Tag Archives: museums

Philadelphia freedom: Going to the Democratic convention

The nation will focus on Philadelphia this month, as the city hosts the Democratic National Convention.

Some 6,000-plus delegates — including 96 from Wisconsin — will assemble there for the convention, which opens July 25. Counting media, technicians, dignitaries, politicians and candidates, as many as 50,000 will attend.

And when the crowds arrive in the birthplace of America, Philadelphia is ready to welcome them as they have eight times before: the Democrats in 1936 and 1948, and the Republicans six times, most recently in 2000.

Many special events are planned for convention-goers, with parties scheduled before, during and after the convention, which takes place at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia.

Philadelphia provides an abundance of sightseeing opportunities for convention-goers. It’s home to the Liberty Bell, of course, as well as Independence Hall, located just across the street. Independence Hall has been restored to look as it did during the constitutional convention and includes the chair in which George Washington presided over Congress. Another historical site is the house in which Betsy Ross supposedly sewed the first American flag.

But there’s much, much more.

Visiting a penitentiary

Though some might not think of a prison as a tourist attraction, one could spend days exploring the fascinating Eastern State Penitentiary. The now-crumbling prison was built in the 1820s as an alternative to the large, dirty rooms that housed the criminally insane, as well as the general prison population. A Quaker-inspired group that included Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush believed prisons should be places of penitence. Under what came to be known as the “Pennsylvania System,” Eastern State prisoners were placed in single cells. They were given only one book — a Bible — and encouraged to regret their misdeeds as they spent their days in solitude.

When constructed, Eastern State Penitentiary was the largest and most expensive public structure in the country. It also was one of the most advanced — it had central heating before the White House, as well as flush toilets.

Today, the prison is a National Historic Landmark and open to visitors. Audio guides are available that include the “voices” of long-gone inmates and guards.

Philadelphia arts 

Five blocks from the Eastern State Penitentiary is the Philadelphia Museum of Art — a complex that includes the Rodin Museum — and the Barnes Foundation.

The late Albert Barnes grew up “poor and tough” in working-class Philadelphia at the turn of the last century. He held a number of degrees, including one in pharmacology. Working as a chemist in his own lab, Barnes created a medicine to prevent eye infections and blindness in newborns. He bought out a partner and then sold the company months before the crash of 1929. Those resources underwrote his lifelong passion for collecting art. He built his collection with the idea that teaching people to “see” art would advance the cause of democracy. The Barnes Foundation collection includes the largest number of Renoirs in one place  (181 paintings), as well as paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso.

Not to be outdone by the Barnes is the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Everything from African art to textile art is featured, along with workshops on film, photography and music.

Philly theater ranges from Shakespeare and Broadway hits to experimental avant-garde. The Walnut Street Theatre, the nation’s oldest continually operating theater, is where Milwaukee Repertory Theater artistic director Mark Clements first opened a production he directed of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The show then transferred to Milwaukee for the 2014–15 season.

The list of actors who’ve appeared at the Walnut includes Wisconsin-born Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, the theater royalty of their day. The couple spent their summers at Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot. The Walnut comprises 1,100 seats on two levels. With 50,000 subscribers, the theater tops the nation in terms of annual subscribers.

Food and drink

It would be impossible to point out all the trendy, eclectic restaurants within walking distance or a short cab ride from the convention hall.

One surefire hit is the 1960s-inspired Continental Mid-Town, one in a collection of popular restaurants operated by Starr Restaurants — and a visual feast. Downstairs includes a cluster of old-style banquettes, complete with channeled backs. Upstairs, the vibe is slightly less frantic. Duos can dine while sitting in bamboo hanging chairs, bathed in the colors of aqua lights.

Start with one of the handcrafted cocktails — listed as “retro” or “pop.” Among the “retro” offerings is one near-and-dear to Wisconsinites: the old-fashioned. A number of special martinis are offered, including the delicious Grace Kelly. The city’s most famous sandwich, the cheesesteak, is represented here in a cheesesteak egg roll. There’s a taste of comfort food in the lobster macaroni and cheese, and another good choice for an entrée is the Chicken Tikki Masala, featuring Punjab-style chicken and curry. Prices are reasonable and reservations are recommended for this popular spot.

Finally, the convention hall is just a couple of blocks from one of the city’s must-see attractions, Reading Terminal Market. Dating back more than a century, the market is colorful, noisy and filled with an abundance of delicious smells. It is about five times the size of Milwaukee’s Public Market and holds 80 vendors.

For a Southern-style breakfast, check out the eggs and grits at Pearl’s Oyster Bar. Stroll past other oddly named places such as the Flying Monkey (a bakery), The Head Nut, and Beck’s Cajun Café. Although jambalaya and gumbo aren’t served at Pearl’s, you can get it here. At Beiler’s Pennsylvania Dutch Bakery, women dressed in Amish outfits twirl loops of dough and fashion them into delicious doughnuts. Or watch them make large, flavorful pretzels at Miller’s Twisted Pretzels. All of the baking is on-site.

