Sarah Heyer’s hands swoop and stab at the air, at first high above her head before she squats and does her flailing dance at floor level, twisting, moving constantly. It looks to people milling about around her as she’s in the midst of an awkward interpretive dance to an unheard tune, like she’s in her own world.
And she is.
An art education major at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Heyer is using the virtual reality rig at The Pump House Regional Arts Center. She has a controller in each hand and beefy goggles covering her eyes, creating three-dimensional artworks using a program called Tilt Brush.
With this program, she has an array of colors from which to choose as well as different effects and tools. She can use brushes or markers, or she can paint with fire, smoke or sparkles.
“I really like the sparkly stuff,” she says.
Heyer is creating her sparkly artwork in The Pump House’s Kader Gallery, demonstrating some of the virtual reality art creation potential during a reception for an exhibit in the Balcony Gallery that features art created by students from Holmen. Young artists and their families wander by Heyer and can see a two-dimensional representation of what she sees and creates on a nearby computer screens.
If any of the gallery visitors had donned the virtual reality goggles, they could have gotten an even more compelling, close-up three-dimensional view of the butterfly she created. Or they could have enlarged the dome of fire created by fellow art education major Ellie Denuth and roamed inside it.
“This is insane,” Denuth says. “It’s weird when you can walk inside a drawing. You can design your own crazy space.”
Welcome to The Pump House Regional Arts Center at 40 years old, a place to enjoy arts of all stripes, encased in history but reaching out to the art of the future.
The Pump House’s 2017-18 art season celebrates 40 years, but pinning down the art center’s start is tricky. It could be said to have been born in early summer 1977, when the city of La Crosse approved a lease for Western Wisconsin Regional Arts to use the old waterworks building. Then again, the Pump House didn’t open its doors to the public until March 1979.
The city’s original pump house was built in 1880, and the brick Romanesque Revival building was enlarged in 1895, featuring an imposing 63-foot tower at the entrance (which later was shortened considerably). In those days, the water was pumped with engines fired by wood and coal.
The city was growing so fast at the turn of the century that the building stopped being used as a waterworks facility in 1913, made obsolete by a bigger plant. After use by the La Crosse Tractor Co. and a period during which it was vacant, the city’s street department took over the building in 1926.
The street department moved out in 1962, and in the mid-1970s city officials considered demolishing it. The stately post office and courthouse buildings already had been torn down when the old city pump house seemed destined for the wrecking ball.
Audrey Kader, for whom the Kader Gallery was named, recalls the time well.
From the time she moved to La Crosse, Kader immersed herself in the arts community, first with the Great River Festival of Arts and then with the newly formed Western Wisconsin Regional Arts organization. At that time, she recalls, the local arts scene seemed kind of splintered, with a lot of different groups and a lack of outreach.
“They saw each other as enemies rather than people with commonalities,” she says. “The arts were not something that were particularly valued by the typical working-class person. The arts in the schools were minimal. It was a whole cultural thing.”
Western Wisconsin Regional Arts started with an office in an old nursing home along Main Street and a blue electric typewriter that got a lot of work typing up grant applications. What the organization needed was a building to house a regional arts center.
“I was always on the lookout for a place that might work,” Kader says, recalling her first encounter with the future home of the Pump House. “It didn’t look like much when I went in the first floor. But when I saw those ceilings, I thought, ‘This building can’t go down.’”
Though caked with years of coal and wood smoke, Kader was struck by the elegance and artistry of the ceiling, which is made up of triangular panels filled with thin strips of wood. Stripped of grime by hours and hours of volunteer muscle, the ceiling at the Pump House is even more impressive today.
Kader and a small group of like-minded arts agitators started pushing the city to spare the building from the wrecking ball and turn it over to WWRA for an arts center, going to city government meetings where they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms.
“We were a nuisance,” Kader recalls. “We would go to City Hall and they would put us at the end of the agenda, hoping we would just give up and go home. We hung in there long enough and were able to convince them that it was a good thing to be done.”
A demolition bid for the building actually came within one vote of committee approval at one point, but the arts advocates prevailed.
Rise and fall
In the Pump House’s early days, the venture floated nicely on a sea of grant money, community donations and volunteer help. It wasn’t all wine and roses — the building certainly was in need of a lot of investment and TLC — but the Pump House was flush with the resources needed to launch a vibrant regional arts center.
At one point in the early days, the Pump House had eight paid employees, who kept a steady stream of visual arts exhibits and theater and music performances going.
Lee Hafemann first got involved at the Pump House in the mid-1980s through a theatrical troupe called Voices in the Light, mostly working behind the scenes building sets and running lights, although he did get on stage a couple times.
After a while, Hafemann got to be a familiar face and the executive director at the time, Jerilyn Kinkema (later Dinsmoor), asked him whether he wanted a job. He was hired for a position that put him in charge of the performance season and coordinating the arts classes offered there. He also wrote grants, made posters and did other assorted marketing work. On top of all that, he pitched in doing maintenance work.
“That was all a half-time job,” Hafemann recalls with a laugh. “It was a mishmash of things I did.”
When he worked there, Hafemann recalled, it was down to only three employees, with a full-time executive director, a part-time bookkeeper and him. Still, he said, “that model seemed to work,” thanks to a lot of volunteer help.
There were still a lot of issues with the building. On the coldest days of winter, they had to be careful not to close the bathroom doors or the water in the toilets would freeze. And actors would have to wait on a fire escape on the west wall outside the second-floor performance space before making their entrances for theatrical productions.
