From 'Between the Lakes,' Siah Armajani's 'Emerson Parlor.'
When the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) throws open its doors on April 23, marking the end of phase-two construction of the Overture Center, visitors will no doubt discover their favorite spots. Art purists will enjoy the vastly expanded galleries. Latte sippers will gravitate to the sunny, urbane rooftop sculpture garden and café. Architecture buffs will pick the dramatic, four-story glass prow jutting out at the intersection of State and North Henry streets. But for MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman, the best feature in the sprawling new museum just might be the freight elevator. Yes, the freight elevator. While this dowdy mechanical detail might seem trivial, it typifies the way in which MMoCA's new facility supports the museum's work like never before. MMoCA's previous incarnation in the Madison Civic Center not only lacked a freight elevator, it didn't even have a loading dock. Now it will have the city's largest elevator and a dock big enough for an art-laden semi to pull up. Over the organization's 105-year history, through name and location changes, it has never had a home designed expressly for the needs of an art museum. While most visitors will be unaware of such unglamorous, behind-the-scenes improvements, these details will help MMoCA mount exhibitions and educational programs in ways that were previously impossible. If you think you knew the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in its Civic Center home, it's time to get reacquainted. Form follows function MMoCA's last exhibitions ' not counting special off-site projects ' closed in January 2004. Phase one of the Overture Center opened in September of that year. With interior spaces like the stunning Overture Hall grabbing most of the attention, it became easy for the public to think of the Overture Center largely as a performing-arts complex. Although the James Watrous Gallery, a phase-one resident, has cultivated a growing audience with excellent exhibitions on Overture's third floor, it is MMoCA's opening that will truly prove that Overture is equally devoted to the visual arts. In fact, Overture donor W. Jerome Frautschi is a former MMoCA board member and a longtime friend of the museum. MMoCA's opening may also win over skeptics who have found architect Cesar Pelli's design for phase one of the Overture Center uninspired or too monolithic. With a variety of features that make MMoCA more functional and pleasant for both museum-goers and staff, the design reveals Pelli's diligent attentiveness to function. And day-to-day function is the true measure of a building's success. "Pelli and Associates are really passionate about the details," observes Fleischman. But beyond that, he says, "[The new museum] is in the scale of State Street, and its goal is to highlight the art, not be a self-referential building." Chief among the improvements are greatly enlarged galleries; three distinct spaces will meet varied purposes. The 3,000-square-foot State Street Gallery, with its large plate-glass window, recalls the department stores that once occupied the block. It also piques the interest of passers-by as they look into the gallery. Given this arrangement, it's no spot for small, delicate works on paper, but rather pieces that are eye-popping enough to attract attention from the street. The smaller Henry Street Gallery, at 1,055 square feet, is a triangular space that will highlight works from MMoCA's permanent collection of nearly 5,000 artworks. The Main Galleries, on the second floor, encompass over 8,000 square feet and have soaring 18-foot ceilings. This will be the spot for the museum's major exhibitions. Clerestory windows let in natural light and offer a nostalgic glimpse of the Orpheum marquee across the street. Movable walls make the spot suitable for a variety of shows. Other new spaces include a 230-seat lecture hall, a children's classroom, a study center for works on paper, upgraded art storage and an intimate New Media gallery for artists' videos and other electronic artworks. Throughout the museum, judicious splashes of MMoCA's signature tomato red offset expanses of light wood, such as maple flooring in the Main Galleries and bamboo in the rooftop restaurant. Understated elegance is the key here; the materials may be sumptuous, but they don't compete with the art. A really big show Come April 23, the Main Galleries will be the site of "Between the Lakes: Artists Respond to Madison." While the show's title may suggest something homegrown, even folksy, the roster of artists involved reveals MMoCA's ambitions. Six commissioned works of art by seven artists will span painting, film, photography and sculpture. While two are nationally known Madisonians ' Nancy Mladenoff and Truman Lowe, collaborating here with Donna House ' the others bring an outsider's perspective. Perhaps the biggest name is Tehran-born, Twin Cities-based artist Siah Armajani. (If you've been to Minneapolis, you've probably seen his Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge connecting the Walker Art Center and Loring Park.) Armajani's piece in "Between the Lakes" is called "Emerson's Parlor." Says curator of exhibitions Jane Simon, "It addresses issues of accessibility, transparency and the potential of architecture to convey ideas and emotions. In addition, the piece includes several clues about exile, which is a theme Armajani addresses frequently in his art." Other artists participating in "Between the Lakes" are Matthew Buckingham, artist-in-residence at the UW's Arts Institute this spring; Lee Mingwei; and