And, yes, you can get a cheese-steak here, as well as a roast pork sandwich (rumored to be more popular with Philadelphians).

On July 28, when she makes her speech accepting the party’s nomination, all eyes will be on Hillary Clinton.

But before and after — between their caucus meetings, platform debates and protest actions — convention-goers can turn their attention instead to George Washington, Betsy Ross, Claude Monet and cheesesteaks.

If you go …

• Historic Philadelphia: Independence Visitor Center, 6th and Market Streets (historicphiladelphia.org).

• Democratic National Convention Updates. The convention is at Wells Fargo Center, 3601 S. Broad St. (visitphilly.com and phldnc.com).

• Eastern State Penitentiary. 2027 Fairmount Ave. Five blocks from Philadelphia Museum of Art. Open daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Admission charged. (easternstate.org).

• Philadelphia Museum of Art and Rodin Museum. Advance admission can be purchased by calling 215-235-7469. Pay-what-you-can admission is offered on the first Sunday of every month and every Wednesday night. The Main Building, 26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, is closed Mondays, and the Rodin Museum is closed Tuesdays (visit philamuseum.org). The Barnes Foundation is at 20th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway (barnesfoundation.org). Admission charged.

• Walnut Street Theatre. 825 Walnut St. (walnutstreettheatre.org).

• Continental Mid-Town Restaurant. 1801 Chestnut St. 215-567-1800.

• Reading Terminal Market. A foodie paradise, opened in 1892, at 12th and Arch Streets. (readingterminalmarket.org).

— A.S.

Photo: B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia Benjamin Franklin (played by Ralph Archbold) arrived in Philadelphia as a runaway apprentice from Boston. He’s pictured at Elfreth’s Alley.
Photo: B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia
Benjamin Franklin (played by Ralph Archbold) arrived in Philadelphia as a runaway apprentice from Boston. He’s pictured at Elfreth’s Alley.

Telling Vincent van Gogh’s story through his ‘Bedrooms’

No one in the history of art has created a series of self-portraits as riveting as Vincent van Gogh’s. Rembrandt came close. Frida Kahlo added inventive and fantastical drama. Warhol dipped into the vernacular of representation.

But van Gogh nailed it. He spun the very molecules of existence into the closest equivalent of what it feels like to be alive than any artist has ever reached.

With van Gogh’s self-portraits, there is no division between figure and ground. He asserts that human life comes from the same energy fields as air, water and land, a mere rearranging of atoms into ever-shifting and colliding eruptions of transient, uncontainable matter. And he then molds paint into the emotive equivalents of natural forces. His urgent and aggressive mark-making are literally like footprints in the wet mud of a farm field — imprints of existence rather than abstract equivalents of representation.

One could look at the current exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Van Gogh’s Bedrooms (through May 10,2016), as a series of self-portraits, even when van Gogh’s face does not in fact appear. Everything depicted — a pair of shoes, a landscape, a chair — is so imbued with the easily identifiable hand of van Gogh that he looms as the subject of his work, no matter what the painting depicts. A tree is as alive and expressive as a face.

The 36-piece show is built around three sequential paintings of van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles, united for the first time. It might seem like a crowd-pleasing headline show built from narrow means. Instead it becomes a perfect fulcrum for expanding and exploring multiple themes in van Gogh’s work. Just when one would think there is no stone left unturned in this eminent artist’s oeuvre, the AIC tilts the perspective enough to get a different, more intimate glimpse of his brief life and career.

The exhibition beautifully ties these works into van Gogh’s biography in a way that offers much more than a timeline. Bits of the quotidian punctuate the show, and offer small but profound moments to underscore the delivery of the masterworks. These minor asides and peripheral objects act as knots in the trajectory of the work, giving us pause and also connecting the paintings to a life and a place and its dusty accoutrements. The exhibition manages to hold onto and even recreate the sense of van Gogh’s poverty, his quiet desperation to build an existence around the act of painting, and his ultimate failure to do so.

One of the first rooms of the chronologically arranged exhibition holds a re-creation of a small Chinese, red lacquer wooden box holding various samples of yarn. The authentic box, which held 16 balls of wool, is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Apparently van Gogh used this collection of threads to experiment with color combinations, laying a string of orange near a string of red, or twisting colors together. It is thought that he may have established palettes for some specific paintings using this technique.

In this same room is the dynamic painting Still Life with White Grapes, Apples, Pears and Lemons (1887). It reveals that, although he had absorbed Impressionism in Paris and was influenced by Seurat, Van Gogh’s hyper-extenuated style was firmly in place from the very beginnings of his career. The still life appears almost as if composed with individual pieces of yarn. Finely tuned complementary colors vibrate line by line, mark by mark, putting the lie to the myth that van Gogh didn’t know color theory and his talent came from some automatic unconscious well of genius and/or madness.