Things started to slide in the mid-1990s, Hafemann says, when first Dinsmoor and then he left the Pump House. Finances started getting perilously tight, especially after taking on some big expenses for projects like adding a kitchen and an elevator. “By the time that got paid for, it was on the ropes,” he says. “It was hanging on by a thread.”
In the first years of the 21st century, the Pump House was in deep trouble. When Don Smith became a member of the board of directors, the enterprise was $70,000 to $80,000 in debt and there were no paid employees. “We couldn’t even afford to buy an ad in the newspaper,” recalls Smith, who recently stepped down from the board but is still involved in recruiting new board members. “Essentially, the board took over and we ran it for a year. There weren’t a lot of events, but it was the first profitable year the Pump House had had in a long time.”
As Hafemann sees it, the Pump House might have been done for without Smith coming on the board. “Don brought business sense and a willingness to put his hands on anything and help out,” he says. “I think he saw a major project and he did it.”
And Smith was part of the board that hired Toni Asher as executive director.
Asher grew up in La Crosse, the daughter of Marilyn Wood of Marilyn School of Dance, but moved around a lot after getting married. When she came back to La Crosse, having reared six children, she was at a crossroads, something her mother recognized.
Asher’s mother brought her to a production of “The Vagina Monologues” at the Pump House in 2002, the first time Asher had been to the art center. It wasn’t so much the play Wood wanted her daughter to see — she knew the Pump House needed a leader and her daughter needed a mission.
“My mother is an extremely intuitive woman. She thought I would be a perfect fit for that job,” Asher recalls. “I walked in and it just felt like a special place. I saw the theater and fell in love with the building.”
Soon after that first visit, Asher was hired as a part-time executive director. Officially, she was paid to work 17 hours a week, but she put in a lot more, on top of working four other part-time jobs.
“The board that was on when I started was considering closing it down,” Asher recalls. “But some people on the board were just tenacious, enthusiastic and positive, and they thought they could turn it around.”
In the 15 years Asher has led the Pump House, the membership roster has grown from fewer than 200 to 450 (many of those are family memberships), the educational opportunities have expanded greatly, a pottery workspace has been created, a film society has been launched, most of the interior has been remodeled and the bottom line has been written in black ink just about every year.
“That is unheard of in the nonprofit world,” says Hafemann, who has stayed involved in the Pump House, serving on the board of directors from 2009-17. “They could not have found a more penurious executive director than Toni.”
The Pump House now has four paid staff members, a rotating roster of talented college interns and a healthy number of volunteers, a big improvement over what it was 15 years ago but still not quite what’s needed to make the Pump House the best regional art center it can be, as Asher sees it. “It’s not enough people to cover the work we have to do, but it’s what our funding allows us to do,” she says.
The Pump House has done some high-profile outreach art projects during Asher’s tenure, including the deployment of about three dozen giant, artistically customized fiberglass herons throughout the city (about half of which will be redeployed this year) and the launching of the Artspire summer festival.
One thing that has helped the annual visitor count at the Pump House soar to about 50,000 per year is the institution of youth art exhibits. Not only do the exhibits give young artists a well-deserved moment in the spotlight, Asher says, it also brings people to the Pump House who might not otherwise have visited an art gallery.
“It can really change a family’s future interactions with art once they’ve crossed the threshold,” Asher says. “People learn that coming to an art gallery isn’t an intimidating experience. It’s just a very wow moment for them.”
The families visiting the Pump House during the recent reception for the youth exhibit certainly were wowed, not only by the virtual reality but by the vintage motorcycles on display in the Kader Gallery as part of photographer Jim Brickl’s exhibit.
And people will be wowed even more as the Pump House explores more opportunities involving art and virtual reality. Not only can people create art in the virtual reality realm, people can visit art museums and see works of art from around the world as if they are in the same room with them.
“The idea of virtual field trips is huge,” says Lisa Lenarz, a former Pump House board member who teaches art at both La Crosse universities as well as in the La Crosse School District.
Lenarz is helping the Pump House introduce art and virtual reality in the schools. She’s finding that most students are comfortable in that virtual reality environment, knowing intuitively how to use it. “It taps into your imagination,” she says of virtual reality. “It makes you feel like you’re in an animated movie.”
The Pump House is creating a catalog of virtual reality applications that teachers can try and see what they’d like to bring to their classrooms, and teachers have been very excited about the possibilities, Asher says. “It brings another dimension to learning.”
One major Pump House virtual reality initiative will involve the creation of locally based content, with major help from Cameron Segura, a former Pump House intern who now lives in Los Angeles and works in reality TV. And the next Kader Gallery exhibit, opening Jan. 10, will feature “fantastical techno-scapes” by Jake Stephens in a show called “Virtual Reality: Land for sale in the world of non-existence.”
“Although we’re 40 years old, we’re really looking to be on the cutting edge of what’s new,” Asher says.
While the Pump House is in great shape, Smith says one key to keeping it vital will be attracting energetic and creative people to serve on the board of directors. “The directors on the board make a big difference in what direction it goes,” he says. “We need to be strategic in identifying directors who don’t just come to meetings and endorse what’s being done but come to meetings and say, ‘why aren’t we doing this, why couldn’t we do this, I’ll raise money so we can do this.’”
For Kader, it’s amazing to see what the Pump House has become, and she says a lot of the credit goes to Asher for her efforts. “She is just a gem. Toni has taken it on as a life project, and she has recruited so many wonderful people,” she says. “I’m just so appreciative of the people who have the vision and work to keep it going.”