One of the many beauties at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center is the price: Admission is free.
That means visitors can sample as much as they wish — and bring family and friends with them.
There’s plenty of artistry at the Sheboygan arts complex, located a little more than two hours northeast of Madison, from art galleries and children’s workshops to gardens, live music, a preschool and what are perhaps the state’s most fabulous bathrooms.
“What’s so great about this beautiful arts center is that you can do as much or as little as you want,” said Julie Frinzi, marketing manager for the Kohler Arts Center. “It’s a very economical trip. Visitors can make a day of it, or they can just spend a couple hours here.”
Described as a “gem of a museum” by a Smithsonian curator quoted by The New York Times, the center is known for its work to preserve entire studios or collections created by highly original, untrained “outsider” or “vernacular” artists.
Another hallmark is the center’s groundbreaking Arts/Industry Program, where select artists are chosen for an intensive residency, using the nearby Kohler Co. factory as their studio.
During their residency, artists can work as hard and produce as much as they like in the Kohler Co. pottery, iron and brass foundries and enamel shop — with the condition that they donate one completed artwork to the bathroom fixtures manufacturer and one to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.
Through Aug. 31, some of those extraordinary works are on display in the center’s main exhibition. The show marks the 40-year anniversary of the Arts/Industry collaboration.
And the visual delights continue — even into the bathrooms. Crafted by artists, each Kohler Center washroom is a refuge of beauty, whimsy and creativity. And, yes, if unoccupied, they’re available to visitors of either gender to have a look.
Though it bears the Kohler name and washroom flair, the Kohler Arts Center is actually run by an independent nonprofit. The original building, known as “old house,” was the 19th-century home of Kohler Co. founder John Michael Kohler. Programming space was added in 1970 and again in 1999.
The center’s longtime director and founder of the Arts/Industry program is Ruth DeYoung Kohler, a trained artist and sister of current Kohler Co. CEO Herbert Kohler Jr.
“We’re not owned by Kohler,” Frinzi said. “To keep the arts center alive and open, we really rely on donations.”
A few special happenings:
• Love Madison’s Art Fair on the Square? After Madison’s event on July 12-13, head to the Kohler arts center on July 19-20 for another outdoor art gala. Called the Midsummer Festival of the Arts, or MFA, the event features the works of 135 artists from across the country, plus live music, hands-on workshops and children’s activities. This year’s MFA also marks the debut of the Culinary Art Car, a program billed as “blending the commercial food truck and the eat-local movement.”
• The center’s ARTery is a free, drop-in art studio where visitors — especially children — can try their hand at art projects year-round. The ARTery’s theme, like all of the Kohler center’s programming, changes several times each year to reflect the main exhibit on display at the time.
• Plan for lunch at the ARTcafe or on the scenic terrace. Take a short garden stroll and then head back inside to the gallery.
• If it’s Thursday, plan to stay for a summer evening concert. The concerts, known as Open Mic at M.I.K.E., are held outdoors in the center’s “Musically Integrated Kiosk Environment,” a space-pod-looking structure that serves as both stage and work of art. Local musicians perform from 5 -7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Aug. 14. Bring a picnic or purchase dinner from a food cart; cash bar available (but no carry-ins).
• Winners of an online voting competition will participate in a “battle of the bands showdown” from 6-10 p.m. on Aug. 21. Cast your vote by July 31 at the center’s website, jmkac.org.
• And mark your 2015 calendar for the Art Armada, the center’s cardboard flotilla. Participants build and race in boats made from unconventional materials on the Sheboygan River as part of the city’s Fourth of July festivities.
• Want to explore other parts of the state, too? The John Michael Kohler Arts Center has created “Wandering Wisconsin,” a map of nine artist environments across the state. Travelers can sample some or all of these astounding structures and yards built by “vernacular” artists. Check the website for suggested itineraries.