One of the themes Van Gogh’s Bedrooms focuses on is the notion of “home,” and this first room emphasizes this by highlighting two paintings van Gogh did of bird nests. In 1885, van Gogh was living in the town of Nuenen, where his parents had moved. There, he collected bird nests, and created a series of paintings of them; adjacent to the two paintings featured at the AIC show are two actual nests in plexiglass boxes.

What makes this anchor not as silly as it sounds is what van Gogh writes about it in a letter dated to his brother Theo in 1885: “When winter comes (when I have more time for it) I shall make more drawings of this kind of thing. La nichée et les nids [the nestlings and the nests], I feel deeply for them — especially people’s nests, those huts on the heath and their inhabitants.”

A wall-size photo of the Yellow House brings us to the place, street and nearby park of the town of Arles in southern France, where so much happened in 15 months. By the time van Gogh arrived in Arles, he had already lived in nearly 20 cities and four countries. But here, where he rents rooms to await a visit from Paul Gauguin, van Gogh dreams of settling and building an artists’ community.

The three bedroom paintings provide entry into this compacted time and document the artist’s peripatetic longing for “home.” Just as he arranged and physically decorated his rooms in the Yellow House to create an oasis of comfort that might appeal to Gauguin, he applied paint to canvas with similar intent.

Both are inventions, arrangements, compositions that await human contact to set them afire. There was little boundary between van Gogh’s life and work. That is why the paintings of the bedroom resonate so fully. In a conceptual act, he styles a room, then reproduces it three times, bringing both the physicality and emotional content of desire into play. Like us all, he longed for stability, comfort, friendship.

Van Gogh created the first bedroom painting (owned by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) in October 1888, as he awaited Gaugin’s arrival, but it was later damaged by water. He painted a second version (owned by the Art Institute of Chicago) in September 1889 while he was living in an asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, recovering the violent episode in which he severed his own ear. A few weeks later, he painted the third and smallest version of the bedroom (owned by the Musee d’Orsay, Paris) as a gift for his mother and sister.

Although van Gogh tended to work in serial notations of subjects (sunflowers, shoes, self-portraits, etc), he painted three versions of his room because, as he wrote to his brother Theo, he considered it one of his most successful works. Success to van Gogh meant finding equilibrium between realism and symbolism.

Three wall-sized video screens align in the exhibition to compare every inch of the three paintings, showing us van Gogh’s changes and adjustments. Explanatory text and video also outline how colors shifted over time. The bedroom walls were originally a lilac purple but are now blue. While this information is an interesting aside, it is really the relationship of the bedroom paintings to van Gogh’s other works in the show, such as the two portraits of chairs (his and Gauguin’s) and two portraits of shoes, that underscore his ability to fuse human and inanimate content.

Crowds swirl around the three bedroom paintings, but many ignore a small display on a nearby wall containing van Gogh’s only surviving palette. Earthy colors (no piquant greens, oranges and blues) create a muddy landscape, a map of thought and process that brings us as close to van Gogh as we will ever get. One can see where he heavily loaded the brush, leaving a furrow of paint, and where he dabbed off the excess. The palette dates to 1890, the last year of his life.

Rarely does an exhibition calibrate the pace and mental duration of the viewer as well as this one. Throughout, it twists and turns from traditional presentation modes to video environments then back to small bays of ephemera. It concludes with a full room designed for a rest, and a selfie in front of a wall-sized reproduction of The Night Cafe (1888).

The exhibition’s paintings are haunting and beautiful, accented by these effective pyrotechnics. But the ultimate reward comes from those treasures in the darker corners: the box of yarn, a nest, the artist’s palette.

Madison’s ‘little’ museums offer big ideas

Gone are the days when museums were dusty archives of half-forgotten lore. Wisconsin is full of bright, interactive learning environments that stress teaching important lessons over merely archiving historical minutiae, and some of the most interesting and unique examples are tightly condensed into downtown Madison.

Spring is coming, but there are still stormy days that beg for indoor activity. Five of Madison’s “little” museums – three on the Capitol Square and two on the University of Wisconsin campus – offer some big ideas for visitors to consider.

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In the vertebrate room at the Geology Museum, replicas of a Mastadon and Edmontosaurus dinosaur skeletons tower over undergraduate student and tour guide Summer Ostrowski, center, as she takes questions from a group of 2nd grade children visiting from Northside Elementary School in Sun Prairie. ©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: Jeff Miller Date: 04/04 File#: D100 digital camera frame 3537
In the vertebrate room at the Geology Museum, replicas of a Mastadon and Edmontosaurus dinosaur skeletons tower over undergraduate student and tour guide Summer Ostrowski.
Photo: Jeff Miller

UW-Madison is a world-renowned research university with countless resources at its disposal. Two different schools within the university share their wealth with the general public via two innovative museums.

