Wisconsin Arts: Eclectic Soho in Racine

By Marisa Keller

Go for the art. Shop the Museum store for unique gifts. Make a day of it in this tiny Soho-esque portion of Racine. But don’t miss the Art Museum. You can’t—even from a distance, it’s a dramatic architectural work of art.

Tucked away between major art players Milwaukee and Chicago, the Racine Art Museum (RAM) is not only a sight to see, it is a genuine destination - surrounded by restaurants, bars, shops, galleries, and an urban beat reminiscent of Soho in New York—only smaller, and with cheaper parking.

In fact, a day at RAM will cost you just $5, much less than a plane ticket and taxi ride to New York.

Art and Light Entwine

Sleek and modern, with translucent, opaque and iridescent architecture, RAM is anything but a secret. What is best kept is its artistic treasures—a collection that focuses on ceramics, fibers, glass, metals, and wood from nationally and internationally recognized artists in the craft movement.

Gazing at its high tech exterior, visitors can only suppose at its colorful past. The old building, now new, has been through plenty of wardrobe changes. Two old mercantile buildings were renovated seven times before the Museum took over to transform its fate forever.

RAM is located two blocks from Lake Michigan and takes full advantage of the setting. The east side of the building was opened up to incorporate natural lake views. To create the illusion of transparency, the front of the building was also completely opened allowing passers by to look all the way through. A large display window out front features contemporary artists who work in clay, metal and glass, a further invitation to come inside.

“It’s like the old Marshall Fields at Christmas,” said Bruce Pepich, executive director, Racine Art Museum. “These artists are given the space to create within for one year.”

As if these features weren’t enough to make the museum stand out, the architects chose to make the building glow. They wrapped the exterior in translucent acrylic panels that lay separate from the surface allowing light to illuminate the exterior from the sun during the day. At night, the building glows until about 10 p.m., then it’s lights out. (later when there’s a party).

Not Your Grandmother’s Crafts

Wait a minute. Crafts? Well not in the sense that may come top of mind unless you are an aficionado. These are the Picasso’s and Rembrandt’s of the craft world, according to Pepich. Contemporary crafts at RAM feature works that are functional like bowls or teapots, and sculptural, including large dramatic pieces.

“What they have in common are the materials used to make them,” said Pepich. “These works are used for an aesthetic purpose to make a statement about the materials or an aesthetic idea.”

The works at RAM reflect artists who create meaningful artistic statements in craft media, positioning the genre squarely in the realm of fine art—no distinction is made between the two at RAM. Beginning with some 300 pieces of art from the Wustum Museum in the 1930s, today’s collection is impressive with some 3,000 works in ceramics, fibers, glass, metals and wood.

RAM now possesses one of the largest collections of contemporary crafts of any North American museum including the largest collection of contemporary teapots and artist made jewelry. Artists like Dale Chihuly, Joel Philip Myers, Wendell Castle, George Nakashima, Gertrud and Otto Natzler, Peter Voulkos, Lia Cook, Sheila Hicks, Arline Fisch and Albert Paley are featured and traveling exhibitions change year around.

Pearls of History

RAM and the original museum, the Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts, have such an incredible history that its evolution alone reads like an epic novel. The Wustum Museum opened in 1941 one month before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, saw the fruition of its recognized collection, and migrated to downtown—all incredible tales within the history of art and the city of Racine.

“The Wustum homestead was a dairy farm on 13 acres that Jennie Wustum left to the city in memory of her husband Charles to create an art museum,” said Pepich. “Decades later, with the generosity of Sam Johnson beneath its translucent wings, RAM opened its doors in 2003.”

Today Jennie Wustum’s vision lay incarnate. RAM is an outgrowth of that vision – a veritable architectural beacon in the heart of downtown Racine. Her vision was to create a place that would memorialize her late husband and uplift the community for years to come. She did so without knowing—Wustum and RAM have been instrumental to the revitalization of the area.

Ready for more fine art? Check out this visual arts tour of Wisconsin's east coast!