B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

David Anthony Hummer has a vision for the former Wausau Club. If successful, the site will become a new museum that could bring new jobs and tourism dollars to the city.

About two months ago, David Anthony Hummer joined an unusually crowded meeting at Wausau’s city hall. The second-floor board room was full of people who came to hear what Hummer, a well known artist in town, was about to propose for the former Wausau Club, the stately historic building that has been vacant since the club closed more than a decade ago.

There had been little public talk about Hummer’s idea prior to the meeting. A previous proposal to renovate the building, now owned by the city, had fallen through, and Hummer’s plan visibly delighted those in the room.

The idea: Turn the historic building into a contemporary art museum, expand Hummer’s existing art instruction studio there, and create an event space to take advantage of the once-glorious ballroom.

The building already is partially renovated and most all of its outstanding architecture and interior features remain: large white pillars in the front, a new roof, red velvet wallpaper walls, ornate chandeliers, century-old woodwork.

Remarkably, Hummer’s ambitious proposal has met with little or no public criticism—almost unheard of for a city project.

Hummer’s goal is to launch the museum. He has no desire to be its director. Other than relocating his art studio there, he says he won’t be involved with day-to-day operations of the Museum of Contemporary Art, or MOCA, as he calls. But he does have a specific vision— namely, that it won’t be a stuffy place that makes you feel like you know nothing about art. Hummer’s philosophy with his painting school and studio, The Bauhaus, is that anyone can produce art, prior experience or not. Likewise, anyone could walk into the MOCA and enjoy the art in the way that makes sense for them.

That’s Hummer’s vision. Running a museum is not his forte, though he does have years of experience in real estate development. But above all, David Hummer is a painter.

Artistic evolution

Somewhere in a warehouse in Las Vegas, there’s a huge stash of David Hummer paintings. They were created at various points over the past 20 years, and as far as Hummer knows, none of them has seen the light of day.

For many years, Hummer’s creations were bought by a wealthy art collector who liked his paintings so much, he wanted Hummer to paint exclusively for him. The man considered Hummer’s work as an investment, envisioning it to be worth much more in the future. It was an unusual arrangement in the art world, where collectors typically choose paintings from among many artists.

At first, the job seemed like a dream. Hummer enjoyed the financial security, knowing his studio in the Underwriters Exchange Building on North Broadway and Kilbourn Avenue in Milwaukee was secure. He could spend every day painting. So he closed down the art gallery and framing business he’d started after graduating from UW-Milwaukee. The arrangement meant security, and for a time, Hummer was happy to oblige.

The arrangement eventually fell apart as Hummer realized that his paintings probably were growing quite valuable. More importantly, Hummer wanted to grow as an artist. His photo realism style, portraits mostly, evolved into contemporary realism—more realistic than real. The idea centers on how few brush strokes the artist can use while still accurately representing the subject.

Hummer and I had chatted one day as I was walking past The Bauhaus in downtown Wausau, and he showed me a commission portrait he was working on from a local CEO (his commissions sell for tens of thousands of dollars). From a moderate distance, it looked a remarkable likeness. “Go look at it up close,” he said. “It’s just a bunch of splotches.”

As I approached, I was flummoxed. He was right. That perfectly detailed portrait, when viewed up close, looked like a bunch of splotches that fell into order only as I backed away. It was a stunning effect.

It was, however, a style that his initial collector and backer hadn’t grasped. “I wanted to bust out of photo realism and experiment with new imagery,” Hummer said. “He didn’t understand why I would do that.”

After he ended his arrangement with the collector, he moved to Chicago to launch a real estate development firm with a musician friend, picking up small warehouses and brownstones, then redesigning them into single-family homes.

It was fine work, but three years later, he got a call from the collector, urging Hummer to move Vegas and resume his painting. Hummer accepted, and stayed in Las Vegas for about seven years, from 2001 to 2008. Painting was a good decision, but moving to Vegas, not so much. “Vegas is exactly what you think it is: All smoke and mirrors. It’s almost the entire culture.” He worked a year for his benefactor before turning once again to real estate. Hummer stayed in Las Vegas, capitalizing on a booming real estate market in California and Nevada and making millions in the process.

But for personal reasons, Hummer knew he needed to leave. During a trip back home to visit his brother in Rib Mountain, he found a reason to stay in Wausau: She is now his wife, Becky Hummer, owner of Allister Deacon’s Coffee House. He left behind everything in Nevada to start fresh in Wausau.

The Bauhaus

On a recent Monday night, Hummer and I stood staring at his latest painting, a portrait of a young woman with an impish, thoughtful expression. Hummer had posted the painting’s evolution on Facebook, showing how it went from a straightforward likeness to its finished, somewhat abstract final version: A big splotch of mint-green paint covers the upper left half of the face, with an eye peeking out from behind. I like it better with the green blob, but I can’t say why. “I know why,” Hummer says. He explains the brush strokes, the thought process working through the painting. It’s not something he does often.

David Hummer Bauhaus 111016

B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

David Hummer Bauhaus 111016

David Hummer teaches classes several days each week at his studio, The Bauhaus.

Later that Monday night, students trickle into the studio lined with canvases and makeshift lighting. Hummer has already set up their paintings so they can begin work right away. Student ages range from millennials to baby boomers, and the Monday night class is mostly women, save one. The dozen or so students look over each other’s work, give advice, share jokes.

Several are only on their second or third painting, though a casual onlooker would never know it. The paintings don’t look like Hummer’s, but they don’t look like the scribbling of a beginner, either.