Those who think geology is merely the study of rocks will have their eyes opened by a visit to the UW-Madison Geology Museum, housed in Weeks Hall on the south edge of campus. Founded in 1848, the same year Wisconsin became a state, the Geology Museum is a perennial favorite among visitors thanks to its large collection of rocks, minerals and fossils.

Home to 120,000 geological and paleontological specimens, UWMGM is best known for its fossilized dinosaur and early mammal skeletons. The collection also includes reptiles, fish, birds and paleogene mammals from the Jurassic, Cretaceous, Paleozoic and Early Silurian periods. The museum also is a repository for vertebrate fossils from federal lands and National Park specimens.

Clearly, UWMGM really rocks, and in more ways than one.

The UW-Madison Geology Museum, located in Weeks Hall at 1215 W. Dayton St., is free and open to the public from 8:30 to 4:40 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. Guided tours are available at a nominal cost of $2 per visitor. For more information, visit geoscience.wisc.edu/museum_wp.

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UW-Madison's Physics Museum features numerous hands-on exhibits.
UW-Madison’s Physics Museum features numerous hands-on exhibits.

Those who want to get their physics on – and who among us doesn’t? – will want to visit the L.R. Ingersoll Physics Museum, located in Chamberlin Hall in the heart of the UW campus. Established in 1918 and celebrating its centennial in 2018, the museum was one of the first in the nation devoted to the study of physics.

It’s also an incredibly interactive museum, asking patrons to dive into physics hand-first. The museum’s six subject areas are mechanics, computer-based physics, electricity and magnetism, light and optics, wave and sound, and modern physics, and each features multiple experiments to explore. “Light and Optics” alone offers 14 different interactive activities, giving visitors to the smallest of these five options some of the most vibrant experiences.

The L.R. Ingersoll Physics Museum, located in Chamberlin Hall at 1150 University Ave., is free and open to the public Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. The experience is self-guided, but guided group tours can be arranged. For tour and other information, contact Program and Museum Manager Steve Narf at 608-262-3898 or .

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The Wisconsin Veterans Museum has existed in multiple locations over the last century, but has had a permanent home on the Capitol Square since 1993.
The Wisconsin Veterans Museum has existed in multiple locations over the last century, but has had a permanent home on the Capitol Square since 1993. Photo: Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum would boast a bigger collection were it not for tragedy: a 1904 fire that gutted the city’s Capitol building and destroyed many of the Civil War relics stored there. The remaining collection was itinerant for many years afterward, moving around the Capitol and growing with each armed national conflict. In 1993, it finally found a home right across the street.

The Veterans Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate institution, boasts 20,000 square feet of exhibit space. Its displays chronicle American wars from the Civil War to modern-day Middle East conflicts. The museum has more than 3,000 artifacts, and an estimated 90,000 visitors pass through its doors each year.

Its first-class permanent exhibitions bring visitors into dioramas with the men and women who have served. The museum also offers online exhibits, to explore subjects in greater depth, and a traveling exhibit program that brings the museum’s collection to different locations around the state.

And it hosts temporary exhibitions, many featuring works from outside the museum’s collection. Its current exhibit even dabbles in the realm of visual art. War: Raw features 59 dramatic pieces of art created by Wisconsin veterans as a way of recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. The art therapy program is sponsored by the nonprofit Artists for the Humanities, and helps veterans confront unresolved trauma, embrace personal growth and successfully reintegrate into civilian life.

War: Raw is on display through May 8. The Wisconsin Veterans Museum at 30 W. Mifflin St. is free and open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Call 608-267-1799 or visit wisvetsmuseum.com for more details.

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The Wisconsin Historical Museum includes items from the frontier period, as well as earlier Native American artifacts and more recent items.
The Wisconsin Historical Museum includes items from the frontier period, as well as earlier Native American artifacts and more recent items. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Museum.

Across the street from the Veterans Museum you can learn even more about our state’s past by visiting the Wisconsin Historical Museum. As the public face of the Wisconsin Historical Society, the museum has extensive archives, and displays them through exhibits, programs and lectures about the growth and development of the Badger State.

Three floors of exhibition space chart Wisconsin’s history, from the first Native American residents through its frontier period to the establishment of cities and towns. Historical artifacts are joined by photos, maps, paintings and other objects to tell Wisconsin’s story.

The museum may be best known for its “History Sandwiched In” noon lunch lecture series. Upcoming installments include discussions of Ole Evinrude, the Wisconsinite who invented the first outboard motor for boats (March 15), the lavish Lake Geneva mansion Black Point Estate (April 5), Wisconsin families during World War II (April 19), and Native American effigy mounds (May 3). Bring a bag lunch, sit back and experience history.

