The Art Lofts: from Warehouse to Arthouse
As a place where faculty and student artists can create and share their work, the Art Lofts works.
Lofty aspirations had surrounded the conversion of the former University warehouse in the shadow of the Kohl Center into modern studios and instructional space for UW-Madison’s Art Department.
Proponents of the project envisioned a place that would pull together scattered pieces of the Department into a single, state-of-the-art facility.
What had been a dark, non-descript warehouse would become the home for a creative community, and a place where developing artists could display their works for peers and the general public.
Graduate art students and faculty moved in to their new quarters last January. In May, the Art Department, the campus and general arts community celebrated the opening in grand fashion, including a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton and UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin. Painting Professor Carol Pylant cut the one-of-a-kind ribbon supplied by Fred Stonehouse and his art students.
Visitors from the campus community and general public toured the spacious studios, now occupied by about 60 faculty and graduate students. They saw contemporary facilities for ceramics, papermaking and photography. They viewed art on exhibit in the central performance lab.
The Art Lofts, marked by its iconic red towers, had arrived.
Each fall, the Department’s graduate students open their studios for faculty and their peers. In the past, this has been an internal event, because so many of the workspaces had been in locations unsuited for public traffic.
The Art Lofts has changed that. With studios now clustered in two locations – the Lofts and the top two floors of the Humanities Building – the annual event could now become a public celebration. The studios in Humanities were open the first day, and the Art Lofts hosted the second day.
For this event, the Art Lofts again teemed with activity. In addition to the open studios, the gallery featured a show by first-year graduate students.
Between greeting visitors to their studios, many of the graduate students hung out with their neighbors, while others worked on projects.
“This is my second home,” said Kathryn Petke, a third-year student in mixed media. “I love the natural light.”
Petke’s first campus studio was in a caged area of the former Public Safety Building on Randall Avenue. The Lofts’ skylights allow in plenty of natural light.
She loves the sense of community that permeates the Art Lofts, and enjoys the ease of being able to see her peers at work.
“It’s nice when there are more people around,” said Andrea Brdek, a third-year photography student. Brdek, who previously had a studio in Sterling Hall, appreciates now having more space and access to the new digital labs and darkroom. Her M.F.A. show is scheduled for April in the Art Lofts.
The Art Lofts played a significant role in Gabriel Mejia’s choice to attend UW-Madison. Mejia, a first-year student, came here after teaching high school art for 10 years in California and at Jones College Prep in Chicago, his hometown.
He likes having a spacious studio with great light that he can access at almost any time. He also says having so many other students and faculty close at hand makes it easier to get feedback.
Initially, he is concentrating on painting, but also wants to branch into printmaking and video.
“I really want to utilize this place the best I can,” he said.
A New Art Building – This Time, It’s For Real
One (hard to find) elevator. No loading dock. Sculpture shop on the top floor.
Windows near the ceiling. Windows at the floor. Rooftop patios barred from use.
Ventilation? Not much. Studios? Not enough - pick a dilapidated house or storefront.
UW-Madison planners have targeted Humanities for demolition, but haven’t put a timeline on it. The building’s occupants first must find a new home – something that the Art Department has been seeking for decades.
More than 30 years ago, the Art Department chair gave an extensive pitch to university and state leaders to fund a new art building.
The case was sound: the Department’s scattered facilities, unsuited for studio art instruction, were woefully inadequate for a program of its renown.
But the Department hadn’t identified a site for a new building, so the plea fell on deaf ears.
Twenty years ago, leaders in the department and the School of Education – which houses the department – brought forward a new site proposal, but support for the arts had waned at the State Capitol.
The faculty nearly lost hope of ever securing a single, contemporary home for Art.
Until this year.
The formation of an energetic alumni advisory board, state leaders who support the arts, a site for a new art building designated by campus planners, and the opening of the Art Lofts has faculty starting to imagine that possibility.
“This is the first time that we’ve had broad support on several levels for a new art building – the Dean’s office, the Art Board of Visitors, foundation staff and the Art Department have together generated an enthusiastic attitude for our future,” said Sculpture Professor Truman Lowe.
