Jan Serrs by housing a warren of studios and workshops for Peck School students and faculty. The Serr Studio will extend the Kenilworth’s mission as a place for site specific or vanguard performances, interdisciplinary experiments and film screenings. The $1 million gift will go toward sound systems, lights, motion picture projection and even facilities that could transform the room into a film studio. The raw industrial ambiance will be preserved.

A portion of the donation will be used to endow the Studio’s future; however, the fundraising has not ended and additional donors will have an opportunity to bring the dream to life. Construction in the room is scheduled to begin this winter.

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