Rain and sun beat down on Meg Mitchell’s latest artwork. And that’s a good thing.

Mitchell’s sculptural installation — nicknamed “Hops Exchange” — was erected in April in the rooftop sculpture garden at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

Half a dozen towering, aluminum trellises designed by Mitchell were secured along an exterior wall of the building. By May, hops plants were starting their climb up each structure toward the sky.

It’s harvest time now, but “Hops Exchange” is designed to keep growing.

Formally titled “Tenacious Numismatic Hops Exchange (TNHE): a hop garden for unyielding people,” the work will be dedicated at 6:30 p.m. Friday as one of many stops art-lovers can take during this fall’s Gallery Night.

A program of MMOCA held twice a year, Gallery Night is when dozens of local art galleries and museums throw open their doors through the evening, often showcasing new exhibits or hosting special events. This year’s Gallery Night will include nearly 70 venues in and around Madison from 5 to 9 p.m.

At the MMOCA building itself, much of the action will be on the rooftop. Following the 6:30 p.m. dedication, Mitchell will lead a “Hops Exchange” activity at around 7 p.m. The evening is meant as only an introduction to the installation; it’s the museum’s plan to keep the project there for years and build ways for the public to interact with it.

In 2018, “TNHE” might even inspire a new local beer bearing a MMOCA label, Mitchell said.

The project was years in the planning and fabrication, and now “we’re basically looking at ways that we can engage the audience. This rooftop event on the 6th is our first (effort) in doing that,” she said.

Mitchell, along with MMOCA museum director Stephen Fleischman and curator of exhibitions Leah Kolb, had wanted this interactive approach. Mitchell was drawn to the use of hops plants after learning about their long history in the world of agriculture and labor and the invention of “hops coins,” an unofficial but widely used form of currency traded between growers and laborers. (Mitchell will have her own version of those at Gallery Night.)

The term “numismatic” in the work’s formal title refers to that link with currency. Never mind that hops is also associated with beer, with its own strong cultural ties to Wisconsin — something that didn’t occur to Mitchell as she began her initial research into plants for her rooftop sculpture.

“I’m from South Florida, so pretty much everything about Wisconsin is new and exotic to me,” said Mitchell, who has a background in sculpture and is associate professor of digital media in the UW-Madison art department.

“I was not aware that Wisconsin is a big hops state. I knew it was a big beer state. But I certainly have become aware of that since I embarked on this project.”

Mitchell and MMOCA turned to Gorst Valley Hops farm in Mazomanie for expertise with selecting the rhizomes for “Tenacious Numismatic Hops Exchange.”

As for the rest of the work’s title, “I was thinking about agriculture, and thinking about labor in particular,” Mitchell said. “I guess the ‘tenacious’ part came from thinking about resiliency, and just how tough people are and how tough people have to be to do that kind of work.”

The industrial-looking trellises in “Hops Exchange” “reference the history of Minimalism,” curator Kolb explained. Hinged at the bottom, the trellises can be manually drawn down using their winch and pulley system.

“Hops Exchange” falls into the art category of “relational aesthetics,” said Kolb, or “the realm of art-making where the artist constructs the artistic experience” for the viewer.

Mitchell likes the idea “that it’s an ongoing, developing thing, rather than a discrete art project,” the artist said.

“It’s always open for collaboration and partnerships and that sort of thing.”


Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.