Hummer is emphatic that anyone can paint. It’s not about some innate talent, he says. Art is work. Put in the work, and you find success.

The Bauhaus is a low-pressure environment. Students work at their own pace and Hummer is available for guidance. He comes across as approachable, laughing with students and making them feel comfortable.

The Bauhaus started with just one student, who asked if Hummer would teach her. She had friends who wanted to learn as well, and asked if he would teach a group. That grew to setting up shop in a church, which became The Bauhaus’ current location on Washington Street, just outside Wausau Center all.

His student count grew to 10, then 20, then 30, and then “it got out of hand,” he said. Once again Hummer found himself in balancing everything else with his painting.

Today, Hummer holds workshops on Monday, Tuesday and Saturday, with open studio time on Fridays and a life drawing class on Wednesday nights.

Karen Schneider didn’t know what to expect in her first class at The Bauhaus. She had taken an art class in college, was shown a handful of techniques and left on her own. She and six other students formed the first group class under Hummer, in 2014.

“Right from the get-go, I was hooked,” Schneider, 62, of Rib Mountain said. “Before we even got into painting, he taught us how to stretch a canvas, pick a photograph to use. He has an eye for what will work well and what won’t, and that put us at ease.”

Hummer stresses to his students that what they create won’t be perfect, that perfection doesn’t matter. Their art is for them, others’ criticism or praise be damned.

That said, it’s hard not to marvel at the early success students have. People often see their paintings in The Bauhaus are astounded to learn they’re the work of his students, many of whom now sell their work or win contests.

Beth Tepper, 64 of Wausau, was surprised how even her first painting turned out. She had no experience, not even a high school art class. That picture, of one of her grandchildren, is hanging on a wall at Allister Deacon’s.

The museum

Perhaps there has been so little public criticism of the modern art museum proposal because it’s a leap of faith in someone who’s well liked and admired in town.  But make no mistake: This is a huge endeavor and its success will boil down, like with anything, to cold hard dollars.

The initial construction would cost around $1.5 million and operations supported by a $20 million endowment. Where would that money come from? There are 29 private, 11 corporate and 13 public foundations in Marathon County alone, Hummer says in his Request for Proposal (RFP) response to the city. Money also would be raised through memberships and private donations. Hummer’s Bauhaus studio will pay rent to the museum.

The 10,000-square-foot building would employ a staff of eight, including an executive director, curators, marketing and maintenance staff. Total payroll is estimated at $380,000 per year. Hummer estimates utilities at $1,500 per month.

In December, Wausau officials will make a decision on the final proposal of the Museum of Contemporary Art, or MOCA for short. Hummer doesn’t want to say too much about the final proposal until he present it to the city.

But his vision is well mapped out: It should be a place where anyone feels comfortable walking in. Much like he’s done to break down barriers to art with The Bauhaus, he’s planning to do the same with the museum.

Accessibility is the modern approach to museums, Hummer says, reflecting the population they want to serve. That also comes down to staffing. One art gallery in New York did away with its unpaid internships, which favored students from wealthy income brackets whose parents could afford to support them. Paid internships opened the door to working-class students, bringing greater diversity. “Museums are cleaning house,” Hummer says.

Wausau Interim Community Development Director Christian Schock says the project is a perfect use for the Wausau Club and ties into the city’s goals of attracting young professionals to the area. Any contribution to the arts scene rises the tide that lifts all boats, Schock says. MOCA also would tie in neatly with the decision already made to designate 2017 as the year of the arts in Wausau, Schock says.

Hummer’s background in both the arts and real estate development make him uniquely suited for the project, Schock says. “It’s a rare combination of worlds to have someone who is a creative artist and also has experience driving the development process.”

Jenna Graham, about to graduate from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design with a BFA, is one of several people interested in working on the museum project. Graham interned with Hummer, first hearing about him about a year and a half ago when her mother first took classes with him. Graham, a Wausau native, says she quickly learned the appreciate the level of Hummer’s art. “He’s really accomplished,” Graham says. “People don’t realize that. He has an amazing skill.”

The Twin Cities are rife with galleries and museums that all work together to form a robust art scene. Graham says she’s confident the Museum of Contemporary Art will do the same in Wausau. “It’s adding to what’s already here, in a way that’s new.”

If or when the museum is created, The Bauhaus will move in,  and David Hummer will go back to what he loves: painting and teaching others to paint.

About the Wausau Club and the proposed Museum of Modern Art

  • Built in 1864, the 10,000-square-foot building on McClellan Street has been vacant since late 2004, when it closed as the Wausau Club.
  • A few years later it was purchased for $315,000 by Tom and Connie Schuette (of the Wausau Homes company) who sunk more than $2 million into renovations. They abandoned the project and in late 2013 donated the building to the city of Wausau in hopes a suitable buyer/developer would emerge.
  • November 2014: After months of controversy that the city had adopted a white elephant, Mark Goffin, a local small business owner and builder, proposed developing the space into a mercantile consisting of a salon, spa, wine bar, bakery and café.
  • Summer 2016: Goffin’s plans fall through and the city reopens an RFP, Request for Proposal, for the building. David Hummer’s proposal for a contemporary art museum is the only response. His proposal asks that the city donate the building, which is valued at $459,800. Initial construction is projected at $1.5 million. He proposes creating a $20 million endowment, plus ongoing fundraising, to pay for future expenses.
  • December 2016:  The city council will decide on whether to accept Hummer’s proposal, after he gives an update. Then it’s up to Hummer and his network of art professionals, developers and philanthropists to make it happen.