The Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, in the heart of Wausau, Wisconsin, is known for its internationally acclaimed Birds in Art exhibition, which opens each fall on the weekend after Labor Day. All-new avian-themed interpretations in original paintings, sculptures, and graphics are sure to inspire in endless ways. The inaugural exhibition that helped launch the Museum’s opening in 1976 developed to become the Woodson Art Museum’s flagship and internationally renowned Birds in Art exhibition.
- Art of the natural world is the guiding spirit behind the paintings, works on paper, and sculpture in the Museum’s collection. Visitors can experience nature’s beauty year round in the galleries featuring exhibitions drawn from the Museum’s collection and throughout the sculpture garden and grounds; the Woodson Art Museum’s historic and contemporary collection sets a world standard for avian- and nature-themed art.
- Diverse exhibitions feature artwork from around the world and change more often than the seasons.
- Enriching programs and events for all ages enliven exhibition themes.
- Committed to always-free admission, the Museum is a valued community resource and north central Wisconsin cultural attraction.
- The Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum is a 2017 National Medal winner, the nation’s highest museum honor for service to the community.
The Woodson Art Museum is one of only two art museums among the five museums and five libraries named 2017 National Medal winners on May 15, 2017, by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency supporting the nation’s approximately 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums, all of which are eligible for the award. Winners are chosen because of their significant and exceptional contributions to their communities. For 23 years, the award has celebrated institutions that respond to societal needs in innovative ways, making a difference for individuals, families, and their communities. Each of the 2017 National Medal winners “play a critical role as community catalysts and provide vital resources that drive economic development, foster community well-being and spark neighborhood revitalization,” said Dr. Kathryn K. Matthew, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. See the press release and the IMLS 2017 National Medal Winners brochure for details.
After the Washington, D.C., National Medal award ceremony, StoryCorps — a national nonprofit dedicated to recording, preserving, and sharing the stories of Americans — visited the Woodson Art Museum to document stories from our community; these recordings will be preserved at American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Listen now to these fifteen StoryCorps recorded conversations via this Woodson Art Museum 2017 National Medal Award webpage.
In addition to being named a National Medal winner in 2017 and a finalist in 2016, the Woodson Art Museum also was the 2016 winner of the Wisconsin Governor’s Arts, Culture, and Heritage tourism award. In November 2020, Kathy Kelsey Foley, director, received the Association of Midwest Museum’s Distinguished Career Award for her significant contributions to the museum field; details are in the press release. To see a recording of the AMM’s online Zoom award celebration, including a Museum highlights video, click here: https://youtu.be/woLQwsW3nBE
As the only full-service art museum in northern Wisconsin, the Woodson Art Museum offers a myriad of community engagement opportunities and maintains its more than four-decade commitment to always-free admission. The Woodson Art Museum provides visitors with barrier-free access to a vast array of visual-arts experiences including via ever-changing artwork in the galleries, the sculpture garden, Rooftop Sculpture Garden, and Art Park – the Museum’s interactive family gallery, visiting artists’ presentations and workshops, hands-on art making, and programs for all ages and life stages – from children and families to students during class visits and teens and adults.
Themes from ever-changing exhibitions are woven throughout programs that span the age and life-stage spectrum. For example, Art Babies launched in 2009 for little ones and accompanying adults and continued through ten years until coronavirus precautions curtailed programs and caused program reimagining that continues to evolve. After a precautionary hiatus, other programs resumed, including SPARK!, created in 2010 for individuals with early- to mid-stage memory loss and their loved ones or care partners, and Art Beyond Sight, implemented in 2006, provides multisensory ways for individuals with blindness or low vision to experience the visual arts. The Woodson Art Museum staff continually strives to provide audiences with quality, barrier-free art experiences through these and other programs that enliven and amplify themes from temporary changing exhibitions and Museum collection exhibitions.
The Woodson Art Museum’s mission is to enhance lives through art. Therefore, the Museum continually strives for excellence in providing audiences with quality art experiences through the Museum’s collection, changing exhibitions, and education programs for all ages.
Both the Museum and the community have their roots in the lumber industry. Wausau is nestled amongst lake-dotted, rolling farmlands and woodlands, intersected by the Wisconsin River, which define north central Wisconsin’s natural beauty. Wausau is home to about 40,000 people; Marathon County, 133,000; and the 15-county north central region served by the Woodson, about a half-million people.
In 1973, John E. Forester and Alice W. Forester donated an English Tudor home and four-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 new main entrance was added in 1997; and a 9,000-square-foot addition was completed in 2012. 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 guiding spirit – the marriage of art and nature – of the Woodson, which is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.
When it opened in 1976, the Museum featured the Woodson family’s decorative arts collection, including a complete set of bird and floral porcelains designed by Dorothy Doughty for Royal Worcester, and a collection of nineteenth-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 collection focuses on art inspired by nature, primarily birds, and has grown to more than 14,000 objects.
To initiate their promise of robust changing exhibitions, the Woodson family asked their friend and respected Wisconsin artist, Owen J. Gromme, (1896-1991) 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, which has shown the work of almost 1,000 international artists.
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.
- Nancy Leigh Woodson Spire (1917-1998) resided in New York throughout her adult years with her husband, Dr. Lyman J. Spire; she generously supported every phase of the Museum’s growth.
- Alice Woodson Forester (1918-1994) and her husband, John E. Forester, spearheaded the effort to create an art museum in memory of Mrs. Woodson.
- Margaret Woodson Fisher (1920-1972), who supported the founding of the Museum, died before it opened. The Sculpture Garden is named in her honor.