The Wisconsin Historical Museum at 30 N. Carroll St. is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and closed on major holidays. Admission is free to Historical Society members; nonmembers are asked for an admission donation of $5 for adults and $3 for children. For more information, call 608-264-6555 or visit historicalmusuem.wisconsinhistory.org.

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The Capitol rotunda is
The Capitol rotunda features “Resources of Wisconsin,” a mural by Edwin Blashfield, on its ceiling. Photo: Michael Muckian.

The final option is by far the largest and best known — and technically isn’t a “museum,” per se. But the Wisconsin State Capitol, in the center of Madison’s isthmus, offers plenty of history as well as an occasional chance to see history in the making.

The current Capitol building is the state’s third structure in that spot. The first Capitol, built in 1838, was replaced by a larger structure in 1863. When the 1904 fire destroyed that building, a third, even grander Capitol was built between 1906 and 1917 at a cost of $7.25 million.

Legend has that the current Capitol building was originally five inches taller than the national Capitol in Washington D.C., due to a statue of an eagle that graced the top of the dome. The eagle was subsequently replaced by Daniel Chester French’s shorter (but no less elegant) statue “Wisconsin” — not, as it’s often mistakenly called, “Miss Forward,” the name of a smaller statue on the Capitol grounds. The Athena-like bronze statue of a woman with a badger on her head reduces the building’s height to a nationally acceptable level below that of the national Capitol.

The State Capitol’s biggest draw is its monumental architecture, produced from 43 varieties of stone, and the series of murals located throughout the building. The Capitol dome, which peaks at 200 feet above the ground, is the country’s only granite dome. Artist Edwin Blashfield’s mural “Resources of Wisconsin” lavishly decorates the ceiling of the rotunda.

The murals continue through the state Supreme Court, Senate and Assembly chambers. The Governor’s Conference Room also boasts a decorated ceiling and historic portraiture.

History buffs may want to look for the small statute of Old Abe, the American bald eagle that accompanied the Eighth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment and served as mascot during more than 30 bloody Civil War battles. His likeness presides over the state Assembly Chamber.

Free tours of the State Capitol are offered on the hour 358 days per year. Report to the tour desk in the lobby of the Capitol a 2 E. Main St. or call 608-266-0382 for large group reservations. Self-guided tours also are allowed.

Getting out and ‘art’-bout for the holidays

During the holidays, there often is a flurry of travel and excitement as family and friends visit. Whether you are entertaining out-of-town guests for a day or a week, there are plenty of venues to check out that will introduce the visual culture of Milwaukee in ways both conventional and unusual.

Unusual Muses 

The roots of the work “museum” go back to ancient Greece and reference locations such as temples dedicated to the Muses, who were patron goddesses of the arts. Museums today are repositories of knowledge and still significant sources of inspiration. You already know about major Milwaukee museums like MAM, but some of those that don’t come to mind as quickly are as appealing to guests of all ages. 

The Grohmann Museum is located on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering, and its association with industry is deeply rooted in its permanent collection. The works come from Dr. Eckhart Grohmann, who had been acquiring art since the 1960s and donated his collection to MSOE in 2001, followed by the gift of the museum itself. 

More than 1,000 pieces are on view, with imagery associated with various labors from the 16th century to the present. Ironworkers, farmers, even taxidermists and glass blowers are among the types of workers represented in this expansive collection of paintings and sculptures. 

Architecturally, the building is unique. The entryway atrium features a mosaic floor that introduces the themes of the museum through images of a farmer, textile worker, blacksmith, miners and foundry workers. On the exterior of the building, a rooftop terrace is overlooked by 12 monumental bronze sculptures that depict various professions. 

The Harley-Davidson Museum also celebrates muscle and machinery, but in a distinctly focused way. Exhibits detail the history of the iconic motorcycle company, from its inception in 1903 to its near demise in the 1980s through its subsequent success, with engaging interactive displays and enough motorcycles on view to keep Harleyfest going year-round.

There are many special exhibits as well, such as the Experience Gallery where visitors can sit on bikes, and the Design Lab, which offers a peek into the engineering and styling that goes on behind the scenes. Recent Watercolor Paintings By Willie G. Davidson also is on view through Jan. 3, and celebrates the artistic flair of the renowned designer. 

Beer baron Capt. Frederick Pabst looms large in Milwaukee, as does the industrialist’s palatial home on Wisconsin Avenue, completed in 1892. The Pabst Mansion is now a museum that captures a taste of life in the gilded age. 

The architectural details and art permanently on view in the home are captivating, but the patina of history becomes even shinier as the mansion is decked out in its holiday finery. Christmas trees, garlands, topiaries and all sorts of festive installations decorate each of the rooms, making the museum seem even more like a home for the holidays. 

Guests can tour the mansion daily, but tours usually stop at 4 p.m. Dec. 18 is the exception; that day, guests can get the full decorative experience with “twilight tours” 5-7 p.m. Tickets are $16, $9 for children ages 6-17 (advance orders receive a $2 discount). 

