The Art of Labor: On the Grohmann Museum

Rooftop sculpture garden at the Grohmann Museum, Milwaukee School of Engineering.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Rooftop sculpture garden at the Grohmann Museum, Milwaukee School of Engineering. Photo by Callen Harty.

For several months now I have noticed tall bronze sculptures of burly men atop a building on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering. I found out the building is the home of the Grohmann Museum, an art museum dedicated to the exploration and study of men at work that opened in 2007. All of the artwork was donated by Eckhart Grohmann, who collected it over a period of almost fifty years, and who continues to add to the collection today. Having fought for more than two years against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s assault on workers and having come from a working class family of miners, house painters, farmers, and laborers I have wanted to visit the museum but was unable to find the time.

On Saturday I made the time and was rewarded with a visit to a unique museum that left me with conflicting feelings.

Upon entering the building you step into a light-filled glass entryway and see a floor with a pretty tiled mosaic by H. D. Tylle called “Men At Work.” The mosaic depicts several trades embedded into the floor. There is a foundry worker, blacksmith, miner, farmer, and textile worker. You get the idea immediately that this place represents a celebration of labor, a paean to working men and women everywhere. Standing on the mosaic you look up to see a brightly colored ceiling mural that shows Vulcan at his forge alongside Venus and Cupid. Elsewhere on the mural are depicted some of the world’s great thinkers (Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, and Leonardo Da Vinci among them). After touring the entire museum and upon further reflection it strikes me as interesting that the gods and the thinkers are portrayed along with angels in the heavens above and the workers–whose labor is supposed to be celebrated here and whose labor helped those great thinkers achieve their places in our earthly pantheon–are on the floor beneath the feet of those who enter, symbolically trod upon as they strive to make the world a better place through their labor. Perhaps I read too much into things when I look at them critically, but there are similar paradoxes throughout the museum. In some ways it enthralled me. On the other hand there were some unsettling thoughts I had as I toured, so I explored the benefactor and the museum further after visiting and ended up with some additional concerns.

As you go through the three floors of exhibits and the rooftop sculpture garden you find that most of the work is Eurocentric, with a heavy concentration of German artists represented. Given that Eckhart was an immigrant from Germany in the early 1960’s this makes sense. Among the occasionally well-known names such as Peter Van Brueghel (the Younger) and Frederic Remington, most of the works are by unknown or lesser known artists. Art critics may have an issue with the quality of the work but again, given the focus of the museum on men at work this, too, seems appropriate. Most of the laborers who toil day after day in factories and fields do so in obscurity while the captains of industry who employ them gain money and notoriety, so representations of laborers by obscure artists seems like an excellent egalitarian choice. But the choice is ultimately much more pedestrian than that. In an article on the opening of the museum in On Milwaukee (October 30, 2007), Eckhart is quoted: “I’m in the foundry business,” he says. “I have a nuts-and-bolts background. I buy art based on subject matter, not who painted it.” His intention is to show the evolution of work through his collection, not to showcase great artists (or perhaps even great art).

The museum does show men (and occasionally women) at work throughout history. While the artwork depicts laborers at their various trades one has to keep in mind that the workers are not memorialized in the museum’s name. Instead it is named after a German-American industrialist from Milwaukee who made his fortune off the backs of those laborers at an aluminum casting plant and other businesses in the Milwaukee area. The entire collection was purchased over many years by Grohmann. In a January 3, 2008 article in the Wall Street Journal he talks about watching workers at his grandfather’s quarry when he was a boy. “I loved to watch the guys,” he is quoted as saying. In various articles he talks about his fascination with the men who labor. And the Wall Street Journal article notes that “Dr. Grohmann never lost his respect for hard labor.”

