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Tearing Down Art to Spare Republican Snowflakes’ Feelings?

In advance of the 2024 RNC, a Milwaukee convention center director decided to destroy a potentially MAGA-triggering public display of literary art.
April 25, 2023
Tearing Down Art to Spare Republican Snowflakes’ Feelings?
(Screenshot via Instagram @wisconsincenter)

Marty Brooks is evidently not the literary type. The CEO and president of the Wisconsin Center District, a governmental body that runs a tax-funded convention center in Milwaukee, unilaterally decided to tear down a literary art installation as part of a $456 million expansion of the facility in advance of its use during the Republican National Convention in July 2024.

The installation by sculptor Jill Sebastian, created in 1998 when the Wisconsin Center was built, features texts spanning four centuries from a diverse group of 48 Wisconsinites. Included are lyrics from an Ojibwe tribe song, indigenous voices Black Sparrow Hawk and Mountain Wolf Woman, and writers Aldo Leopold, Carl Sandburg, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Edna Ferber, John Muir, Lorine Niedecker, Susan Engberg, Zona Gale, Larry Watson, Antler, James Hazard, Folami Abiade, Kyoko Mori, and Lorrie Moore, among others.

“It is a live, on-the-wall anthology that is not duplicated anywhere in the country, as far as we know, where writing is treated as being just as important as any other art form,” Karl Gartung, former artistic director of the nonprofit Woodland Pattern Book Center, which helped pick the texts, told the news outlet Urban Milwaukee, which broke and has led reporting on the story.

Critics say removal of the installation, titled “Portals and Writings Celebrating Wisconsin Authors,” is not needed to complete the facility’s renovation and expansion. Because it was permanently installed, the artwork cannot be removed without being destroyed. Gartung dubbed it “an act of cultural vandalism.”

“This is a one-of-a-kind piece and likely the world’s largest poetry and text-based public artwork, to my knowledge,” said Jen Benka, the former president and executive director of the American Academy of Poets. “The notion that these diverse voices will be thoughtlessly erased and that this significant artwork will be thrown in a dumpster for no reason is unconscionable.”

Brooks made his decision without consulting the Milwaukee Arts Board, which oversaw the original installation, or even his own Wisconsin Center District Board, made up of 17 public officials, including ten elected ones. “There has been no discussion,” said Milwaukee Alderperson Bob Bauman, a member of the center’s board who represents the district in which it is located. “It has never been reported to the board or debated or voted on.”

A Wisconsin Center spokesperson confirmed to Bruce Murphy of Urban Milwaukee on April 4 that no attempt was made, as Murphy phrased it, “to get public feedback or response to the decision to take down a 25-year-old public art installation.”

The next day Urban Milwaukee reported that Alderperson Bauman had emailed Brooks urging that he “delay this demolition and destruction and present the issue to the board for review and approval,” to no avail. The article was headlined, “Wisconsin Center Won’t Reconsider Removing Literary Artwork.”

Demolition of the installation was slated to begin April 10. It didn’t.

On the evening of April 9, critics began circulating a “Stop the Demolition” petition written by Dr. Kimberly Blaeser, a former Wisconsin Poet Laureate and founding director of the national organization Indigenous Nations Poets. As of Monday afternoon, it had 1,188 signatures. It reads:

The literary installations that grace the halls of the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee are slated to be permanently removed. The demolition of this public art at the convention center will begin Monday, April 10th, if we don’t stop it!

Wisconsin Center District CEO Marty Brooks made this decision single-handedly and never presented it to the Board, which oversees the district. Wisconsin Center District is a tax-supported government body. As such, it owes its citizens due process.

We demand a deliberate process that involves the community and respects those whose work has been a part of the Wisconsin Center for decades.

This is Wisconsin’s literary history. It should not be erased. Stop the removal immediately!

On April 10, a group of writers represented in the installation issued a press release questioning whether the removal of a collection of diverse voices was meant to spare the tender sensibilities of conventioning—and, by the standards of the day, conventional—Republicans, given that the Wisconsin Center will be one of the buildings used for the Republican National Convention next year.

