Wausau’s Woodson Museum: Not Just for the Birds

This is one museum you can’t get tired of.

With just a small space devoted to its permanent collection (a small but stunning display of Chihuly, Lalique, and Steuben studio glass), the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau features ever-changing exhibits, so there’s something new every few months, from Victorian needlework to Russian icons, from Egyptian objects to William Wegman photographs.

Tucked into a residential neighborhood on Wausau’s east side, the museum offers a full range of art and activities in a graciously remodeled space. The Woodson is probably best known for its annual Birds in Art exhibit, held from September through early November. The show draws about 1,000 entries a year from artists around the world. About 100 works are chosen for display—and for reproduction in the full-color catalog. Since it was initiated in 1976, Birds in Art has shown the work of about 800 artists.

The museum forges its own identity by seeking the nexus of art and nature, subjects close to the hearts of the Woodsons and Yawkeys, the founding families who were prominent in the city’s business and philanthropic spheres.

In 1973, the Woodson family home and its four acres of land were donated to the city as a free art museum. The 1931 English Tudor home retains its Cotswold-style charm, though it’s been expanded several times. The interior has been renovated to provide a sleek, unobtrusive backdrop to the artworks.
When the museum opened in 1976, the permanent collection galleries showcased decorative arts, including a complete set of 99 Royal Worcester bird and floral porcelains once owned by Leigh Yawkey Woodson. Now that the collection has grown to more than 3,500 items, the museum hasn’t lost sight of its goal to focus on art inspired by nature.

Weather permitting, visitors can stroll the 4 acres of grounds along brick walkways and admire the Margaret Woodson Fisher Sculpture Gallery. The grounds also sport a formal English garden and shaded arbor with seating.

If this all sounds terribly adult, think again. Museum curators go to great lengths to appeal to children. Major exhibits offer activity guides aimed at helping young people as well as adults engage with the art. Younger children can putter happily in the Art Park, play a bird-themed version of Battleship, or draw at an easel. A color-mixing activity shows children how primary colors mix to make the colors of the rainbow. Kids can also re-create artworks found in the museum’s collection with large, magnetic wall-mounted puzzles.

With its connection to nature, ever-changing exhibits, and family-friendly facilities, the Woodson Art Museum is more than another art museum. It’s a place where children and adults can appreciate how art enhances life.

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