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Arts and Culture Are Celebrated in Sheboygan, WI

Creatives, corporations find common ground in supporting Sheboygan’s cultural enterprises.

By Heather Cherry on May 9, 2023

John Michael Kohler Arts Center
Courtesy of John Michael Kohler Arts Center

When you think of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, you might think of friendly folks and bratwurst. Both are true, but the city also boasts a vibrant landscape for arts and culture of all types.

You’ll find public art throughout the streets and businesses in Sheboygan, plus international music concerts, an array of performing arts and a world class art museum. Indeed, the arts are celebrated in Sheboygan, in big ways and small.

Easily Accessible

Sheboygan is home to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and its companion space, the Art Preserve. The independent, nonprofit contemporary art museum and performing arts complex in Sheboygan has existed since 1967. It offers visitors a chance to view works of art created by artists-in-residence, artist-built environments, and so much more — all free of charge.

The zero-dollar admission fee is something that Ann Deuser, director of marketing at Kohler Arts Center, says is unique to the city.

“Our world-class museum is completely free — in other cities, you’d likely have to pay to get in,” Deuser says. “We also have programming that makes it affordable for schools to visit and promote art education.”

The affordability of the museum and art preserve is courtesy of the community, corporate sponsors, donors and benefactors.

“There is a grand appreciation for culture and the arts in Sheboygan,” Deuser says. “Large corporate businesses like Kohler, Sargento, Johnsonville and Acuity generously show an appreciation to the arts and support many organizations.”

This deep appreciation of art and culture is emulated throughout the community and impacts the quality of life. Walking in downtown Sheboygan, you’ll likely see cascades of murals and art sculptures, thanks to the Sheboygan Project, a street-art movement using the urban landscape as a canvas. The goal of the street art series is to create a more intimate relationship between artists and the Sheboygan community — simultaneously reflecting the city’s people and culture.

“Art adds to the already exceptional quality of life here — it makes it OK to express yourself and feel accepted when you do. That acceptance is felt throughout the community in the different venues, avenues and art opportunities,” Deuser says.

Levitt Amp
Courtesy of John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Diverse Offerings

The types of art you’ll find throughout Sheboygan are diverse. Not only can you witness visual art by all kinds of artists, but the Levitt AMP Sheboygan Music Series offers 11 concerts exposing residents to various types of culture and music, from Columbia to Ireland. And residents can catch an array of national acts (most recently, Sleeping Beauty by The State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine) performing throughout the spring, fall and winter at the Stefanie H. Weill Center for Performing Arts.

There is also the Sheboygan Visual Artists organization that blends an eclectic mix of the area’s art culture through various mediums capturing intrigue and inspiration.

“The different museums, botanical gardens, and world-acclaimed golf courses are some of the places that have an art component thanks to the Sheboygan Visual Artists,” says Deuser.

The Art Preserve at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center — the only museum in the world dedicated to artist-built environments — is popular among residents and visitors.

“It’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced,” Deuser says. “We have artists from around the world thanks to our previous director, Ruth Kohler. Ruth would knock on the doors of artists that most people would drive by — she developed relationships with them, and they would bequeath their art to us so we could preserve and conserve it.”

For example, artist Nek Chand, from New Delhi, India, is featured on the third floor at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. While working as a road inspector near Chandigarh, India, Chand began constructing an imagined kingdom of concrete “immortal beings” on a piece of unused city-owned land. Chand’s idyllic city organically materialized from rocks he had been collecting and from the nearby dump.

“The government found out years later and wanted to remove it. But the community worked to stop the takedown,” Deuser says. “It has become India’s second most visited property next to the Taj Mahal. The bravery of these artists is probably my favorite aspect of the art preserve.”

John Michael Kohler Arts Center
Courtesy of John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Historic Roots

The vibrancy of art in Sheboygan has always been deeply intertwined with the city’s manufacturing economy.

“We were known for years as Chair City because we were home to companies such as Phoenix Chair, Northern Furniture Company, Mattoon, Crocker Chair, Bemis-Riddell, Thonet, R-Way, and more,” Deuser says. “To be a carpenter or craftsman in that industry, you must have some creative component.”

Manufacturing remains a prevalent industry in Sheboygan, but now, there’s more bratwurst and cheese than chairs.

“There is an artist involved somewhere to create the food products we manufacture,” Deuser says. “For example, cheese artisans make and craft the cheese — that’s science, but there’s also an artistic component. Overall, we deeply appreciate art from every industry and visual angle.”

These manufacturing roots may indirectly be a result of Sheboygan’s art vibrancy.

“We are a manufacturing area, but often when you’re working in manufacturing, you’re working with your hands. So exposing people to art or participating in one way or another could foster the idea that they like working with their hands,” Deuser says. “They can apply those interests to their manufacturing career.”

Preschool Sheboygan
Courtesy of Sheboygan County EDC

Art Education

Art education remains a top priority throughout Sheboygan — it is available as early as age 3 through a highly-rated preschool program.

“We have the oldest arts-based preschool in the country at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center,” Deuser says. “The preschool started in 1967, and many Sheboygan generations have gone there. There’s no argument that art opens mental synapsis — especially in children — helping them learn math and the sciences and offers a great foundation for learning.”

For the past 50 years, the Kohler Corporation has offered an arts/industry residency program that brings artists into their foundry and pottery for 12 weeks to experiment and create art.

“The Kohler Corporation appreciates the arts so much and recognizes the value of art and artists,” Deuser says. “Beyond creating magnificent art, the artist in the residency program may influence the company. For example, artists may develop new glazes or an interesting way of designing something.”

Sculptures from the artists who spent time in the foundry are displayed throughout the village of Kohler.

“This is just another example of the grand appreciation for arts and culture in Sheboygan,” Deuser says.

This article was sponsored by the Sheboygan County EDC.

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