“Since these words have been on the walls, thousands of visitors have been reading them—stopping, stepping out of the busyness of the moment,” said author Martha Bergland. “Now one man prefers ‘silence’ and ‘whiteness’ to the richness of these words. One man has enlisted demolition crews to take hammer and chisel to these words, to our treasures. What are the words for his action?”

“Make no mistake, they are coming for us with their sand-blasting systems,” said Blaeser. “Censorship of school curriculum. Banned books. It would be hard not to see this action in Wisconsin as a part of those larger efforts.”

Sadly, it is hard not to see this.

Not long ago, an elementary school in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha yanked the Miley Cyrus/Dolly Parton duet “Rainbowland” from a school concert because it “could be perceived as controversial.” This preemptive caution reflects a national trend brought about by the actions of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. In keeping with a new Florida law—the “Stop WOKE Act”—that forbids public schools from using educational materials that might make white folks feel “responsibility, guilt, or anguish” on account of the actions of their forebears, one educational publisher has purged editorial materials of references to race from an account of Rosa Parks’s refusal to sit in the back of the bus. And a charter school principal in Tallahassee, Florida, was forced to resign after sixth graders in a Renaissance art class were exposed to images of Michelangelo’s statue of David, which one upset parent described as being “pornographic.”

But, unlike these other cases, the public reaction to the Wisconsin Center story seems to have forced a retreat.

A Green Bay Press-Gazette article published on April 11 recounts the growing opposition to the installation’s planned removal. It quotes Blaeser as saying she didn’t understand why some people seem to be “afraid of history,” and that it is “such a tragedy that there would be this erasure.”

The article, also published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, quoted from an email sent to Wisconsin Center District board members by local historian John Gurda: “When the center opened in 1998, the decision to feature literature was praised as a bold and forward-looking departure from conventional design. The decision to trash that heritage is an abrupt move in the opposite direction.”

On April 11, six members of the Milwaukee Common Council, including three who serve on the Wisconsin Center District board, wrote Brooks asking that the process of demolition, originally set to begin April 10, be halted.

“Surely an art piece of this consequence could have been spared pending review” by either the Wisconsin Arts Board or the Wisconsin Center District board, the letter said. “It would have at least given the public a chance to comment and perhaps suggest alternatives for its preservation.”

The mayor of Wauwatosa, Dennis R. McBride, a Wisconsin Center District board member, also asked Brooks to delay the planned removal until the matter could be reviewed.

On April 13, in a letter to the board obtained by Urban Milwaukee, Brooks agreed to suspend demolition. He said that while “modernization of the south building” where the installation is located “is a critical piece of the overall expansion project,” he was pausing “any decommissioning of the prose. As of this memo it is all still in-tact, allowing me time to reflect and respond to the voices commenting on the work which we own.”

Brooks wrote that, “like many of you,” the Wisconsin Center District had “fielded public responses calling for status quo.” He said he had “spent many hours contemplating the right path forward and I appreciate the support and guidance so many of you have given.” He said he had met with Sebastian, the artist behind the installation, as well as with Woodland Pattern, to discuss in the hope that something can yet be worked out.

“My objective is to ensure we are exploring collaborative options while still moving forward and not negatively impacting the timeline or budget of the overall project,” Brooks said. He said further walk-throughs and discussions are planned. He added: “Art is subjective and personal, yet status quo for the south building is unacceptable.” He promised to “keep you appraised [sic] as progress is made.”

That process is now playing out. Sebastian tells me that she and Woodland Pattern are “crafting a counterproposal” to deliver to the Wisconsin Center District board on Tuesday, April 25. And while they believe that the ideal outcome would be to preserve the project as it now exists, the counterproposal will suggest alternatives that will downsize the project “without compromising its artistic integrity” and while still presenting a diversity of voices. Then it will be up to Brooks and the board to accept or reject the counterproposal.

Is Sebastion optimistic? “I don’t dare go there right now,” she says. “I’m working on being optimistic.”

