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MOWA looks back at 5 years at its current location

ndettmann@conleynet.com 262-306-5043

Construction has started on the Museum of Wisconsin Art’s Cultural Campus, which hopes to open in late summer or early fall.

Located south of the main building at 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend, the 2-acre campus aims to offer an outdoor experience for local artists and its fans, as well as expand MOWA’s program offerings.

But the campus also symbolizes an important cornerstone in MOWA’s history.

In April, MOWA celebrated five years at its location east of the Milwaukee River in a plot of land once home to Field’s Furniture building and outlet mall that was demolished in 2007. MOWA moved to the location after a run in a small building on South Sixth Avenue in West Bend that started in the 1960s.

The campus also puts a cap of the first five years of the museum in its state-ofthe- art facility and a starting point for the next five years and beyond.

“It’s pretty big,” said Laurie Winters, MOWA’s executive director about the milestone.

“We represent the entire state of Wisconsin. We make a real commitment to showing the artwork from artists from near and far and I think that is reflected how word has spread,” Winters added.

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At the beginning

MOWA was once known as the West Bend Art Museum. The name was changed to MOWA in 2007.

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The Museum of Wisconsin Art is seen Monday in West Bend. Nicholas Dettmann/Daily News


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But the idea of expanding the art museum into a regional or state focus started in 2005.

An 18-month study, concluded in 2006, was conducted to evaluate potential options for some kind of expansion, whether it be the building on Sixth Avenue, which was 19,000 square feet, or elsewhere.

Tom Lidtke, the museum’s executive director at that time, said the classrooms, one large art studio and a makeshift pottery studio in a maintenance room, were inadequate.

“We’re turning people away right now,” he said in a July 20, 2006, Daily News article. More and better classrooms would allow the museum to expand its class offerings, he added.

The 2005 study conducted by The West Bend Economic Development Corp. indicated a Wisconsin regional art museum in a city the size of West Bend should attract between 38,000 and 48,000 visitors annually, which would triple the museum’s annual attendance based on 2005 data.

The concern was fundraising.

In 2006, a $1 million donation was made by Betty Nelson of West Bend to help jump start the process.

“Betty and her late husband, Cliff, were always sharing and caring community builders,” Lidtke said in the same July 2006 article. “... Betty has stepped forward with this major gift at a critical time in the development of our state’s regional art museum and we are so very thankful for her generosity and vision.” In May 2007, the new-look museum was unveiled and a $12 million fundraiser was started.

In December 2010, MOWA purchased 1.5 acres on Veterans Avenue from West Bend to help open the door for construction of what turned into a $9 million, 30,700-plus-square-foot museum. In a Dec. 16, 2010, Daily News article, it was reported, as a nonprofit, MOWA would not pay property tax, but it agreed to pay $60,233 annually to the city from 2012-2031 in lieu of that tax.

“The museum on Sixth Avenue had outgrown its home there,” Winters said. “It was ready for something new.”

On Dec. 15, 2011, ground was broken on the MOWA facility as it is known in 2018.

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Recently, Winters presented data of the museum’s growth in the last five years. And some numbers were surprising.

“We’re here everyday, chugging away and on a path and it helps every now and then and see how far you’ve actually come,” Winters said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

The numbers that stood out most were the consistent and steady growth.

The impact of the museum’s move from its former quarters on South Sixth Avenue was nothing short of amazing. Attendance increased more than 600 percent over 2012 — more than 25,000 visitors in 2013 — and membership grew nearly 800 percent, according to a Dec. 28, 2013, Daily News article.

Winters said MOWA had 676 members in its final year on Sixth Avenue. In 2018, that number is more than 10,000, with members in 57 of 72 counties in Wisconsin, including in Douglas, Bayfield, Marinette and Vilas counties — all border Lake Superior. Also, 80 percent of MOWA’s members are from outside West Bend and 5 percent of those are from outside Wisconsin.

The economic impact of MOWA is an estimated $2.2 million in 2017.

Annual visitors have grown 105 percent since 2013, the first year of the new facility.

“It’s one of those things in life that we have to stop and every now and then and appreciate it,” West Bend Mayor Kraig Sadownikow said. “From a tourism standpoint but also a quality of life standpoint, it’s truly one of a kind. We can’t forget that it’s there.”

About 32,000 people have come to MOWA via its program offerings, which symbolizes a two-year effort by the museum.

“When we open the doors in 2013, it was just get some exhibitions up and get the art on the wall and open the doors,” Winters said. “Now that we’re here, I think we’ve kind of settled in to figuring out how we connect to people.”

It’s certainly a museum capable of being in a larger municipality. And when MOWA outgrew its original location, the possibility for that to happen was present.

“We’re very thankful that they chose to stay in West Bend,” Sadownikow said. “The folks before me recognized the importance of having it (in West Bend).”

Winters also recognized the people that help lay the foundation of a museum that is now become a model for regional and state museums of all kinds.

Jessica Wildes, MOWA’s director of communications and marketing, said what has also helped the museum grow like it has is its location.

There is also not an elitist mentality.

“It makes it accessible,” Wildes said. “It’s still in southeastern Wisconsin, so it’s in an area where it is heavily populated but it’s in a place you can drive up and park in the parking lot right out front. You don’t have to mess with ramps or all those things that sometimes make it harder.

“It’s so much more accessible here.”

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The next five years and beyond

The Cultural Campus will be the big factor in the museum’s continued growth.

“I met with someone the other day, on Friday, who said the one thing he really likes about MOWA is we’re unpredictable,” Winters said.

Look for that the next five years.

“So much is possible,” Wildes said, adding MOWA has an exciting exhibition schedule in mind in the coming years.

ABOVE: Part of the “Joy Ride: Designing Trek” exhibition is seen Monday at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend. BELOW: Dirt is pushed down a hill as construction is underway for the Cultural Campus at MOWA.

Nicholas Dettmann/Daily News

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