Find out how our neighbors to the north are solidifying their status as a Wisconsin arts hub
Located 25 miles north of Appleton, the city of De Pere wraps both east and west shores of the Fox River and has a history that dates back to 1671. The area became known as “Les Rapides des Peres” (Rapids of the Fathers) when Jesuit missionary Claude Allouez founded the Mission of St. Francis Xavier on the river’s east side.
In 1890 the City of West De Pere merged with the city of De Pere on the river’s east side to form a single city. The De Pere lock and rushing dam waters provide a picturesque center of this burg which today is home to 25,000 residents.
While De Pere has long been rich in history, lately it’s been getting richer in the arts as well. From public art initiatives to galleries and an iconic arts center on the horizon, cultural amenities in De Pere have been increasing in number and establishing the city as a regional arts destination.
Accelerating Public Art
De Pere native Tina Quigley serves as executive director of Definitely De Pere, a nationally accredited Main Street program through the National Main Street Center. The non-profit organization promotes downtown De Pere through marketing, special events and business development efforts.
Since taking on the role in 2016, Quigley has been able to accomplish several items on her wish list to elevate the arts, and in turn economic development, in De Pere.
“All our stakeholders really understand the value of arts and culture and how that shapes the identity of a downtown,” Quigley says. “So this all started with that awareness and understanding, but what gave us our kickstart was the stadium tax funding.”
In 2017, the De Pere City Council allocated nearly $1.3 million in excess Lambeau Field stadium tax money to nine city projects. Of the funds, $100,000 was granted for public art initiatives and $150,000 for streetscape improvements.
The first project funded by the excess tax money was the mural program which Definitely De Pere launched in 2018. The goal of the Downtown De Pere Mural Project was to create public art that celebrates the city’s history, reflects its current culture or points to its future aspirations.
From more than 70 site-specific proposals submitted by 38 artists, six murals were selected and completed on facades throughout De Pere’s downtown. The six mural locations and artists include Northwestern Building by James Barany; Broadway Theatre by Andrew Linskens; Paintin’ Pottery by Carli Ihde; artlessBastard by Natalie Halverson; Jenstar Movement Studio by Danny Lemke and The Studebaker Building with work by artists from De Pere’s sister city Amal, Sweden, Funny Livdotter and Emelie Rygfelt Wilander. Another set of murals was planned to go up this summer, but time frames are being modified due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Another public arts initiative launched last year was Sculpture Walk De Pere, an ongoing seasonal public art exhibit of original outdoor sculpture. Ten sculpture were displayed along the blocks of 100 South and 100 North Broadway Street from May through October in the walk’s inaugural year. Broadway Street is the main corridor on the downtown’s east side, with over 12,000 vehicles passing through on their daily commutes.
As it continues, Quigley intends to increase the number of sculpture installed as part of the program as well as the length of time they are displayed.
“What I love about the murals and sculpture walk is the engagement with people,” Quigley says. “We have a lot of amenities that bring people downtown, but events and public art have the ability to keep people downtown. It gives them more to do and that’s one of the proven factors of public art.”
Public spaces also encourage guests to linger. In the future, six artist-designed benches will be installed on Main and George Streets in downtown De Pere. The 10-foot-long stainless steel art benches are part of a series called “Flow” with a design inspired by the Fox River. Each bench is made out of a series of waves at various heights where people can sit or lounge, taking in the vibrancy of downtown De Pere.
Shaping a Creative Community
Art doesn’t just attract visitors. It attracts residents too. Painter and muralist Peter Koury moved to De Pere three years ago, drawn to the community’s growing commitment to public art. Koury has over 30 years of contributions to the area arts scene, but one of his most recent is the mural he painted on the garage of his George Street home. The mural, which has received positive feedback from neighbors and nearby business owners, depicts various bird species against a vibrant purple background.
“I think De Pere has made wonderful strides over the last few years to offer and encourage the presence of the local artist,” Koury says. “If a local artist can paint a mural on the side of his garage and have it recognized as a contribution to the public art of the city, that city is doing great at showing support for us all.”
Koury is currently working with Luna Cafe in downtown De Pere to design a mural for their building’s exterior in honor of their 20th anniversary this year. As the arts grow in De Pere, Koury hopes to see more work that represents the diversity of cultures in the area as well as community-focused arts education opportunities.
“The more people understand what it is that’s present in their community, the more they are able to comprehend its value and importance,” he says.
When it comes to arts education, the St. Norbert College (SNC) Art Galleries at Bush Art Center are leading the way. With three art galleries featuring temporary exhibitions and campus-wide displays of the college’s permanent collection, the art viewing opportunities at SNC are vast.
