In a city already known for memorable architecturesuch as Frank Lloyd Wright's famed SC Johnson Wax Administration BuildingRacine, Wis., has added a new star to the map.
The Racine Art Museum (RAM), which opened in May 2003, provides an award-winning home for one of the country's best collections of fine craft. The building is a reworking of two much older structures, and the results appeal to the eye without overshadowing the art housed within.
The original structures date to the 19th century and, over the years, housed a dry goods store, bank and other businesses. In the 1960s, all ornamentation was removed and the building was clad in smooth limestone panels, giving it a massive, cube-like quality. Because it would have been too expensive to remove the limestone cladding, architects at the Chicago firm of Brininstool + Lynch devised an ingenious solution to give new life to the bland facade. They sheathed the building in translucent acrylic panels that are held away from the building by a custom-built structure. The panels create varying effects, becoming more translucent or more opaque depending on the quality of the day's light. At night, the panels are lit from behind, making the building appear to glow.
The firm of Brininstool + Lynch also found other ways to engage visitors even before they enter the building. Echoing the block's previous life as a department store, a display window along one side of the building provides space for small exhibitions of artworks that won't be damaged by exposure to daylight. Art viewing becomes an everyday experience, with downtown passersby getting a tantalizing glimpse of the larger collection inside.
In the interior, the architects have created a serene, comfortable space for art viewing that provides numerous glimpses of nearby Lake Michigan. The museum's focus is fine craft, including ceramics, glass, fiber, wood and metal. Currently, while the first floor gallery is devoted to works from RAM's permanent collection, the second floor showcases a series of temporary exhibitions. The facility also houses an art library and a gift shop.
Through Sept. 5, 2004, visitors can view "Drawing Out the Collection: John McQueen Responds to RAM." The show is part of a series that invites artists to organize exhibitions combining past works of their own, new pieces and works by other artists in the RAM collection.
For his exhibition, fiber artist McQueen chose six of his own baskets and 29 baskets from 25 other artists in RAM's collection. He also completed a major new installation piece. RAM executive director Bruce Pepich enjoys this approach to exhibition curating because the invited artists often select different works or arrange them in different constellations than would he or RAM's exhibition director, Davira Taragin. The invited artists put a fresh spin on things by drawing out different visual relationships.
RAM has a sister museum in the Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts; together, the two form the Racine Art Museum Association and share an art collection. Yet while the downtown RAM campus focuses on contemporary craft and nationally and internationally known artists, the Wustum campus is home to local and regional exhibitions as well as a busy schedule of art classes for all ages and skill levels.
Together, the two institutions provide a wealth of options for Racine, a medium-sized community of about 85,000, and the region. The new RAM building and its collection are also attracting attention on a much wider scale, including articles in the Chicago Tribune, Interior Design, American Craft, Condé Nast Traveler and other publications. According to fall 2003 surveys, 27% of RAM's visitors come from Chicago and northern Illinois, and another 13% from states outside of Illinois and Wisconsin.
The benefits of RAM have not just been aesthetic or educational, however. The museum is also serving as a key ingredient in the revitalization of downtown Racine. It is the first project built as part of a larger plan commissioned by the Downtown Racine Corporation. The plan won an award from the American Institute of Architects. Pepich notes that RAM anchors about three blocks of downtown retail space, creating a destination that brings visitors downtown and keeps them there.
"It's not what I expected" is a statement Pepich sometimes hears from first-time visitors to RAM. And that should be taken as a complimentthe RAM building and its top-notch collection are a jolt of creative energy that would stand out even in a much larger city. Art and architecture should stimulate minds and enlarge viewers' expectations, not merely confirm them, and by that measure RAM is a success.