Then again Grohmann made a fortune off of that hard labor and in negotiations with the men whose work ethic he supposedly admired the love seemed to get lost somewhere along the line. According to the website “Immigrant Entrepreneurship, German-American Business Biographies, 1720-to the Present” (http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/) “his relationship with his over four hundred workers quickly deteriorated in disputes over working conditions, wages, and benefits.” The article goes on to state that his foundry “gained a reputation among some in the surrounding South Side communities for its low pay and dangerous working conditions. Union organizers claimed ACE/CO’s wages started at $5.85 per hour ($8.37 in 2010 USD), with many ACE/CO employees making $10 per hour ($14.30 in 2010 USD) or less. Grohmann strongly refutes these wage claims as little more than union propaganda. Contrary to the claims of union organizers, Grohmann asserts he did not run a sweatshop operation, but maintained tremendous respect for, and dedication to, his workers, compensating them accordingly.” The article goes on to describe how a new union was voted in and Grohmann refused to recognize it or negotiate. According to the website the National Labor Relations Board later found Grohmann and his company guilty of several wrongdoings during the election of that union, “including denying workers their annual wage increase, giving preferential treatment to anti-union workers, and expressing its ambition ‘to do everything possible’ to remain union-free in its employee handbook.” In my mind, that sounds more like a man out to protect his own interests. Perhaps he only loved those laborers who were willing to do his bidding without complaints or demands for economic justice.

According to the Wisconsin Democracy campaign Grohmann has donated very little of his money to candidates for office ($2,500 between 1993 and 2011), but what he has donated has gone to several of the more well-known anti-worker legislators in Wisconsin, including Mary Lazich, Alberta Darling, and Scott Fitzgerald. This does not reflect a deep love for workers or worker justice.

But there are many indications that Grohmann’s love is not so much for labor but for the fruit of labor. In his museum there are paintings and sculptures that show men using tools to cut stone, harvest crops, make beer, and more. There are also works throughout that illustrate and celebrate the tools and machinery of labor over the laborers, paintings where things like lime kilns, bridges, and ships dominate the landscape and dwarf or obscure the workers who use or make them. At times it feels more like a celebration of industry, which uses labor to achieve its ends, rather than solely the examination of “men at work” that it purports to be.

Another issue, first brought to attention by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in an article by Mary Louise Schumacher and Whitney Gould on October 28, 2007, has to do with several of the artists and their relationship to the Third Reich. According to the article “the most represented artist in the collection, Erich Mercker (1891-1973), was commissioned directly by Hitler’s government to create images of the Third Reich’s expanding infrastructure.” Of the 900 paintings and sculptures owned by the museum more than 80 of Mercker’s pieces are included. There are two other artists besides Mercker who were also commissioned by Hitler or his cohorts. While they were not necessarily party members they did work for the Nazi party, thus quietly acquiescing, showing subtle support through the justification of earning a livelihood. Even if Hitler and his men had never engineered the Holocaust they were still fascists who controlled both the employers and employees in their totalitarian state. In addition, knowing how many of the works were created by artists working under Hitler’s regime the countless shirtless, muscled men depicted may seem less like physiques created from honorable labor than overwrought representations of supposed Aryan superiority. It seems an odd choice to have so many works represented by these artists.

Overall I found the museum to be fascinating but I was left with numerous conflicting feelings about it. On the one hand you can see the worth of working men and women as they toil in their chosen fields. In painting after painting, sculpture after sculpture–in those in which the men (and occasionally women) who do the work are depicted–you can see the dignity of working class people. You can see the pride in their work. The artists clearly admire them (in fact, as noted above the depictions of the male laborers can make the museum seem more of a tribute to the beauty of the male form than of the male workers). The artists clearly celebrate the workers they show us. On the other hand, if you are aware of economic history at all, you have to be aware that in a capitalist system the workers often go unrewarded while the employers make more and more money off of their labor. The nine-foot tall statues of laborers on the rooftop garden may seem like a gigantic tribute to the workers they represent, but the reality is that the statues are lifeless replicas. The museum as a whole appears to be a celebration of working class heroes, but in the end the celebration seems to be more about the industrialist art collector who created the space and filled it with the things he liked best.

Perhaps Grohmann would have done better to create a museum honoring manufacturing and industry and leave the celebration of laborers to those who truly understand and appreciate labor. A museum built by workers and housing works created by tradesmen and artists who have toiled in the fields and factories would more likely be a celebration of working class people. And the museum would not be named the Grohmann Museum. Instead, it would carry a name like The Art of Labor. I would gladly pay to tour such a place.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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