While temporarily closed, the galleries typically feature contemporary art and design by nationally and internationally known artists as well as work by SNC students and faculty. Admission is free and all galleries are open to the public. In addition, the college offers an array of educational, social and cultural events at which all are welcome. These include artist talks, lectures, classes and workshops.
“Serving our communities is embedded in the Norbertine philosophy, so the vast majority of campus events are open to the public,” says Shan Bryan-Hanson, director and curator of the art galleries and collections at St. Norbert College.
This academic year, art exhibitions have addressed social issues including sustainability and ethics in fashion and the impact of human activity on the earth. Katie Ries, associate professor of art, says academic galleries like those at SNC are able to address topics many commercial galleries don’t, which offer a unique value to the broader community.
“We can show work that is more provocative and pushes boundaries. We don’t have to rely on sales which means we can show work that is untethered from commercial considerations,” she says. “This frees up artists to work differently and do different things.”
On the Horizon: Mulva Cultural Center
In addition to public art, Quigley says over the last two years De Pere has gained several new art galleries, including artlessBastard and Blue Door Artworks, and an increased number of artists want to live downtown. The way Quigley sees it, one begets the other and the momentum is only just beginning.
“We are seeing more organic growth in the arts and we will see even more of that with the coming of the Mulva Cultural Center,” she says.
Plans for The Mulva Cultural Center, an $80 million three-story, 75,000-square-foot exhibit and events space in downtown De Pere, were first announced in 2015. When it opens in the fall of 2022, the center will include a 10,000-square-foot exhibit hall, flexible contemporary gallery space, a 224-seat auditorium, a café and a public plaza honoring veterans.
Quigley says the addition of an iconic cultural center to downtown De Pere is “game-changing and transformational.” On average, three traveling exhibits will rotate each year providing new and engaging experiences for visitors of all ages. The Mulva Cultural Center board of directors will begin selecting exhibits later this year.
“Communities the size of De Pere don’t typically have world-renowned traveling exhibits come through three times a year, but that’s the caliber of experiences that will happen when the doors open in 2022,” says Bridget O’Connor, project spokesperson.
The project breaks ground this spring and is entirely funded through a gift from De Pere natives James and Miriam Mulva. James Mulva is the retired chairman and CEO of Conoco Philips.
“This project is the vision of the Mulvas based on their love of De Pere, a town they are from and a town they believe in deeply,” O’Connor says. “They want to further make this an opportunity for the community and enhance its visibility so it becomes a major attraction to celebrate all that De Pere has to offer.”
O’Connor says the Mulva Cultural Center will be an enormous draw for visitors and residents alike who wish to experience Smithsonian-level art exhibits and cultural events typically found in much larger cities. The center is expected to draw more than 100,000 visitors annually with an economic impact of $3.1 million.
“The anchor that this center will play in bringing visitors to experience De Pere will be quite profound,” O’Connor says. “It will bring energy, excitement and people to experience not only the Mulva Cultural Center, but all of the many venues that could further extend their experience in downtown De Pere, whether that’s boutiques, restaurants or the Fox River.”
Points of Artful Interest
Blue Door Artworks
Look for the signature blue door on George Street that leads to this working studio and gallery shared by a collective of local artists. Blue Door Artworks is open for the public to visit the artists at work Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. or by appointment. Classes are also offered in mixed media, intro to painting and watercolor.
Originally a pop-up space, artlessBastard opened as a permanent location in downtown De Pere in May 2018. The gallery hosts artist talks, workshops, special events and monthly themed group exhibitions featuring original artwork.
This raw theatre space in downtown East De Pere is home to Birder Players and Birder Studio of Performing Arts. Musical productions, cabarets, concerts and community events are hosted at Broadway Theatre as well as classes for all ages.
Downtown De Pere Art Walk
On three summer Friday evenings, more than 25 venues host more than 40 artists exhibiting and selling their work including paintings, jewelry, photography, ceramics, fiber arts and more. Visitors stroll through downtown De Pere, view artwork by local emerging and professional artists, and listen to live music. Maps are available at the Definitely De Pere information tent during the event.
Nicolet Alley between Gyro’s Kabobs and Nicky’s Lionhead was transformed last fall into a permanent, year-round fine art installation featuring the work of art photographer Shanna Koltz and sculptor Naomi Moes-Jenkins. Fusing 2D and 3D work, the art alley features an installation that chronicles the importance of the honeybee to our ecosystem.