A Museum Comes of Age*
Founded in a Wisconsin farmhouse, the Racine Art Museum is ready for the big time—and a building by Brininstool + Lynch
Donna Paul -- Interior Design, 8/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
In the archetypal Midwestern downtown of Racine, Wisconsin, 19th-century brick mercantile buildings line Main Street, and a Civil War monument anchors the town square. So when 10 Dale Chihuly sculptures in fiery orange-red glass appeared in the ground-level windows of the new Acrylite-paneled Racine Art Museum, some passersby stopped in their tracks. Others joked that the sight might cause an accident.
What RAM has done is raise the profile of the responsible firm, Brininstool + Lynch, while renewing the city's cultural identity. Racine hasn't attracted this level of architectural interest since Frank Lloyd Wright completed his S.C. Johnson & Son Administration Building, legendary for its 25-foot-high "lily pad" columns. That was in 1939.
RAM got its humble start two years later, in 1941, as the Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts. Founded with a bequest from Racine resident Jennie Wustum, the institution was originally little more than an empty Italianate house on a 13-acre dairy farm on the edge of town—no art collection existed. Since then, holdings have grown to 2,800 pieces, with a concentration in ceramics, fiber, glass, metal, wood, and works on paper.
A considerable amount of them were donated by Karen Johnson Boyd, daughter of longtime S.C. Johnson & Son executive Herbert F. Johnson. Boyd also played an important role in the life of architect Brad Lynch, who grew up on the same street as her Frank Lloyd Wright house. "When I used to visit Karen, I noticed the difference, even as a child," he recalls. "Rather than a gallery atmosphere, the art really lived in the space."
When the museum acquired larger premises downtown—retaining the original Wustum for educational programs—Lynch's firm stepped in. New construction, however, was not an option. Unlike so many museums in recent years, RAM just didn't have the funds. Lynch was greeted instead by an 1874 bank building and a budget of only $6.3 million to effect a 46,000-square-foot, three-story transformation. (Santiago Calatrava's dramatic Milwaukee Art Museum cost approximately $125 million.) But innovation, creativity, and passion were in large supply.
An immediately noticeable innovation was to clad the building's exterior in eye-catching modern materials. Brininstool + Lynch wrapped the top two stories in a horizontal running-bond pattern of translucent Acrylite sheets, a product commonly used for greenhouse roofs. Aluminum trusses, holding the sheets in place, throw shadows on the acrylic surface, creating the illusion of vertical breaks.
The facade's magic comes from the placement of incandescent fixtures at 8-foot intervals around the top of the building. Rather than illuminate the entire skin uniformly, the fixtures' cylindrical lenses cast an intense light near the source, the brightness diminishing to a softer glow farther down. This leads the viewer's eye to ground level—and the art inside.
The ground level's extensive glazing embodies Brininstool + Lynch's novel effort to demystify the museum as a concept. "People usually can't see into a museum when they walk by. Here, the inside's out," says RAM's director, Bruce Pepich, pointing to the street-front placement of the gift shop and a gallery.
Seduced by the shimmer of the Chihulys, visitors drawn into the double-height entry sequence find themselves immediately immersed in the collection. "If it takes 20 minutes to get to the first work, I become disenchanted," says Pepich. Here, a few seconds bring museum-goers not only to the Chihulys but also to a row of display cases opposite. The six 6-foot-high cases, placed 6 feet apart, create a rhythm that connects to the columns and wall planes that define the gallery. Each case combines a base veneered in recycled white ash with an acrylic vitrine holding ceramic and glass objects. Jewelry is displayed beyond, in 3-foot-high cases of the same material. In place of expensive stone flooring, Lynch chose poured rubber with an underlay made from recycled tires—a combination that's simultaneously tough on wear and easy on the feet.
As visitors make their way through the main first-floor gallery, the architecture keeps them visually engaged. "There are certain ways to create anticipation," explains Lynch, who oversaw the gutting of the building. "Our design not only gets people inside—it also continues to surprise them as they walk through." A 43-foot-high rear curtain wall, facing Lake Michigan, lures museum-goers deeper.
The final destinations are the first and second floors' more intimate drywall-enclosed galleries, dedicated to light-sensitive objects, textiles, and works on paper. In RAM's smallest gallery, ingeniously carved out of a hallway that leads to the passenger elevator on the second floor, butt-glazed glass cases hold the likes of Joyce Scott's leather-and-bead sculpture Black Madonna and Carol Eckert's sculptural basket Crane Vigil in cotton thread and wire—pieces so delicate that they have to be illuminated by fiber optics. The library is nearby, as is a vast double-height gallery for larger three-dimensional objects and tapestries. What's the biggest work of art in the permanent collection? Pepich replies unconditionally: "The building."
At the Brininstool + Lynch–designed Racine Art Museum in Wisconsin, Dale Chihuly glass sculptures line one side of the entrance gallery, facing display cases of ceramics and glass. Flooring is poured rubber over a recycled-tire material. Photography: Eric Laignel.
For the facade's running-bond pattern, Brininstool + Lynch used 4-foot-high Acrylite sheets in alternating lengths of 6 to 38 feet. Aluminum trusses hold the sheets in place. Photography: Christopher Barrett/Hedrich Blessing.
Adjacent to RAM's main entrance, 11-foot-high windows offer a view of the gift shop.
Incandescent fixtures, installed along the building's roofline, down-light the exterior. Photography: Eric Laignel.
Cases in a first-floor gallery have recycled-ash bases and acrylic vitrines. Photography: Eric Laignel.
Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova's glass Imprint of an Angel I.
The new staircase of rubber flooring over steel.
An aperture between two display walls in the second-floor gallery.
A collection of ceramics, including pieces by Beatrice Wood and Toshiko Takaezu.
Bruce Metcalf's copper and cherry wood Offering.
Twigs, cloth, plastic, and wire compose Gyongy Laky's Fast Road Home. Photography: Christopher Barrett/Hedrich Blessing.
John McQueen's Warning Words is composed of willow and waxed cotton string.
A glass sculpture by Robin Grebe.
An untitled McQueen piece and Margaret Ponce Israel's Seated Doll With Bunny and Chicken on Her Lap.
In the main second-floor gallery, Cook's Traces: Wonder tapestry peaks through a break in the display walls behind Loeser's Pair of Folding Chairs in Baltic birch plywood and stainless steel. Photography: Christopher Barrett/Hedrich Blessing.