When Ruth & I lived in the Midwest and had different vacations, I would often travel by myself. I’d generally head north from our home in St. Louis, a practice that began when my brother Jim was studying at the University of Chicago, and include Madison, Wisconsin, in my itinerary. When I was there, I’d always check out the Elvehjem.
Madison has fewer than 500,000 people but big city museums and attractions. I attribute this to the presence of the University of Wisconsin and the fact that Madison is Wisconsin’s State Capital. One of my favorite attractions is the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, which initially wowed me with its German Enigma Machine. It may or may not still be on display. Another was the Elvehjem, which is now the Chazen Museum of Art.
Chazen is much easier to pronounce. On the University of Wisconsin campus, home to Babcock Hall ice cream, the Elvehjem (el vee um) was named for Conrad Elvehjem, the nutritional biochemist who discovered niacin. In 2005, a founder of Liz Claiborne made a $20 million dollar pledge to expand the venerable Elvehjem, which, I now know, had only a small portion of its permanent holdings out. Another $15 million was collected, a new building was connected to the old museum with a skybridge, the blending was renamed the Chazen Museum of Art, and someone came up with a very imaginative logo: a circle (C), a square, (M), and a triangle, (A). Check out CMA’s website to see how clever this is.
Together, Ruth and I visited the new museum for the first time in summer, 2014 and found it praise-worthy. 106 of 115 who reviewed it on TripAdvisor rated it Excellent or Very Good. Ruth would be among the very goods. I’m with the excellent crowd. One rater faulted Chazen for “disturbing images”, which it clearly does offer, like the weird Francis Bacon below.
Way back when it was the Elvehjem, I didn’t so much admire it for its eclectic collection as I did for its thoughtful temporary shows. The Chazen now mounts 10 to 12 of these each year and appears to be mostly using the new building to display them. Among its permanent stuff, however, I always liked its Russian and Soviet paintings, definitely disturbing images. This was the only museum in the U.S. I knew that had any of these. The old Elvehjem survives pretty much as it was before 2005. I noticed only minor changes in its 3 floors, which were closed for construction about the time I moved to the Northwest. Across Chazen’s skybridge are the no-longer-stored works of some familiar artists–Calder, Dali, Picasso–and some, uh, challenging art.
The Chazen is a place where you can see Grandma Moses with Francis Bacon not too far away. In other words, The Chazen is still free-thinking, free to see, and, well, occasionally disturbing.