The Madison Public Library recently received a major gift: 23 works by "Wisconsin's first couple of painting," Schomer Lichtner and Ruth Grotenrath.
"It came as a complete surprise from the Kohler Foundation," says Trent Miller, central library gallery director. "They were really great artists, and really well respected in the state."
Lichtner was best known for his whimsical paintings of cows and ballerinas. Grotenrath usually painted still lifes. The Milwaukee husband-and-wife team began as muralists for the Works Projects Administration in the 1930s. Their work has been exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Milwaukee Art Museum.
"It would be hard to look at these works and not feel a proud appreciation of Wisconsin's rich and bright landscapes, strong cultural values and collective sense of humor," says Karin Wolf, administrator for the Madison Arts Commission.
Lichtner died in 2006 at age 101. Grotenrath died in 1988. The Kohler Foundation was bequeathed the couple's art and has been placing it at various state institutions.
The foundation first contacted Wolf in 2008 about possibly making a gift to Madison. She and Jane Roughen, library community services manager, selected the works, whose value has not been appraised. The arts commission paid $2,373 to have them framed.
The Central Library already serves as a gallery for others, but it has few works of art itself. "Something here, something there," as Miller puts it.
Besides the Aaron Bohrod mural in the children's department, the Central Library has a handful of other artworks. One is Wildflower, a bronze by Edward Berge, a student of Rodin's. It was donated in 1917. It was so beloved for generations that, when the current building was planned, one possible design had Wildflower as the center point of a garden, around which the rest of the library was to be built.
The library has no immediate plans to acquire additional art. "It's definitely kind of a new thing," says Miller. "In this case, it was just such an amazing opportunity that we couldn't pass it up."
Says Wolf, "I think the Lichtner and Grotenrath collection will provide library patrons with great joy and amusement for decades to come. Hopefully the paintings will also stimulate curiosity about Wisconsin's cultural legacy."
The collection will be distributed to the library's branches.