Self-taught artists are known for their inventive use of found materials. Aluminum foil, cardboard, masking tape, and wire make up Emery Blagdon’s whimsical Healing Machine sculptures, while Annie Hooper used driftwood, seashells, house paint, and putty to craft figurines she arranged in elaborate tableaus throughout her North Carolina home.
The work of these and other artists forms part of the permanent collection at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s newly opened Art Preserve, the world’s first museum devoted to art environments, located just three miles away from the Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
Connected to Nature
Similar to the works themselves, the building is forged from nearby materials: river rocks, trees, and earth. Denver-based multidisciplinary firm Tres Birds designed the three-story structure to blend with the surrounding birch trees, tall grasses, deer, and wild turkeys, tucking the building into a gently sloping site and wrapping it in slanted Douglas fir panels. “The angled timbers represent a continuation of the trees that are found on the hillside,” explains architect Shawn Mather, Partner at Tres Birds.
The timber shades, which are dense and forest-like at the main entrance, continue in glazed sections of the exterior, allowing dappled light into exhibition areas, shielding the sun and also framing views of the trees, river, and meadow. “It seemed key to connect this art, much of which lived outside for years and years, back to the natural experience while keeping the pieces completely protected,” Mather explains. The museum’s concrete facade is punctuated by multicolored river stones the architects sourced locally, and the stone aggregate also figures indoors in the floors, stairs, and some of the walls. The central staircase, meanwhile, is made of concrete masonry units in varying shades.
A Commitment to Collecting
The Art Preserve, which opened in June 2021 after more than a decade in the making, houses more than 25,000 pieces from the Kohler Arts Center’s expansive collection, including partial or complete environments by more than 30 artists, and has already been featured by the likes of the The New York Times and Artnet. The ambitious project is the brainchild of the Center's longtime director, Ruth DeYoung Kohler II, who died in 2020 at the age of 79. “Ruth pioneered what has become a national and international interest in artist-built environments,” says Sam Gappmayer, the Kohler Arts Center’s current director.
It was under DeYoung Kohler’s leadership that the Center began acquiring environments in the mid 80s, with 6,000 pieces by self-taught artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, of Milwaukee, marking the starting point. As the collection grew, it became necessary to plan for additional storage; DeYoung Kohler’s “visionary twist,” Gappmayer says, was that the new facility should be open to the public.
DeYoung Kohler’s vision was a flexible space that would allow for a mix of storage and artist tableaus, giving visitors a sense of the scope and range of work, as well as the conservation challenges inherent in preserving objects made with nontraditional art materials. In addition to galleries, the 56,000-square-foot building includes an education area, a library, and visible storage, its meandering floor plan encouraging wandering and discovery. “The floor plan has almost no right angles,” Gappmayer notes. “It aligns very nicely with our desire to have the building blend with and be a part of the meadow setting — much like an artist’s environment.”
Environmentally Conscious Design
By blending into this meadow setting, the building also takes advantage of the earth’s heat, increasing energy efficiency. To mitigate Wisconsin’s extreme climate, Tres Birds worked closely with engineering firm Arup on a high-performance building envelope and mechanical systems. An energy recovery wheel, free-cooling chillers, and an adiabatic humidifier minimize fluctuations in temperature and humidity.
“Museums tend to be buildings with heavy energy usage,” says Cory Abramowicz, Senior Mechanical Engineer in Arup’s Chicago office. “We approached the design by prioritizing energy efficiency without compromising on the tight controls needed for an ASHRAE Class-A museum.”
Arup also consulted on the acoustics and lighting design, incorporating wireless Bluetooth controls and motion sensors throughout the galleries. The sensors are programmed to slowly raise lighting levels when visitors enter an area and then return to sleep mode when the space is unoccupied, restoring the museum to its unlit, natural state.
A focus on natural states continues outdoors, where the grounds are planted with native birch, hawthorn and spruce trees, as well as coneflowers, little bluestems, and tufted hairgrass, part of a low-maintenance ethos championed by landscape designer Michael Beeck of Otter Creek Landscape. “The artists work with the environment around them, and we stuck with that theme,” he says.
Beeck placed larger, sculptural river rocks at the building’s entrance and planted Boston ivy on the tall east-facing facade to soften the building’s shell. Working with the site’s constraints, he seeded drought-resistant wildflowers on the shallow hillside and planted rain gardens on the building’s perimeter. Though the pandemic delayed the museum’s opening by almost a year, one unexpected consequence, Beeck says, is that bereft of foot traffic, the wildflowers have already started to mature and take hold.