A Visual Arts Tour of Wisconsin's East Coast

From sophisticated cities to quaint fishing villages, the Wisconsin harbor towns dotting the state's 1,100 miles of scenic Lake Michigan coastline promise a visual art adventure.

This four-day itinerary offers museums that specialize in folk and decorative arts, internationally acclaimed traveling exhibits and a glimpse into the studios of working artists. In addition to touring art exhibits, Wisconsin's coastal harbor towns offer a variety of outdoor recreation, shopping and dining, and plenty of relaxing scenery.

Many of these coastal communities have experienced their own sort of renaissance with the development and expansion of cultural attractions, state-of-the-art harbors and downtown revitalization. Whether you follow all four days of the tour or create your own itinerary, a world-class arts tour awaits.

Day One: Racine and Milwaukee  

Racine Art Museum

The East Coast Arts tour starts at the Racine Art Museum, Wisconsin's newest. The Racine Art Museum hosts permanent and traveling exhibits of regional and national importance by internationally recognized artists specializing in ceramics, fiber arts, glass, metals, wood, painting and sculpture. The museum's permanent collections total more than 3,000 works, including 1,600 pieces in a major craft media collection dating from the 1960s to the present. Permanent holdings also include works on paper, including more than 300 individual pieces and portfolios by artists who worked in Wisconsin and New York City under the Federal Art Project during the 1930s.

Niemi Sculpture Gallery

Art enthusiasts with an interest in sculpture should make the short drive to nearby Kenosha to visit the Niemi Sculpture Gallery, situated on a picturesque 20-acre parcel with a variety of trees, a pond and pleasant wood-chip paths. Thirty artists from throughout the United States are represented, in a variety of style and media. Tours are by appointment only.

A short drive north to Wisconsin's largest city on the lake opens the door to a multitude of visual art museums that could take visitors an entire week to explore.

Milwaukee Art Museum

Visitors will want to start with the Milwaukee Art Museum, where the Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion received the 2001 Time magazine "Design of the Year" award. In addition to the Pavilion, which features the wing-like Burke Brise Soleil, a moving sunscreen that can be raised and lowered, the museum's permanent collections of American decorative arts, German Expressionism, folk and Haitian art have all received national acclaim.

Historic Third Ward

The next stop is a walking tour of the Historic Third Ward District, which has become a hub for artistic activity and exhibits within Milwaukee. It is currently home to the highest concentration of art galleries in the city, numerous antique shops, restaurants, unique specialty stores and performing arts centers. Nearby, the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design features changing exhibits from students as well as established artists in the Layton Gallery.

Milwaukee offers a wide array of lodging accommodations, restaurants, and nightlife. Catch a performance at one of Milwaukee's many theaters or take a stroll along the RiverWalk after dinner at one of the city's many renowned ethnic restaurants.

Day Two: Milwaukee, West Bend and Cedarburg

Charles Allis Art Museum and Villa Terrace

Before leaving the Milwaukee area, art enthusiasts should make a stop at the Charles Allis Art Museum and the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum. The Charles Allis Museum, housed in a Tudor-style mansion, features paintings, prints, sculpture and ceramics. Villa Terrace, designed in the style of a 16th century northern Italian villa, features furnishings and art from the 15th to 18th centuries. Major exhibits include the Colnik Collection of metal works. Its recently restored Renaissance Gardens is also a must-see.

Haggerty Museum of Art

Another visual arts stop in the Milwaukee area is the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University. Located in downtown Milwaukee, this gallery boasts an impressive collection of art reflecting a variety of artistic media blending the modern and the classic.

West Bend Art Museum

Art aficionados with an interest in Wisconsin art should take the short drive north of Milwaukee to the West Bend Art Museum. The permanent collection contains over 350 works from the late 19th century artist Carl von Marr, dating from his early childhood days in Milwaukee to the pinnacle of his career during the early 20th century in Germany.

Cedarburg Cultural Center and Cedarburg Art Museum

Finish day two in the historic town of Cedarburg, where a visit to the Cedarburg Cultural Center yields ever-changing exhibits, studio tours, gallery walks, fine arts and workshops for adults and children. The Cedarburg Art Museum, housed in a historic home, features fine art exhibits and events throughout the year. 

Overnight accommodations in Cedarburg include quaint and romantic B&Bs, while the historic downtown offers restaurants, antique shops and specialty stores. Or take a leisurely afternoon drive up the coast of scenic Lake Michigan to Kohler for a stay at the American Club, the Midwest's only five-diamond resort hotel. Here, travelers can relax and renew at the Kohler Waters Spa or play a round of golf on the nationally renowned Whistling Straits course.

Day Three: Kohler and Manitowoc

John Michael Kohler Arts Center

The first stop of the day is the 35-year-old nationally acclaimed John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan. The Kohler Arts Center has a permanent collection comprising the preserved works from the art environments of self-taught, folk, and vernacular artists, from Wisconsin to India; works by artists employed in the Kohler Co. factory through the center's renowned arts and industry program; and contemporary and historical Hmong art-story cloths, costumes, musical instruments and jewelry -- one of the most significant public collections of its kind in the nation. Additionally, the arts center rotates its 10 galleries year-round with exhibitions featuring contemporary sculpture, photography, crafts, installation art and more.

After a tour, take a scenic drive along the lakeshore on Highway LS and be sure to include a stop at Fischer Creek State Recreation Area for a picnic lunch. After lunch, a detour to Wisconsin's Maritime Capitol is in order.

Rahr-West Art Museum

Here, Manitowoc's art scene uncovers the Rahr-West Art Museum, a gracious 1891 Victorian mansion showcasing 19th century paintings by Bouguereau and Paxton, Boehm porcelains, Chinese ivory carvings and international antique dolls. A modern wing rotates temporary exhibits and a collection featuring O'Keefe, Jenkins, Picasso, Miro and Chagall, to name just a few.

Rudy Rotter Museum of Sculpture

Another stop in Manitowoc is the Rudy Rotter Museum of Sculpture. Fourteen-thousand pieces of rare wood, stone and bone carvings, ceramics and plaster, metal casting, mixed media constructions and other pieces of sculpted art created by self-taught artist Rudy Rotter are on display. Rotter has been called the most prolific artist in Wisconsin history, creating an estimated 16,000 works of art over a 45-year period. His artistic output is considered remarkable in that he had no formal art training.

Overnight in Manitowoc or take Highway 42 north to Two Rivers, Kewaunee/Algoma or Door County, where cozy inns and bed and breakfasts abound, many offering amenities such as whirlpool tubs, in-room fireplaces and gourmet breakfasts. Quaint cottages and luxurious resorts and condos are also plentiful.

Day Four: Door County

Graced with more miles of picturesque shoreline than any other county in the United States, Door County is often described as "the Cape Cod of the Midwest." Nearly 100 galleries and studios showcase the works of local artists, inspired by their scenic surroundings. Since many artists live and work in Door County, visitors may catch a glimpse of potters, sculptors, weavers, painters, wood carvers or jewelry makers practicing their crafts. A myriad of shops carry home accessories, antiques, clothing, jewelry and other gift items.

Miller Art Museum

Seven changing exhibits, a stunning permanent collection of Wisconsin art and a wing of Gerhard Miller paintings are on view at the Miller Art Museum also in Sturgeon Bay.

Visit the Door County Arts Web site for a complete list of member galleries, museums and performing arts venues.

Peninsula Art School

Inspired after exploring Wisconsin's arts venues? Why not take an art class or workshop during your stay in Door County? The Peninsula Art School in Fish Creek features exceptional art instruction by many of the region’s top painters, potters, jewelers, photographers and other artists. One- to five-day workshops are open year-round to artists of all ages and levels. Explore the school's sculpture garden, relax in the gazebo, or check out the latest exhibit in the Guenzel Gallery.

Hands on Art Studio

At Hands On Art Studio, the entire family can create their own unique artwork, from painted ceramics, glass, metal and wood to jewelry, t-shirts, fused glass, mosaics and clay hand building. Projects can be ready for pick-up the next day and shipping is also available.

With miles of beaches and trails plus five state parks, the Door County peninsula is a first-rate choice for outdoor recreation such as camping, hiking, biking and horseback riding. Dining establishments include fine restaurants that serve a variety of cuisine, often featuring fresh, locally produced foods. Or partake in a true local culinary experience, the traditional Door County fish boil.

Ready for more amazing sights? Check out these man-made woners of southeast and northeast Wisconsin!