See and Sip 

If your guests need more than art to stimulate them, consider one of the city’s many galleries that double as bars.

If Walker’s Point is your destination, explore Var Gallery. Established in 2013 by Josh Hintz and Renée Navis, it began as an artist studio collective. A move last year to its current location, a former aluminum factory, expanded Var’s endeavors to include a performance space, bar and art gallery. 

The current exhibition, One Year in Walker’s Point, celebrates this anniversary with a show that includes many of the two dozen artists who also have studio space in this multipurpose building. Live music often is part of Var’s schedule, as well as drawing sessions and other performance events. In fact, the gallery will be hosting a special New Year’s Eve celebration, beginning at 5 p.m. on Dec. 31.

Heading into Bay View, Tonic Tavern is another place to find a mix of art and music, along with a vibrant social scene. With rotating exhibitions organized by artist Jeff Redmon, Tonic hosts regular opening receptions often accompanied by live bands spanning numerous genres. 

Currently on display are works by painter Melissa Dorn Richards, whose taste for abstraction turns ordinary objects like mops into intriguingly unfamiliar things. Tonic’s spacious outdoor patio is a big draw during the summer, but the bar has a year-round appeal, thanks to the cozy fireplace in the gallery area. 

In Riverwest, the visual and the drinkable come together in a most charming pairing at Art Bar. Owner Don Krause intended art to be a main feature of this establishment from its inception 12 years ago, and since then thousands of artworks have graced its vibrant walls, including December’s Mini exhibition of small art. Along with changing exhibitions, an array of events and live music offer stimulation that goes beyond the visual. 

On Display

The Grohmann Museum is located on the campus of MSOE at 1000 N. Broadway. msoe.edu.

The Harley-Davidson Museum is located in the Menomonee Valley at 400 Canal St. harley-davidson.com.

The Pabst Mansion is located near the Marquette University campus at 2000 W. Wisconsin Ave. pabstmansion.com.

Var Gallery is located in Walker’s Point at 643 S. Second St. One Year Celebration & Collective Show continues through Jan. 3. vargallery.com.

Tonic Tavern is located at 2335 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. in Bay View. Work by Melissa Dorn Richards will be on view throughout December. tonictavern.com.

Art Bar is located in Riverwest at 722 E. Burleigh St. The current exhibition, Mini: Tiny Art at Tiny Prices, will continue throughout December.

The ‘art’ of shopping creatively for the holidays

The holiday season arrives with a multitude of traditions, memories and decisions concerned with the search for perfect, festive gifts. If you are interested in finding things a little out of the ordinary and made with artistic flair, there are a few exhibitions that have made this year’s recommended list. 

A perennial favorite is Art Bar’s Mini exhibition, which features the tag line “tiny art at tiny prices.” Both of these descriptors hold true as the dozens of works on view are less than 4-inches square and cost less than $100, with many options only a fraction of that. 

Acrylic, oil and other varieties of paintings are always plentiful in this exhibition, with everything from abstract works to figurative pieces, landscapes and still lifes available. Some of the boldest works are prints by Daniel Stauff, with figures in black on red backgrounds that take on the character of James Bond movie posters in miniature. Also hunt for Stauff’s oil paintings, where his talents as a portraitist come through in the vibrant light and color he captures in the faces of people on the street or musical icons. 

The Mini installation is changed up a bit this year as more three-dimensional pieces are included, such as pottery mugs by Andrew Linderman and vases by Ken Willert. Laura Rehorst shows jewelry with pendants that are actually tiny drawings. Sculptural earrings are creatively made by Charles Stevens, with elongated pieces that work as wall decorations or embellishments for the ears. Less utilitarian are Leann Wooten’s delightful assemblages, which come together like diminutive dioramas. 

If you find that three-dimensional art is what you seek, the new exhibition I made this for you: Small Gestures in Clay at Portrait Society Gallery should be high on your list of venues to visit. This is the first exhibition of its kind done by the gallery, and as director Debra Brehmer notes, many of the artists involved took this as an opportunity to work in ceramics, although that may not be the medium they are most known for. A sense of inventiveness and the singular beauty of imperfection is what is most sought to bring out a distinctly individual sense of character in each piece.

About a dozen artists are included, including Rory Burke, Adolph Rosenblatt, Colin Matthes and Harvey Opgenorth. The pieces shown span a wide range of styles, from Burke’s mysterious busts and skulls that are caught between beauty and decay, to Opgenorth’s finely tuned, smooth black vessels. Matthes’ work combines his illustrations in richly textured mugs and dishes, while Rosenblatt’s sculpture is definitively figurative, reflecting his work, which is done on-site in front of the people in his art. His figures lounge on beach chairs, recline while reading a book, or are somewhat harried at their desk, as seen in his representation of the former art dealer Michael Lord. 