Brooks has ducked media requests for comment, making it hard to gauge what motivated him to propose destruction of the installation. His professional experience has involved operating sports, convention, and entertainment venues. He was president and executive producer of the Miss Universe pageant from 1993 to 1996; Donald Trump was a co-owner of the Miss Universe Organization from 1996 to 2015.

According to the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, Brooks has made just three state political donations since 2003: $500 to Robin Vos, the state’s Republican speaker of the Assembly in 2019, and $250 each to Republican state Senator Alberta Darling and Democratic state Senator Latonya Johnson in 2020. (The latter is a member of the Center District board of directors.)

But even if Brooks was not driven by a desire to protect GOP convention goers from some imagined strain of “wokeness,” his assertion of unilateral authority to make hugely controversial decisions involving the destruction of art would be worthy of notice. Nor would it be altogether different from other contemporary examples of shameless overreach—from the Texas judge who wants to make an abortion medication unavailable, to the Tennessee lawmakers who voted to expel two black elected representatives for being too brash in their efforts to address gun violence, to the Republican members of Congress who are actively trying to interfere with a local district attorney’s criminal prosecution of former President Trump.

Murphy, a longtime and well-respected Wisconsin journalist, has pushed to learn whether Brooks exceeded his authority in ordering the installation’s removal. He says he was told by Sarah Maio, the Wisconsin Center’s vice-president of marketing and communications, that in passing a 2020 resolution to approve expansion, the Wisconsin Center District board “authorized the CEO to manage and mitigate every decision and challenge” of the expansion.

Murphy could not find this resolution on the Wisconsin Center District website. He did find a resolution from 2019 that gives Brooks authority to oversee marketing or “otherwise assist in the financings” of the expansion. This, Murphy notes, “is clearly not the sweeping authority Brooks has said he was given. Nor does it include decisions over scrapping public art.” In fact, the resolution directs Brooks to “provide regular updates to the Board of Directors regarding the progress of this Project and procurement of services.”

Murphy emailed Brooks on April 17, “asking him to send me a copy of the resolution that gave him this sweeping authority.” Brooks emailed back saying he was considering this to be “a public records request” that would be reviewed within the next seven days. Murphy contacted me, in my role as president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, an all-volunteer state nonprofit that works to protect public access to meetings and records, to ask about this development. He quoted my response, which was that the state’s open records law requires public officials to provide records “as soon as practicable and without delay,” and that, in my opinion, anything short of releasing this record upon request constituted improper delay. It still has not been provided, Murphy says.

Even if Brooks does find some way to alter the status quo without ripping the writers’ words from walls, it might be a good idea to look into whether he overstepped his authority, for whatever reason. What happened here is important. This is a case in which the public reaction to a questionable decision seems to have been strong enough to turn the tide. There will be many such skirmishes to come.

Corrections (Tuesday, April 25, 1 p.m.): An earlier version of this piece referred to Karl Gartung as artistic director at Woodland Pattern Book Center; he is the center’s former artistic director. Additionally, the piece originally stated that the group of Milwaukee Common Council members who sent a letter requesting Brooks delay the installation’s demolition included two members of the Wisconsin Center District board; it included three. Finally, “Rainbowland” was pulled from a school concert in Waukesha, not Wauwatosa.

Update (Wednesday, April 26): Sarah Maio, vice president of marketing and communications for the Wisconsin Center District, offered a statement in response to this article:

While chronologically accurate that the south building will be modernized before summer of 2024, any assertion or implication that the Wisconsin Center District is removing art due to either censorship or at the direction of any client, including the RNC, is inaccurate. The purpose of the expansion is to allow the convention center to host multiple, simultaneous and overlapping events and as such, a modernization of the south building has always been a component of the project. This modernization includes altering the architecture of many walls to which the poetry was permanently installed in the late ’90s. Since January of this year, Marty Brooks and the construction team have been in contact with Woodland Pattern and Jill Sebastian to identify alternate solutions to preserving the spirit of the art, including a book which Woodland Pattern intends to publish and to which the WCD has contributed $20,000. Additionally, Brooks and the construction team are currently working in good faith with Jill Sebastian on her counterproposal, and anticipate a resolution in the coming days.

Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders, former editor and now editor-at-large of The Progressive, is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin.