The mission of the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum is to enhance lives through art. Therefore, the Museum continually strives for excellence in providing audiences with quality art experiences through permanent collections, changing exhibitions, and education programs.
Located in north central Wisconsin, Wausau is a smaller town than its national recognition as an
insurance industry center would suggest, with a population of just under 40,000. Marathon County,
larger than Rhode Island, has an estimated 133,000 people.The additional 14-county north central
region served by the Woodson has just under a half-million people. Lake-dotted, rolling farmlands
and woodlands, intersected by the Wisconsin River, define the region’s geography.
In 1973 a member of the Woodson family gave her English Tudor home and 4-acre estate to be the community’s only art museum, one that would always be free to all. The home was renovated and a two-story gallery added. A second two-story gallery was added in 1987. A $2.1 million project in 1997 added a new main entrance, a second multipurpose space, new mechanical systems, expanded collections storage, and state-of-the-art storage systems.
The Yawkey and Woodson families, who had been prominent in Wausau’s business, cultural, and philanthropic affairs for nearly a century, wished to enhance the lives of others with art, as their lives had been enhanced by it. Their generosity and love of art and nature established what has become the Museum’s guiding spirit – the marriage of art and nature. The Woodson, which is accredited by the American Association of Museums (AAM), remains the region’s only art museum.
When it opened in 1976, the Museum’s permanent collection galleries were installed
with the family’s decorative arts collection, including a complete set of
99 bird and floral porcelains designed by Dorothy Doughty for Royal Worcester,
and a collection of 19th century glass baskets. These objects reflected Cyrus
Yawkey’s (1862-1943) belief in the need “to cultivate a love for beauty in
art and nature.” The permanent collection, retaining its focus on art inspired
by nature, has grown to more than 3,500 objects.
To initiate their promise of an active program of changing exhibitions, the
Woodson family asked their friend and respected artist, Owen Gromme, to organize
the Museum’s inaugural exhibition. Public response to Birds of the Lakes,
Fields and Forests
so far exceeded expectations that it became the highly
competitive annual juried Birds in Art
has shown the work of more than 750 international artists in over 60 American venues and
14 international venues in its 31-year history.
In fulfilling its commitment to diverse exhibitions representing the broad
spectrum of world art, the Museum has organized or presented, to date, more than 300
changing exhibitions ranging from Victorian needlework, Russian icons, American
waterfowl decoys, and Egyptian objects to botanical prints, 17th century Dutch
and Flemish still-life paintings, Gaston Lachaise sculpture, and William Wegman and Clyde Butcher
photographs. In addition, 50 Woodson-organized exhibitions have been shown
in 42 states and 15 countries since 1979.
Two other changing exhibition highlights include a commitment to biennial exhibitions of work by children’s book illustrators and outdoor sculpture. Beginning in 1991 with the work of illustrator Tomie dePaola, a key component of the Woodson’s children’s book illustration exhibitions has been a partnership with the Marathon County Public Library. Subsequent exhibitions have featured Eric Carle, Jerry and Brian Pinkney, Australian and American illustrators, William Joyce and David Wiesner, Robert Sabuda and David Diaz; and Paul O. Zelinsky; and Wendell Minor and Denise Fleming.
Art exhibitions moved outdoors in 1995 after construction of the Margaret Woodson Fisher Sculpture Garden. Nine thematic exhibitions have been organized, and eighteen large-scale sculptures are sited in the garden and throughout the grounds. The sculpture garden hosts programs and special events including OctoBIRDfest.
Woodson Family Women
The museum is named in honor of Leigh Yawkey Woodson (1888 - 1963), a woman who with her husband, Aytchmonde P. Woodson (1881 - 1958), continued her family’s legacy of generosity in the Wausau community. Mr. and Mrs. Woodson had three daughters.
• Alice Woodson Forester (1918 - 1994) and her husband, John E. Forester, spearheaded the effort to create an art museum in memory of Mrs. Woodson. They donated their residence to serve as the museum and oversaw the addition of a large gallery wing prior to the opening in September 1976.
• Nancy Leigh Woodson Spire (1917 - 1998) resided in New York throughout her adult years with her husband, Dr. Lyman J. Spire. Though distant from her hometown of Wausau, she generously supported every phase of the Museum’s growth.
• Margaret Woodson Fisher (1920 - 1972), who supported the founding of the Museum, died before the Museum opened. She resided in Florida during most of her adulthood with her husband, Dr. Frederick W. Fisher. The Margaret Woodson Fisher Sculpture Garden is named in her honor.
