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On Wisconsin: A Polka Party at the Museum of Wisconsin Art
ON WISCONSIN | museum of wisconsin art, west bend

On Wisconsin: A Polka Party at the Museum of Wisconsin Art

From the On Wisconsin series
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WEST BEND – Photographs of accordions, tubas and Pabst Blue Ribbon signs may not be the norm for an $11.2 million art museum that features nationally recognized sculptures, painters and other media artists.

They fit right in at the Museum of Wisconsin Art located along the Milwaukee River and just east of West Bend’s quaint downtown.

Since late January, the museum’s second-floor Hyde Gallery has been home to Polka Heartland: Photographs by Dick Blau.

In 2013 and 2014, Blau, a professor of film at UW-Milwaukee, traversed Wisconsin with Rick March, an author, musician and musicologist from Madison. Blau and March, whose book, “Polka Heartland,” is scheduled to be released in October, set out to capture the styles of the state’s diverse polka scene.

More importantly for Blau was documenting the feeling and emotion of the official state dance.

“It’s really about the way people make a kind of social happiness with one another,” Blau said by phone from his home in downtown Milwaukee. “It produces a feeling of warmth, euphoria and happiness.”

That means, growing up in Watertown, there must have been a lot of happy Goslings.

Wedding receptions at Turner Hall and the Wethonkitha Club were all but guaranteed to feature a polka band. WTTN-AM had a robust “Polka Party” on Saturday mornings and in nearby Hartford, WTKM-FM radio was polka all day and night.

Our next-door neighbor on Eighth Street, Howard Reese, made sure we didn’t miss out on the action. He loved to work in his garage and had a car radio hooked up to a battery in his shop. A speaker near the side door insured we didn’t miss a beat of a schottische, Chicago push or a Polish hop.

And when July 4 rolled around, a polka band was a sure lock at the “Orange Boards,” a make-shift beer bar made with orange painted lumber at the Riverside Park pavilion.

Wisconsin has its own Polka Hall of Fame with such notables as “Tuba Dan” Jerabek, Vern Meisner, Don Peachey and Louie Bashell. Polka festivals can be found around the state in Ellsworth, Wisconsin Dells and Pulaski. The tiny village of Willard, east of Eau Claire, celebrated its 40th annual event last year while the Wisconsin State Polka Festival at Olympia Resort in Oconomowoc is set for May.

In June, there’s the Roger Bright Polka Festival in New Glarus, Polish Fest in Milwaukee and in Madison, the Essen Haus, a year-round pit stop for polka bands from around the country.

Blau’s exhibit features 27 photos, some more than 3 feet high and nearly 6 feet long, but there is no musical accompaniment. Instead, visitors take in the images in relative quiet, much like they would with other exhibits in the 32,000-square-foot museum.

That’s not to say polka music is absent from the colorful exhibit.

When the photo gallery debuted, more than 650 people filled the museum, many of them dancing to The Squeezettes, a Milwaukee band named polka artist of the year in 2012 and 2013 by the Wisconsin Area Music Industry and featured in Blau’s photos. This Thursday, Rick March will give a presentation on polka styles and play his accordion. On March 14, the Brewhaus Polka Kings will play at the museum for what is being dubbed “Polka Saturday.”

“It’s going to be a flat-out polka dance,” said Graeme Reid, the museum’s director of collections and exhibitions. “It is very much a part of Wisconsin’s intrinsic culture.”

Museum founded in 1961

The Museum of Wisconsin Art was founded in 1961 when it was known as the West Bend Gallery of Fine Art. The museum was established by the Pick family to collect and exhibit the work of a relative, Carl von Marr, who was born in Milwaukee in 1858 but was trained in Munich, Germany.

His work includes The Flagellants, a 14-foot-high, 23-foot-wide painting of zombie-like religious zealots from the Middle Ages in Europe who sought atonement for their sins by vigorously whipping themselves in public displays of penance. The piece is believed to be the largest framed painting in the state and one of the largest in the country.

For much of the museum’s history, it was located in a 20,000-square-foot space in what had been the corporate headquarters for West Bend Insurance. In 2007, the museum changed its name to the Museum of Wisconsin Art and announced plans to build a new facility. Fundraising began in 2008 as the economy began to tank but in 2012, ground was broken on property that had been home to an outlet mall. The museum opened in April 2013 and last year had 35,000 visitors compared to 2,900 the last full year in the previous museum building.

“It’s had phenomenal growth,” said Laurie Winters, MOWA CEO and executive director. “It’s a platform for Wisconsin artists.”

When I visited last week, I not only took in the work of von Marr but of painter John Steuart Curry, who in 1936 was appointed as the first artist in residence at the Agricultural College at UW-Madison. Curry traveled the state where he promoted art and painted rural scenes from the era. There also was work from the Cedarburg Artists Guild and in the atrium, sculptures of canoes by Truman Lowe, a Ho-Chunk from Black River Falls.

Blau’s polka photos are in contrast to the rest of the museum’s artwork but just as vital.

Blau’s and March’s travels took them to Turner Hall in Monroe, Martin’s Tap in New Berlin and Amerahn’s Ballroom in Kewaskum. There were stops at Pulaski Polka Days, the Laak Ballroom in Johnsonville and to the now-defunct Las Vegas Latin Club in Oregon, south of Madison.

That’s where the band, the Mazizo Allstarz, came decked out in sharkskin suits and used electronics and a brass section but had no accordion. A mirrored ball, fog machine, laser lights and well-dressed dancers added to the ambiance of the club, located in a former indoor athletic facility.

Blau’s photos captured it all, even though his shots were taken while seated at a table because he didn’t want to intrude.

“It was quite an exotic experience,” Blau said. “It’s different stylistically and represents something most people haven’t seen. I think people in Wisconsin aren’t really aware of how large and vital the Latino population has become.”

When Blau created his first book on polka, “Polka Happiness,” he shot in Buffalo, New York, and it primarily consisted of Polish polka bands. It also was 1992 and he was limited to a film camera with flash to make small black-and-white images.

“Polka Heartland” is shot in color, using natural light and with a digital camera that allowed for much larger images.

“It actually changes the relation of the viewers to the images because it allows them entrance into them, and that’s not possible when you have smaller pictures,” Blau said. “It makes them want to dance.”

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.

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