Monroe Arts Center: Sometimes, Old and New Make a Perfect Team

The Monroe Arts Center has begun a new chapter of service, as it embraces a new, enhanced identity. Discover all there is to see at this valued institution.

A pottery exhibit in the MAC art gallery.
A pottery exhibit in the MAC art gallery.

Monroe is known for its cheese and bi-annual Cheese Days, its charming Swiss-German heritage, an historic town square with a clock-topped courthouse, eclectic dining and diverse shopping.

Nestled in the dairy-farm-dotted rolling countryside of south-central Wisconsin, the city also is home to a true cultural asset – the Monroe Arts Center (MAC), which recently began a new chapter of service to the community.

Now housed in a handsome cream-colored brick church built in 1869, with an attractive and modern glass addition, MAC has been entertaining the Monroe community and a growing number of visitors from the surrounding countryside for more than four decades.

MAC director Richard Daniels describes the airy glass addition as a means of separating the center from its longtime identity as a church.

“MAC is 41 years old and has a storied existence,” Daniels explains. “It began when the 19th century Methodist Church was part of a consolidation effort and its congregation moved out.”

The congregation planned to sell the church building to the City of Monroe, which planned to raze it and construct an apartment building.

“This alarmed one of the Methodist Church congregants, Peg Stiles,” Daniels explains. “She believed the church held significant architectural value. Peg researched the building and learned it had been designed by Edward Townsend Mix, Wisconsin’s second-most recognized architect after Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Judging it worthy of preservation, Stiles began raising the funds and compiling the documentation necessary to have the church building added to the National Register of Historic Places, with local significance, if not state and national.

“Mix’s signature was an angled corner steeple, which this church features,” Daniels says. “There were four of these unique architectural designs in the state, and I believe this is the only one left standing.”

During the work to save the building, everyone agreed it should be repurposed as a center for the arts. The mission of the Monroe Arts Center is threefold: to nurture an appreciation for the arts, to aid individual creative development, and to ensure the preservation and integrity of the historic facility.

The sanctuary/auditorium seats 265; larger audiences are hosted in the Monroe High School Performing Arts Center, which seats 700.

“When I joined MAC 11 years ago, we began considering a capital campaign to fund a new addition,” Daniels recalls. “The goal was not only to rehab the original building, but also to build a compatible but modern addition that was fully accessible.” More than $3.1 million was raised for the project.

MAC board members were concerned about the inaccessibility of the church concert hall to the disabled. The addition features an off-street drive-up to the doorway. Inside, an elevator makes it easy for visitors to access the second level, where a glassed-in walkway leads to the historic auditorium.

“The addition opened in June 2016, and we’re calling 2016-2017 our grand opening season,” Daniels says. “MAC’s season runs from Sept. 1 through Aug. 31, a full year of exhibitions, performances, classes and other activities. It’s extremely gratifying to be able to welcome guests who were unable to attend events up until now.”

MAC once focused on the performing arts, but its programs have expanded to include literary and visual arts. Audiences enjoy a wide variety of musical performances.

On Feb. 11, MAC welcomes guitarists/vocalists Loren Barrigar and Mark Mazengarb, followed on March 4 by Route 66, a rousing musical trip down the legendary highway. Six Appeal Vocal Band takes the stage April 21, bringing an award-winning a cappella style to favorite tunes from several decades. The season will close with a May 20 performance by The Lowe Family, eight energetic musical siblings from Nashville, Tenn.

There’s now a Sunday classical music series, too.

MAC hosts its own Wisconsin Music Arts Festival every two years. “We do this during odd-numbered years so as not to compete with Monroe’s immensely popular Cheese Days, while at the same time giving visitors a reason to return before the next Cheese Days in 2018.”

A themed literary series is also part of MAC’s annual efforts. This season’s theme “Our Environment” and will be enhanced by an exhibit of Wisconsin landscape photography.

Combining performing and visual arts is common practice at MAC.

“On Sunday, March 19, MAC welcomes back the Madison Youth Choirs to perform a premiere score by Scott Gendel, to accompany the reading of Paul Gallico’s ‘The Snow Goose,’ by professional actor Richard Hilger,” Daniels says. “It promises to be an extraordinarily beautiful and emotionally moving evening.”

Adding to audience enthusiasm at MAC is the amazing acoustical quality of the concert hall.

“Recently, MAC hosted the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s 19-member string section,” Daniels says. “Mix keenly understood how acoustics work, and the musicians were so appreciative, they commented that they would love to come back and record here. We’d love to have the Chamber Orchestra record here and be part of our Wisconsin Music Arts Festival,” says Daniels.

He recalls a concert performed earlier in the season by a Canadian folk trio whose opening remarks praised the MAC’s impressive sound.

“They told the audience ‘Oh, my goodness, it’s a pleasure playing here. We had no idea the audience would sound as if there were a million of you.’”

In support of visual arts, the new MAC addition is home to two fine art galleries plus a children’s gallery with a classroom. Off the lower level lobby is a gift shop displaying the works of local and regional artists.

On the second floor, a lounge area offers comfortable seating. Daniels says this space will soon include a monitor to announce upcoming events and broadcast live the event going on in the auditorium.

“We dedicated the children’s gallery to Monsignor Campion,” Daniels says. “MAC offers after-school art classes to a growing number of young artistic students.”

Future plans for MAC focus on restoring the lower level of the church to its original configuration.

“It used to be one large room, but this was broken up into classrooms and offices,” he explains.

Although the area has on-street parking, plans are in the works to raze a 1950s addition on the west side of the church, restore a church wall and expand the parking lot. The MAC board is on the hunt for properties to purchase in the immediate area for additional parking.

With a wraparound view of the Monroe courthouse from one side of the new addition and the church’s architectural highlights on the other, the addition both complements the original MAC with surprising harmony. Together, the unique-but-compatible two parts – the old and the new – enable more kinds of arts to come to life, enriching the Green County community.