The Yawkey Connection
The Museum is frequently asked if former Boston Red Sox owner Thomas Yawkey was related to Leigh Yawkey Woodson, the woman in whose memory the Woodson Art Museum was created.
• Cyrus Carpenter Yawkey, the father of Leigh Yawkey Woodson, was the first cousin of August Lydia Yawkey Austin, mother of Thomas Yawkey Austin, who was born in 1903.
• Thomas Yawkey Austin spent summers during his childhood with his mother in Hazelhurst, Wisconsin, about 70 miles north of Wausau.
• Thomas’ name was changed to Thomas Austin Yawkey when he was adopted by his uncle, William Hoover Yawkey, following the death of both his mother and stepfather in 1918.
• Following Wm. Hoover Yawkey’s death a year later in 1919, Cyrus Carpenter Yawkey became Tom Yawkey’s legal guardian until he came of age.
• Cyrus Yawkey was Thomas Yawkey's first cousin, once removed.
• Cyrus Yawkey was a lumberman who moved to Wisconsin from Saginaw, Michigan, with his wife, Alice Richardson Yawkey.
• They had one child, Leigh Yawkey, who married Aytchmonde P. Woodson in the early 1900s. Leigh Yawkey Woodson was Thomas Yawkey's second cousin.
• Both the Yawkey and Woodson families were prominent in Wausau’s business and philanthropic undertakings, and the Woodson Art Museum is one of the happy beneficiaries of their profitable ventures.
• The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources honored the Woodson Art Museum in 2007 by including it as a Waypoint on the Central Sands Prairie Region section of the Great Wisconsin Birding & Nature Trail.
This designation recognizes the significance of Birds in Art and the Museum’s permanent collection to both birders and art enthusiasts.
• A statewide online competition in 2007 to identify the Wonders of Wisconsin resulted in the Woodson Art Museum being designated an official Wonder, coming in second in the museum category behind the venerable Milwaukee Art Museum.
• The seven-page article “The Art of Birding North-central Wisconsin
,” written by Woodson Art Museum public relations coordinator Marcia Theel, appeared in the January/February 2007 issue of
(the magazine of the American Birding Association).
• In October 2006 the Woodson Art Museum received Governor Jim Doyle’s “Putting Wisconsin on the Map” Award.The award honors organizations or individuals that raise the state’s profile as a trav-
el destination and recognizes achievements made in creatively promoting Wisconsin tourism attractions.The Wisconsin Department of Tourism wrote, “For thirty years, the Woodson Art Museum has charmed the art world and nature enthusiasts with Birds in Art
. As the most prestigious and influential art exhibition of its kind, it has brought international attention to the Museum and a flock of travelers to the central Wisconsin area. While best known internationally for Birds in Art
, the Woodson also provides audiences with quality art experiences year-round through its permanent collection, changing exhibitions, and education programs.”
• Briggs & Stratton Corporation, Milwaukee, named the Woodson Art Museum’s Margaret Woodson Fisher Sculpture Garden as one of the country’s Top 10 Lawns for Family Fun in its 2004 annual competition. When national online voting ended, the Museum’s sculpture garden secured the #5 spot in this search for all-around family-friendly green spaces.
• The Winter 2003 Wisconsin Academy Review featured an eight-page centerfold story that tells how the Woodson Art Museum got its wings. Thirteen works in the Museum's collection illustrate "High-flying art," written by Jane Weinke, curator of collections and registrar. The article provides a spirited look at how birds and bird-related subjects came to be the Museum's primary collecting focus and how Birds in Art has played a substantial role in collections growth.
• The editors of Wisconsin Trails
magazine named the Woodson Art Museum as the “Littlest Museum with the Biggest Reputation” in its Best of Wisconsin story (March/April 2002). Editors cited Birds in Art as “the most important and prestigious show of its kind” and proclaimed that “the Woodson Art Museum is universally familiar among artists whose specialty is the depiction of the natural world.”
• The Wisconsin Library Association honored the Woodson Art Museum with its 2001 Special Service Award for the Museum’s partnership with the Marathon County Public Library and commitment to the art of children’s book illustration.
• As part of its 40th anniversary celebration, Wisconsin Trails
editors singled out the Woodson Art Museum in March/April 2000 as one of “40 Places Every Wisconsinite Should Visit.”