About The Exhibition
The Friends of Villa Terrace Present:
In the Park with Olmsted: A Vision for Milwaukee
At the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum
April 14 – September 25, 2022
The exhibition, In the Park with Olmsted: A Vision for Milwaukee, hosted by Charles Allis and Villa Terrace Art Museums (CAVT), takes a close look at the man who set the standard for parks and landscape architecture in the United States.
Olmsted pursued multiple professions before he found his calling as a maker of parks. Before becoming the superintendent of Central Park in 1857, Olmsted had several careers, all of which informed his later work designing parks and green spaces. They included journalist, surveyor, “scientific farmer,” and publisher. His ideals for American cities resonated with city planners seeking to alleviate the congestion caused by rapid urbanization. Olmsted and the firm he established developed accessible, naturalistic designs for parks meant to serve everyone and thus were highly sought after. City officials across the country, including in Milwaukee, solicited plans from Olmsted and his team.
In 1890, Olmsted was hired to help select sites for seven of Milwaukee’s early parks and to design three of them: Lake, River, and West Side parks (now Lake, Riverside, and Washington parks). He connected the first two by Newberry Boulevard, a linear-style parkway, a concept Olmsted had invented with his partner Calvert Vaux. Most design work took place between 1892 and 1895, and focused on creating well-orchestrated experiences and providing pleasant circulation throughout each park. Olmsted’s overarching idea for Milwaukee was a “Grand Necklace of Parks” interconnected green oases and parkways traversing the city. Ultimately, this significant part of Milwaukee history became the foundational design concept for Milwaukee County’s Park System of more than 150 parks.
In the Park with Olmsted: A Vision for Milwaukee is the first concerted look at the “Father of Landscape Architecture’s” contributions to Milwaukee. The exhibition looks at the landscape architect’s career and legacy before and after his design and development of Central Park, which began in 1858, after he and Vaux won the competition to design New York’s first major public park. As an author and editor, Olmsted addressed controversial issues in his writing, namely as a reporter for the New York Daily Times. During his travels, he contributed to the country's understanding of the American South by chronicling firsthand the animosity created by Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and economic disparities and documented this and more in newspapers and books for public consumption. Olmsted later championed the preservation of country’s significant natural landscapes at a time of rampant development. While Olmsted’s involvement with Milwaukee came late in his career, he played a pivotal role in furthering the city’s nascent plans for a system of public parks.
In the Park with Olmsted explores the history of Olmsted’s contributions to Milwaukee, and his legacy. Olmsted spent much of his life writing and being published on a wide variety of topics. His words help to convey his evolving notions of American society, regarding democracy, the moral and economic horrors of the system of enslaved labor, sanitation, and the necessity of publicly accessible parks in urban areas, for physical as well as mental health. Literature about Olmsted and his contribution to landscape architecture in this country set the stage for understanding Olmsted’s design work and is included in this exhibition.
A significant portion of the exhibition is dedicated to the visual history and evolution of the three Milwaukee parks designed by Olmsted. “The terrain and scenery of each park was distinctive and Olmsted’s firm sought to produce an experience and group of activities in each that differed from the other two,” according to Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks edited by Charles E. Beveridge. For Milwaukee, Olmsted envisioned what he named a “Grand Necklace of Parks.” His initial work and that of his associates, especially landscape architect Warren H. Manning, established key planning in the early days of Milwaukee.
To convey this rich history, the exhibition includes archival and contemporary images, along with a wide variety of maps, plans, posters, paintings, photographs, and videos.
Archival images illustrate some of the earliest character-defining elements of Olmsted’s parks in Milwaukee. A collection of over 50 vintage postcards, historic photographs from the Milwaukee County Parks and Milwaukee County Historical Society, and satellite images of Milwaukee from 1937 show the city prior to highway construction. Throughout the Twentieth-Century, artists have been inspired by Olmsted’s parks to paint en plein air. Those represented in this exhibition range from George Raab (1866–1943) and Gerrit Sinclair (1890–1955) to contemporary local artist including Ariana Huggett, Shelby Keefe, Tom Kubala, Colette Odya Smith, and Julia Taylor.
Other highlights include contemporary photographs and video by local and nationally recognized artists. New York and Brooklyn-based artists Lee Friedlander and Stanley Greenberg have contributed significant Milwaukee images. In 1988, Friedlander was one of these photographers commissioned by the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) to photograph the work of Frederick Law Olmsted across North America. The CCA project provided the chance “to reflect not only on the subtle dialectic between past and present, of the subsequent transformations on the complex environmental systems that Olmsted had fashioned, but on the very idea of the ‘park’ and its significance within a profoundly changed society,” according to curator Paolo Costantini. Friedlander was the only one of the three artists to visit Wisconsin and thus is an important part of this exhibition. More recently, Greenberg, traveled to Milwaukee to photograph in Olmsted parks for his book Olmsted Trees. In addition to their images, this exhibition features works by Milwaukee-based photographers—Steve Bell, Larry Chatman, Eddee Daniel, Steven D. Foster, and Thomas Gould.