The School of Education, on the Art Department’s behalf, entered into an agreement with three UW units on a student capstone project to undertake preliminary scoping, budgeting and design for a new Art Academic Building.
The School has partnered with faculty and advanced students from the UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning, the UW-Madison Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Department of Landscape Architecture.
Led by campus facility planners with input from Art faculty and assistance from School of Education staff, the year-long project is now more than halfway completed.
The idea behind this project is three-fold – it allows campus facility planners to move forward with the preliminary design work necessary to present the proposed Art Building to the Campus Planning Committee, costs much less than the standard practice of hiring an architectural and engineering firm, and provides students with real world experience.
The Art Department designated $40,000 in gift funds for the project, which includes:
• Student presentations to the Campus Planning Committee, Art Department faculty, and Art Department and School of Education alumni advisory boards
• Renderings of proposed design options
• A booklet containing program and design options
• A scaled model of a selected design option
• A cost estimate for the proposed building
Architecture, landscape and engineering students toured the Art Department’s facilities, interviewed faculty and students, collected physical and programmatic information about the department and its needs, crafted models and presented preliminary design options to small groups of faculty, staff and alumni.
The next step in planning for an Art building is to identify key donors for the project.
In times of decreased public funding for higher education, the State no longer foots the entire bill for new buildings as it once did. Therefore, the Department and the School have set a fundraising goal of $25 million in private donations for construction and enhanced programming.
Entering the initial fundraising stage is much further than the Department has ever gotten in several decades of efforts to rally support for a new building.
Graphics Professor Jim Escalante laughed as he recalled a colleague’s comments after being appointed to serve on a departmental committee to work on a new building proposal in 1991.
“My colleague said, ‘You know why you were appointed to the committee don't you?’ I realized where he was going with his question, when he said ‘Being one of the younger faculty members, you are likely to be the only one to be here when it actually gets built,’” Escalante said. “You have to have a sense of humor when you deal with new campus projects.”
Escalante witnessed this reality again in the mid 1990s when former College of Letters and Science Dean Phil Certain made a presentation to the Campus Building Committee for a Chemistry building project. Escalante was impressed with Certain’s knowledge of the project during the question-and-answer session.
“I said to him that I was very impressed – I had no idea that the Dean of Letters and Science was able to grasp so much detail for a project. After all, L&S is huge and I thought for sure he had plenty of other things to occupy his time,” Escalante recalled. “He smiled at me and said, ‘I am very familiar with the Chemistry Building addition because I have been working on it since I was a young faculty member.’”
It is common to see building projects take a long time, Escalante said.
“Now that we occupy the Art Lofts, we have a taste of what a new facility can be and we are very energized to begin the process,” Escalante said. “Hopefully this time, it is for real.”
More Professors' Testimonials
“5-6 years from now, technology will be more seamlessly integrated into our teaching methodologies. All of these changes will require new ways of thinking about what buildings and classrooms are and how they will function. The new art building will need to be a flexible enough structure to accommodate these and other unanticipated changes. Most importantly, the new art building will be a place where people will want to be, and expect to go to for unique learning experiences.” – Graphics Professor Michael Connors
“The faculty of the Art Department is thrilled at the prospect of finally being able to consolidate all of our campus undergraduate classrooms, studios and graduate studios in one location. We look forward with great anticipation to seeing our dreams and goals become reality as we eagerly plan for a new building. The current planning stage for the new art building gives us the opportunity to reevaluate our curriculum, facilities and priorities for the future so that we can continue to be one of the top interdisciplinary art programs in the country.” – 2D Professor Carol Pylant
“A new building will, for the first time in the history of the Department, bring all of the different areas together into one cohesive unit. A new building will challenge the faculty to think of how it can impact learning, art making, foster the exchange of ideas and cross-disciplinary research. This is a window of opportunity to shape our destiny for the next 40-50 years.” – Art Ed Professor Doug Marschalek