Darlene Wesenberg, Debbie Kupinsky, Craig Clifford, Gerit Grimm, and Meghan Sullivan are other artists showing original work as well. Gary John Gresl takes a curatorial approach to his installation, which reflects one hundred years of home ceramics, from late nineteenth-century knickknacks to smooth Atomic Age dishware. Noted Wisconsin artist Rudy Rotter is also featured with an installation that introduces his ceramic pieces, a medium that expands on his wooden sculptures of entwined figures. He envisioned them in clay, with smooth, sparkling glazes that retain a sense of optimism and humanity in their naked forms. 

Additionally, Portrait Society is showing Wisconsin Supper Club, a series of works by 20 artists who painted handmade plates thrown by Scott Dercks. Their decorations honor various Wisconsin artists, contemporary and past, and is a compendium of artistic accomplishments. 

Also of interest as a gallery and a commercial space is the Pfister Holiday Marketplace, which is set up in the former Roger Stevens menswear boutique. More than 80 local artists have their work on display, which ranges from handmade cards and prints, to jewelry, scarves and other decorative items. 

Nina Bednarski presents enamel paintings on glass from her Bird Hero series, with various avian species depicted by brilliant colors and noble gazes. The proceeds from her work go in part to nonprofit organizations devoted to wild bird protection and preservation. Dan Kirchen operates on a similar theme with charming birdhouses made in the form of Airstream trailers, a perfect seasonal home. 

In addition to the art objects, a selection of Milwaukee music is available for sale, including CDs by bands such as the Fatty Acids, Nineteen Thirteen, Painted Caves, and De La Buena. As a bonus, selected releases are available on vinyl and cassette. 

The holiday season is one in which goodwill and generosity should flow bountifully. In the spirit of gift-giving, these exhibitions and events are a way of sharing the abundant creative talent in the Milwaukee art community. 

MORE VENUES AND EVENTS 

Pfister Holiday Marketplace

424 E. Wisconsin Ave.

Dec. 3: The always entertaining and engaging writer Ànjà Notànjà will offer advice on holiday letter writing. 

Dec. 6 and 20: Paper snowflake cutting will be the activity of the day. Visitors can create their own to hang in the shop or take home. 

Dec. 11: Artist and event curator Renée Bebeau will demonstrate techniques for creating original etchings on mirrored coasters. 

Student/Alumni Art & Design Sale

273 E. Erie St. 

Dec. 3–5: Current and former students of the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design offer an array of unique holiday and art items for collectors and gift givers. Entry on Dec. 3, 6-9 p.m., is $20, admission Dec. 4 (5-9 p.m.) and Dec. 5 (12-5 p.m.) is free.

Cream City Creatives Craft Fair 

1038 N. Fourth St.

Dec. 13: More than 40 artists will display their work at Turner Hall Ballroom, including art pieces and various wares such as jewelry, body products, crafts and more. Admission is $3, free for kids 12 and under.

ON DISPLAY

Mini: Tiny Art at Tiny Prices continues through December at Art Bar (722 E. Burleigh St., Milwaukee). Visit Art Bar’s Facebook page for more details.

I made this for you: Small Gestures in Clay continues through Jan. 8 at Portrait Society Gallery (207 E. Buffalo St., fifth floor, Milwaukee). Visit
portraitsocietygallery.com for more information.

The Pfister Holiday Marketplace continues through Dec. 24 off the lobby of the Pfister Hotel (424 E. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee). Visit thepfisterhotel.com for details.

Weird museums: Travel off the beaten path

Travelers looking for something beyond top attractions like the Space Needle in Seattle might consider adding a weird museum or two to their itineraries.

Here are some suggestions from among dozens of unusual museums across the nation, from a funeral museum to an attraction devoted to wet wipes, of all things. They’re all worth a stop, but probably shouldn’t be your only reason for buying a plane ticket.

MOIST TOWELETTE MUSEUM, EAST LANSING, MICHIGAN

This free attraction next to the Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University contains one of the odder collections open to the public. On two big bookcases in John French’s office are more than a thousand, mostly unused, wet wipes from around the world.

The “celebrity wing” of the collection includes a used wipe donated by “Car Talk” hosts Ray and the late Tom Magliozzi. French, who is also the planetarium’s production coordinator, says the collection includes wipes from a sumo wrestling event in Japan and from the former Trump’s Castle in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Why moist towelettes? “I think everybody just has an urge to collect something,” French said. The collection’s oldest item is a box of “Wash Up!” towelettes from 1963. Details: http://moisttowelettemuseum.com/ .

DIALYSIS MUSEUM AT NORTHWEST KIDNEY CENTERS, SEATTLE

Seattle has many unusual if obscure attractions — like the gum wall at the Pike Place Market. Here’s another one that’s a bit more educational: a dialysis museum.

