"Like the Whitney on mescaline"! JMKAC in the New York Times

Lisa Stone (via Larry Harris) sent along this NY Times article about the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan..

Way Off the Beaten Path, Letting the Outsiders In

John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Sculptures by Nek Chand from a 2007 exhibition at the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis. More Photos >


Published: July 8, 2009

Sheboygan, Wis.

A version of this article appeared in print on July 12, 2009, on page AR19 of the New York edition.

    Darren Hauck for The New York Times

    Also included in “American Story” are sculptures by Carl Peterson.More Photos »

    THREE years ago Gregory Van Maanen knew it was time to move out of his longtime home in Paterson, N.J. He just didn’t know how he was going to do it. A Vietnam veteran, Mr. Van Maanen had been obsessively painting skulls and floating eyeballs on stones, animal bones, boards and canvases since his return from the war, in what he describes as a kind of exorcism. He used his apartment as a studio, and as he finished the works, he often turned them against the walls so as not to be haunted by their “spirits.” After so many years, they took up almost every square inch.

    “Let’s just say the place was not set up for comfort,” said Leslie Umberger, the senior curator at the Kohler Arts Center here, who visited Mr. Van Maanen in 2006. “The only furniture I saw was the chair he sat in to work on small drawings. Artwork had taken over every surface, like this living, growing altar — this organic thing.” To put it another way, she said, Mr. Van Maanen’s home had become his canvas.

    So when the Kohler Arts Center decided to acquire his work, it did not cherry-pick a few pieces, or even a few dozen. Out of respect for the organic, accumulative and, yes, obsessive nature of the art, it acquired roughly 4,000 of Mr. Van Maanen’s objects, keeping almost everything together while clearing out the home. And it is now showing nearly 300 of them as part of its new group show, “American Story,” which runs through the end of the year.

    Acquisitions of this size are extremely rare even for large institutions, but in recent years they have become a hallmark of the Kohler. A small, off-the-beaten-path museum an hour north of Milwaukee, it has been building a reputation in the art world for exhibiting so-called outsider or self-taught art with the kind of single-minded passion and depth of vision typically associated with the artists themselves. And it has drawn particular attention, and plaudits, for collecting and preserving their large-scale installations or architectural environments.

    So far the Kohler has acquired more than two dozen installations by such artists. As Ruth DeYoung Kohler, the museum’s director, explained: “A painter like Rembrandt was making individual canvases and didn’t necessarily see them as a whole. These artists really do. Their vision is bigger than a single piece.”

    The museum’s director for 37 years, Ms. Kohler has been the driving force behind its evolving mission, to the point where some people assume it is named for her. It is not. Founded as an independent, nonprofit center for contemporary arts in 1967 by the Sheboygan Arts Council, it was named after Ms. Kohler’s paternal grandfather, John Michael Kohler, whose heirs donated his 19th-century Italianate mansion to serve as the museum building. Born in 1844, he was the founder of the Kohler Company (based nearby in the company town of Kohler, Wis.), which became, and remains, an international supplier of bathroom fixtures and one of the region’s largest employers.

    At the time the arts center was founded, Ms. Kohler was an artist living in Spain; her training is as a printmaker and educator. But her father’s failing health brought her back to Wisconsin, where she began volunteering at the fledgling museum, and in 1968 she became its assistant director. Four years later she was hired as director, despite what she describes as resistance on the part of the board “to hire a woman or anyone with the last name of Kohler.”

    If the board members worried that the museum’s connections to the Kohler family — or its money — would deepen, raising questions about its independence, they were right. The Kohler Company, run by Ms. Kohler’s older brother, Herbert, has been one of the museum’s most visible sponsors. Early on, the siblings teamed up to create a joint program that every year gives more than a dozen artists in residence access to the Kohler factory and its technology, including industrial ceramics equipment like massive tunnel kilns. (Artists also used factory machinery to decorate new bathrooms introduced with the 1999 addition to the mansion, which, with their whimsical themes, have made “best bathrooms” lists in many travel guides.) And a family foundation tends to finance the museum’s acquisitions of large-scale art environments.