Alec Soth. Soth pays homage to Madison's progressive heritage with arresting, large-scale photographs of Lothlorien Co-op and its residents. While some might expect an exhibition about Madison to involve only regional artists, Fleischman and Simon felt such an approach would not fully explore the theme. Says Fleischman, "Jane and I thought it would be interesting to get artists outside of Madison involved. After all, as a city, you aren't just what you say you are ' you're also defined by what other people take note of about you. These artists can show you a perspective you never really considered. And that's what is interesting about art anyway." "Between the Lakes" will be accompanied by MMoCA's first-ever audio tour for an exhibition. It will include commentary from the artists, Fleischman and others. An exhibition catalog with essays by Fleischman and Simon will be available in May. Concurrent exhibitions will be "At Home: Recent Acquisitions" and "Modern Art/Contemporary Art/MMoCA Collects," an exhibition that dovetails with the museum's educational Web site spotlighting 30 works from its permanent collection. The grand opening will be greeted by suitable fanfare: The museum has planned a 13-day blowout (April 23-May 5) dubbed "MMoCA Inside Out." The schedule is admirably daunting, with tours of the building, lectures, kids' events and even tai chi in the sculpture garden. (Visit mmoca.org for a complete schedule.) "Between the Lakes: Artists Respond to Madison" runs through July 16. It is followed in the Main Galleries by "Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration" (July 30-Oct. 8), a traveling exhibition making its only Midwest stop. Close is followed by another modern master, Sol LeWitt, in "LeWitt x 2" (Oct. 29-Jan. 14). In addition to 46 works by LeWitt himself, 103 works from the personal collection of LeWitt and his wife will be on display, including pieces by Donald Judd, Eva Hesse and Jenny Holzer. The latest incarnation While many things at MMoCA have changed, one perk remains the same: Admission is still free. You'll have more chances to enjoy that free admission thanks to expanded hours; the museum will now be open until 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. While charging admission is a notion that crops up occasionally, it seems unlikely to happen. "We like the model of a public library, where you can stop in even if it's just for 10 minutes," says Fleischman. "There are a lot of barriers to contemporary art ' people sometimes are afraid they won't have the right response to it ' and so it's really wonderful to be free of charge. It encourages people to stop in, use their eyes and become comfortable with what we're doing." Touring the construction site scarcely more than three weeks before the museum's opening, with workers active throughout the building and the glass staircase unfinished, Fleischman is affable and relaxed. He has no worries that the museum won't be done on time. "If I can sleep at night, other people should be able to," he laughs. Fleischman is also confident that visitors will like what they see. "I think people will be surprised. They've seen the glass prow, but, beyond that, they don't really know what to expect." With such a massive construction project finally coming to a close, it can be easy to focus on the newness of it all, to paint MMoCA's debut in Overture as a wholesale reinvention. But that is fundamentally a mistake; MMoCA circa 2006 is the latest incarnation of an organization that was born at the turn of the last century. Says Fleischman, "Evolution is really the word. This place started off in 1901 [as the Madison Art Association] on the third floor of the State Historical Society with a group of people who cared passionately about the community." The next 63 years were peripatetic, with events staged in a variety of local venues until space at the old Lincoln School on Lake Mendota was leased in 1964. The museum moved to the new Madison Civic Center in 1980. "And now, here we are, occupying the first building designed specifically for the museum's mission." Says Randall Berndt, co-director of the James Watrous Gallery, "I think the general impression will be that there has been an 'upping of the ante' in the visual arts world here in Madison and, by ripples, out into the state. The enlargement of the Chazen Museum will also add to that effect. I hope that the visual arts will play a more prominent role in our community's consciousness, where it often seems the performing arts get more attention." Martha Glowacki, Berndt's gallery co-director, observes, "I feel very fortunate that we have so many places to view visual art in Madison, and that most of these venues are located within easy walking distance of one another. MMoCA is poised to become a major regional museum for contemporary art. MMoCA's mission complements the broader range of exhibition programming at the Chazen as well as exhibitions of Wisconsin art here at the James Watrous Gallery." She adds, "I know that arts viewers have really missed MMoCA during the last two years." Fleischman is thrilled about the reopening, but he hasn't lost his sense of perspective. "Getting the opportunity to start fresh and build a building specifically for a museum is something I never could have pictured. But we're building on our track record and the educational programs we've already established. Now we can execute those programs to the fullest extent possible. This museum is such a reflection of the community it's in. I don't want to downplay the momentousness [of the new Overture facility], but without our past, this moment wouldn't be possible."