The Northwest Kidney Centers opened the free museum two years ago to celebrate its 50th anniversary as a pioneering medical treatment center. People who find old medical devices intriguing and those whose lives have been touched by kidney disease are most likely to seek out this display.

The museum shows the history of dialysis through machines and photographs including some early hospital models from the 1940s, and home and travel machines from the 1960s. Some machines were one-of-a-kind devices created with spare parts, including a “traveling kidney” in a suitcase. Details: http://www.nwkidney.org .

NATIONAL CRYPTOLOGIC MUSEUM, NSA HEADQUARTERS, ANNAPOLIS JUNCTION, MARYLAND

The National Cryptologic Museum, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Washington D.C., offers a glimpse into the history of American spying, from code books used during the Revolutionary War to signal flags from the Civil War and decoding machines from World War II.

An 18th century cipher device, acquired from a West Virginia antique dealer who found it near Monticello, is a highlight. The curators believe it is the oldest true cipher device in the world. A display on biometrics gives a window into modern surveillance — more focused on computers than spies. Two aircraft used for secret missions are parked next door.

The free museum is open weekdays and some Saturdays. Details: http://www.nsa.gov/about/cryptologic_heritage/museum/index.shtml .

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF FUNERAL HISTORY, HOUSTON

This serious cultural and history museum also has a sense of fun, illustrated by its trademark — “Any day above ground is a good one” — and its annual haunted house.

Exhibits include artifacts from presidential and celebrity funerals, historical hearses and a full-scale replica of an embalming station from a Civil War battlefield. Other replicas in the 20,000-square-foot (1,860-square-meter) exhibit space include a typical Victorian living room to illustrate at-home funeral practices, and a recreation of a casket factory from the 1900s.

Admission is between $7 and $10 and the museum is open daily except for some holidays. Details: http://www.nmfh.org/ .

VENT HAVEN VENTRILOQUIST MUSEUM, FORT MITCHELL, KENTUCKY

The Vent Haven Museum houses more than 800 ventriloquist dummies, thousands of photographs of famous performers and a library full of ventriloquism books. It also hosts an annual convention of practitioners. Figures on display include a replica of the Charlie McCarthy, who was Edgar Bergen’s sidekick. The museum has one puppet on which visitors can try out their ventriloquism skills.

The museum is open May through September, suggested donations $10, adults, $5 for under 12 and seniors. Details: http://venthavenmuseum.com/.

AND MANY MORE

This is just a sample of the unusual museums out there. Dewey Blanton at the American Alliance of Museums offers this list of others you may find interesting:

• The Toilet Seat Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas.

• The Titan Missile Museum, Green Valley, Arizona.

• The Wrench Museum (farm implements), Marsing, Idaho.

• The Mutter Museum (medical oddities), Philadelphia.

• The Glore Psychiatric Museum in Saint Joseph, Missouri.

• The Museum of Sex, New York City.

Jewish group demands return of all Nazi-looted art

Germany must make a stronger effort to identify and return thousands of looted art pieces the Nazis took from Jews, the president of the World Jewish Congress said this week as he met with top government officials in Berlin to push his case.

Ronald Lauder told The Associated Press that Nazi-looted art still hangs in German museums, government offices and private collections. He said the country’s legislation needs to be changed in order to facilitate its return.

The art pieces stolen from the Jews “are the last prisoners of World War II,” Lauder said. “They should be returned to the victims of the Holocaust and their heirs.”

The topic became the focus of attention in Germany and abroad after the 2012 discovery of more than 1,400 artworks in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi-era art dealer.

Some of the paintings, drawings and prints are claimed by the heirs of former owners persecuted by the Nazis. The affair prompted fresh scrutiny of how Germany handles disputes over Nazi-looted art.

Lauder, who was to hold closed-door meetings with Germany’s justice and foreign ministers to push for new solutions, called on Germany to eliminate its 30-year statute of limitations on stolen property cases, a major stumbling block in many restitution cases since World War II ended almost 70 years ago.

He also called for the establishment of an international commission that would research and help return the artworks to families of the original owners. Such a body “should have real power, so that museums that have avoided transparency up until now, will be required to do the research under its auspices in accordance with international standards,” he said.

Already on Wednesday, Monica Gruetters, the government’s top cultural affairs official, said Germany wants to double state funding for the hunt for Nazi-looted art, which since 2008 has amounted to (euro) 14.5 million ($19.7 million).

Gruetters told lawmakers it was “unbearable that there is still Nazi-looted art in German museums.”

She pledged to create a central point of contact for claimants to avoid the impression that German officials were trying to duck responsibility.

The German government also in 2003 created a commission can be called on if the ownership of a piece of art stolen or sold during the Nazi period is disputed. While the Limbach Commission’s recommendations are non-binding, they are almost always adopted. The government also installed a task force to look into the origins of the paintings and drawings recently found in Gurlitt’s Munich apartment.