MILWAUKEE — When Eckhart Grohmann, the owner of Aluminum Casting and Engineering Co. in Milwaukee, was a youngster in Germany, he thrilled at watching the men who worked at his grandfather's marble quarry. It was vertically integrated, he says, and he witnessed everything from extraction of the stone to its sculpture into church statues and cemetery figures. "I loved to watch the guys," the 71-year-old reminisces. "And they loved me, too. They made a special saw for me." After immigrating to the U.S. in 1962 and starting his successful foundry business, Dr. Grohmann never lost his respect for hard labor. "I went out and poured castings on a 90-degree day," he says.
So it was at least partly for sentimental reasons that Dr. Grohmann, some 40 years ago, began seeking out paintings and bronzes illustrating industry. Selections drawn from his collection of nearly 700 works from the 16th to the 21st centuries can now be seen at the recently opened Grohmann Museum here. Inside this converted Cadillac dealership-turned-Federal Reserve Bank back office, visitors will view men, and some women, not only forging steel, building bridges, drilling for oil and making sausages, but also collecting taxes, extracting teeth, dequilling goose feathers and lawyering.
What they won't find, really, is an art museum. Much of what lines the walls of the museum's three floors of galleries -- about 375 paintings arrayed in 15,120 square feet -- would make art snobs groan. Few works would pass muster with curators. "We have great artists here, but they are only here because of the picture," Dr. Grohmann concedes. He purchased one work, for example, by Jan van Goyen, solely because it portrays lime kilns in a typical 17th-century Dutch landscape. It's far from van Goyen's best work. Dr. Grohmann trained his own eye, and his picks, by design, have nothing to do with art history.
"They say, art must be for art's sake -- where are the black squares, 'Untitled'?" Dr. Grohmann grumbles. "I don't want that."
The Grohmann Museum might thus be called a vanity museum. But it's a vanity museum out to make the point that work is noble and dignified, a conviction reinforced by its location on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering, where Dr. Grohmann sits on the board of regents, rather than along some tourist trail.
Dr. Grohmann gave the school his collection, which was initially hung around its various facilities, in 2001. Then he donated the funds that allowed MSOE to purchase and renovate the bank, and he bought the building next door, which generates rental income to operate the museum and which he has promised to MSOE.
And, by the way, shouldn't a number of other museum donors, bent mainly on financing expansions, take a lesson from that example? Far too many donors give money to put their names on new buildings, leaving museums to find operating funds -- the hardest kind of money to raise -- on their own.
Smartly, Dr. Grohmann and MSOE also decided to place both classrooms and offices for faculty members who teach required courses in liberal arts in the Grohmann Museum, making it a mandatory stop for all students. "Students can't see that many of these factories today, so it's an ideal teaching tool -- they can see how this country was built," Dr. Grohmann says. Maybe -- seeing a 19th-century forge might spark a discussion about metal processing, but what will students learn from viewing a dentist pulling a tooth with what looks like a pair of pliers?
MSOE's president, Hermann Viets, says the school already has courses that use the paintings. He cited an ergonomics course that has students analyzing whether what they view is healthy (no, usually). In a humanities course, students use the collection to dissect the meaning of work in America over time. And "I'd like to build a liberal arts course around the paintings -- maybe history or sociology," Dr. Viets says.
On the other hand, walk-ins -- general admission is $5 -- are pretty much left on their own. The paintings are hung by subject -- "Quarrying," "Smithies," "Intellectual Trades," "Beer and Wine," and so on; wall labels offer only the name of the artist, the title, and dates. In keeping with the donor's intent, the occasional large wall texts are reserved for explaining something about industry. "About Lime Kilns," beside the van Goyen, for example, discusses how lime is used in cement and fertilizer. Another panel, in the "Textile Working" section, near a study for Max Liebermann's "Flax Barn in Laren," which hangs in Berlin's Staatliche Museum, outlines how flax was spun into yarn before machines took over.
The exhibition starts strong, with two early-17th-century works by the Flemish painter Marten van Valckenborch depicting, about a decade apart, a river valley with iron smelters in a haze of blue. The details -- workers fueling the blast furnace, water mills providing power, iron flowing into a mold -- both bring the work to life artistically and serve Dr. Grohmann's purposes. Van Valckenborch's second painting, much larger, extends the scene to include agricultural workers.
From there, visitors enter a wonderland of work: Dr. Grohmann started his collecting quest with mining, metal processing and agriculture but thankfully extended his horizons. He has managed to find works that show all kinds of ways men and women eke out a living, from performing magic to fishing. There's even a notary.
If strength comes from numbers, it's the early collecting areas that dominate -- there are rows of quarries, forges, roads, all slight variations on a theme. But for my taste, the most interesting and strongest works are the singles: the busy scene of clients waiting to see their "Peasant Lawyer," by Pieter Breughel the Younger; a cozy look at "Women Stripping Feathers" by Otto Piltz; the classic "Extra, Extra (The Paper Boy)" by J.G. Brown; and an evil-looking portrait of "The Money Lenders," in the style of Quintin Massys. If you can appreciate 19th-century academic artists, like Bouguereau, who produced realistic, but idealized, images -- and I do -- there's a quite beautiful "Hay Harvestors" by Julien Dupré, a follower.
Never heard of Dupré? For the most part, you won't know the other artists on view either, and that, to my mind, is a plus. At the Grohmann, you'll be forced to use your own eye to judge what you see.
All that said, the collection has two weaknesses. Europe was the source of the vast majority of these works. A quarry is a quarry is a quarry, but it's odd to see in Beer Town U.S.A., of all places, paintings that depict German and British women picking hops. It's even odder, given that the American West was transformed by workers building dams like the Grand Coulee and the Hoover, to see such heroic engineering and construction feats represented only by dam builders in Thuringia, Germany, and near Zurich. When it comes to roads, the museum even concedes the point, labeling that section, "Autobahn Construction."
While it may be true, as Dr. Grohmann and Dr. Viets say, that Europeans simply made far more industrial pictures, works by American artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Sheeler, Eastman Johnson and even Ernest Lawson would have fit right in here. Dr. Grohmann, who refuses to answer specific questions about money, simply found them too expensive for his tastes.
The second sore point can be corrected more easily. According to Dr. Viets, the art crowd has been "less than enthusiastic" about the museum, suggesting that the Grohmann add art historians to its staff. Over the years, Dr. Grohmann has been guided by a German art professor, Klaus Türk, as well as by a German artist, Hans Dieter Tylle, who helped MSOE staff hang the works. Mr. Tylle made a floor mosaic, a ceiling mural, stained-glass windows and other objects in the museum.
But wittingly or unwittingly, MSOE has given the critics ammunition: The Grohmann's wall labels attribute many works to renowned names like Jan Steen, Quintin Massys and David Teniers. You have to look twice to see the qualifiers, "Circle of . . . ," "Follower of . . . " and "After . . . ," which are in smaller, lighter type. The Grohmann can't have it both ways, asking to be judged by one standard and then touting names critical to another.
Dr. Grohmann isn't finished, and there's opportunity to make changes. Like most collectors, he acknowledged that his avocation is an addiction, and he's still buying works to fill holes. The night before we talked, he said, he zipped through about 5,000 pictures in auction-house catalogs. "None fit," he says, "but there's always a chance."