The exhibition marks the museum premiere of the award-winning single-channel video, AI and I, by Cecelia Condit. Filmed in Lake Park in 2021, AI and I asks questions as to what it is to be alive and human, confronting our complex dependence on technology. In the film, a woman interrogates the nature of consciousness whether human, animal or man-made, as she walks through the woods, talking to Alexa while dragging electrical cords behind her like bread crumbs. The artist, who taught in University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s film and video department, describes herself as a storyteller “working within the psychological landscape of contemporary fairy tales, dreams and poetry, and an artist deeply inspired by Milwaukee’s parks.” The potential of high-tech is also explored in a video by TechRender, a laser scanning and digital documentation company, which also produced a new 3D printed model of Washington Park. Wes Tank, founder of TankThink, a film production company supporting community organizations, contributed a video about Washington Park Wednesdays, summer celebrations of music and culture in the park.
Books written about and by Olmsted accompany ones on the evolution of Milwaukee parks, such as The Milwaukee River Greenway by Eddee Daniel, as well as Walter Hood’s recent publication Black Landscapes Matter, which includes his designs for the Beerline Trail, one of Milwaukee’s newest greenways.
The exhibition, In the Park with Olmsted: A Vision for Milwaukee, occurs during the 200th anniversary of Olmsted’s birth and nationwide celebration spearheaded by the National Association for Olmsted Parks. With its focus on Olmsted’s place in America as well as Milwaukee, this exhibition affords opportunities to look closer at both the history and evolution of the city in broader contexts of societal and environmental change. Olmsted’s commitment to “parks for all forever,” and invites us to assess how we can continue to ensure democratic spaces for all communities to enjoy.
While broad in its scope, the exhibition is the point of departure for a rich series of programs at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum and at partner institutions across Greater Milwaukee that expand on Olmsted’s democratic ideals of equity, inclusion, and environmental justice.
In the Park with Olmsted Publication
In conjunction with the 200th anniversary of Frederick Law Olmsted’s birth, the Charles Allis and Villa Terrace Museums is proud to announce publication of In the Park with Olmsted: A Vision for Milwaukee in conjunction with their exhibition of the same name. This catalogue focuses on Olmsted’s life and legacy with particular attention to his design of three parks for Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This first concerted look at the “Father of Landscape Architecture’s” contributions to Milwaukee includes essays by Michael Carriere, Lee Hall, and Annemarie Sawkins. The history of the public parks movement in Milwaukee and Olmsted’s relevance today for the city combine to fill gaps in existing scholarship.
This 68-page full-color catalogue, designed by Jena Sher, includes a wide variety of images from the exhibition. Historical texts and maps accompany vintage postcards along with modern and contemporary works of art in a rich presentation of Olmsted and his ability to inspire others. Curated by Martha Chaiklin and Annemarie Sawkins, the exhibition and its accompanying publication tell the story of Olmsted’s profound influence on the greening of America’s cities through his ideal of “parks for all people.”
"Milwaukee has extraordinary Olmsted parks that deserve heightened appreciation and awareness. This exhibition at the Villa Terrace Museum helps establish why it’s time for Milwaukee to embrace Olmsted’s living legacy and value these parks for their historic, civic, cultural and ecological value."
- Anne Neal Petri
Martha Chaiklin is a historian and independent curator. She is the author of Cultural Commerce and Dutch Commercial Culture (2003) and Ivory and the Aesthetics of Modernity in Meiji Japan (2014), numerous academic book chapters and articles. She also translated C.T. Assendelft de Coningh’s A Pioneer in Yokohama (2012) and edited or co-edited Asian Material Culture (2009), Mediated by Gifts (2017) and Animal Trade Histories in the Indian Ocean World (2020). In 2014, Chaiklin, a former Milwaukee Public Museum curator, co-curated Noh Theatre in the Woodblock Prints of Tsukioka Kogyo (1869–1927) with Annemarie Sawkins.
Annemarie Sawkins is a Milwaukee-based-curator, art historian, and recent co-author of A Creative Place: The History of Wisconsin Art (2021). She has curated several exhibitions for Villa Terrace including Afghan War Rugs: The Modern Art of Central Asia (2014), and More on Less: The History of Burlesque in America from Lydia Thompson to Amber Ray (2015) with Martha Chaiklin, and traveled exhibitions to museums across the United States. From 1999 to 2012, she was a curator at the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University.