Nearly a century after the Madison Brass Works building was built and 23 years after production ceased, the eastside foundry will be restored and repurposed.
The Goodman Community Center, kitty-corner from the former Ironworks building, bought the Brass Works in 2015 and has plans to renovate, expand and, by September 2018, will occupy the structure.
But before construction begins this August, nearly 20 artists will take over the building for a week starting on the evening of June 10.
Their art exhibition, titled “Forge,” is intended to inhabit the building in its present dilapidated state while acknowledging its productive past. The artists were given access to the building and encouragement by Goodman officials.
The art installation is curated by Erika Monroe-Kane, communications director for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, and Ellen Carlson, marketing and communications manager for Middleton Outreach Ministry. The two artist-friends and residents of the neighborhood previously collaborated on the 2014 public art project "Where are You Going?" Like that project, "Forge" is an independent undertaking, unaffiliated with the workplaces of either of them.
For the "Forge" project, Monroe-Kane says, “We picked artists we believed in to make interesting and compelling work. We didn’t want them to obscure the building. We wanted to illuminate the building, its history and transformation.”
Touring the Brass Works just days before the installation of the art, she predicts, “It will be a really interesting gallery-like experience in a raw industrial setting.”
The artwork presented will be in various mediums, from wheat paste and paper to metal sculpture and sound recordings, some incorporating materials found on site. Participating artists include Pete Hodapp, Nick Wilkes, Helen Lee. Angela Richardson and Paul Andrews.
Also on display will be artwork teenagers at the Goodman center produced with Brooklyn-based artist Kambui Olujimi, whose exhibit “Zulu Time” now occupies the State Street gallery of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
“Only three artists are bringing work that pre-existed," Monroe-Kane says.
A couple days before installation, British-born artist Faisal Abdu’Allah, a University of Wisconsin–Madison associate professor of art and a Romnes Faculty Fellow, stops by the building.
“I came to find out what the space feels like,” he says of the space set aside for his artwork. What that would be, he hadn’t yet decided. Thinking he’d work with archival photos of the Brass Works or metal, Abdu’Allah says he’s excited.
The project, he says, “is allowing artists to be adventurous and inventive.”
The city’s only fabricator of brass fittings and bronze and aluminum castings, the Brass Works on Waubesa Street was built in 1918 and significantly expanded six times between 1929 and 1959.
It was there that the large bronze “sifting and winnowing” plaques found on every UW campus were cast. The 4-by-4-foot plaques declare the importance of academic freedom by quoting an 1894 university Board of Regents report defending a professor accused of involvement in pro-union and socialist activities.
The plaques read, “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”
The plaque can be found at UW–Madison to the left of the front entrance of Bascom Hall.
The origin of the plaques at the Brass Works inspired artist Jeremy Wineberg’s contribution to “Forge.” He will project an image of the plaque through a hole in the first floor onto a pile of sand—a raw material of the forging process and still available on site by the barrel—in the dark basement below.
“I decided it would be really cool as a touchpoint with the history of this place,” he says as he built a railing around the opening in the floor for safety.
Wineberg noted the current debate over how conservative and far-right speech should be received at UW-Madison and on other college campuses.
“This is a cyclical thing,” Wineberg says of political intolerance. “But the beauty of bronze is that it will be around forever.”
The timing of the “Forge” exhibit is deliberate and fortunate, however, says Monroe-Kane. As someone whose family lives in the neighborhood and utilizes the Goodman Community Center, she knows school will be out but family vacations will have yet to begin. So lots of people will be biking and walking this summer on the paved path that passes alongside the building.
Besides that, the free exhibit is an opportunity for people to feed their long-held curiosity about what the building looks like inside—before it becomes something that better meets the growing needs of the residents of the Atwood and Worthington Park neighborhoods.
Visitors are forewarned: The building has uneven surfaces, stairs and a leaky roof. So come wearing closed-toe shoes and, if the weather calls for it, rain gear. The entire structure is not handicap-accessible.
The opening reception for “Forge,” which several of the artists are expected to attend, is Saturday, June 10, 5-8 p.m. The exhibit will then be open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday; 4:30-7:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 4-8 p.m. Friday, June 16; and 11 a.m. -4 p.m. Saturday, June 17.
For more information, go to the "Forge" website.
Joel Patenaude is associate editor of Madison Magazine.