Celebrating the Kohler Art Library: Early Days to 50th Anniversary

November 2, 2020

By Lyn Korenic, Director Kohler Art Library

From the first conception, we have been intertwined with the library, and with the art history department – a deliberate decision to foster different kinds of inquiry, research, and public engagement. One exciting thing to consider is how we can ever more fully realize that original intention – especially in how we interact as separate, but contiguous parts of the university.

AMY GILMAN, Director, Chazen Museum of Art

The Kohler Art Library has evolved into a large, specialized library with a robust capacity to support the teaching and research needs of faculty and students, both undergraduate and graduate, in the departments of Art, Art History, and Design Studies; the distinctive collections of the Chazen Museum of Art; and a broad range of art-related pursuits on campus and throughout the state. This brief history recognizes key events and a few of the staff associated with this campus jewel.

ABOVE: Director William Bunce, Art Reference Librarian Louise Henning, and staff Mary Byrne; OPPOSITE: Kohler Art Library 50th anniversary commemorative poster design by Art 346 student Tiffany Laxton.

Sharing space with the Elvehjem Art Center and Department of Art History, the Kohler Art Library opened in September 1970 in the Conrad A. Elvehjem Building, designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese. This grouping was the dream of Art History Professor James Watrous, who recognized its potential for scholarly and creative collaboration. Serving on the fundraising committee with Watrous, Herbert V. Kohler, Sr., donated money from the Kohler Foundation and Kohler Company for the library.

In 1966, music Librarian William C. Bunce was tasked with building the art library collection by University Librarian Louis Kaplan. The initial Kohler Art Library collection of 47,000 volumes was composed of books moved from Memorial Library (classified in the Library of Congress N class and Cutter W class). Also included were books from Professor Oskar Hagen’s library and the Department of Art History, established in 1925. When Bunce retired in 1999, he had built one of the largest public, academic art libraries in the country, numbering 140,000 volumes. 

Bilder aus Karlsbad. Embossed metal brass book cover designed by Viennese workshop artist Carl Otto Czeschka.
Bilder aus Karlsbad. Wien, Austria: Wiener Werkstätte, approx. 1911. Embossed metal brass book cover designed by Viennese workshop artist Carl Otto Czeschka. Gift of Barbara Kaerwer

Along with Director Bill Bunce, the original staff included Art Reference Librarian Louise Henning, Library Assistant Barbara Unertl (now Erdman, 1970-1973), and Secretary Paula Tannenbaum. Staff and users enjoyed an elegant library of oak-paneled shelving, wool carpet, a built-in circulation desk, and a library card catalog that served as the focal point under the coffered ceiling. Erdman notes:

“Bill Bunce was meticulous about the appearance of the library. He chose colors, fabrics, and furniture with special oak card catalogs designed with slanting tops so materials could not be set on the top to clutter the clean look of the library’s design. Each morning before opening, the staff placed the furniture in the designated place, and we measured with rulers to be sure the spacing was exact.”

I have always found the Kohler Art Library a haven. From the time I constructed my first courses in 19th & 20th century German art and completed my first scholarly publications, I have flourished not only because of the University’s specialization in German area studies, but particularly because of Kohler holdings developed from the collection with which Oskar Hagen founded our library and department. Bill Bunce and Lyn Korenic helped me continue to grow as they generously shared, supported, and navigated all my teaching and research interests; as they built magnificent holdings of major and rare modernist publications and first editions that formed a vital part of my instruction, they fully partnered with and supported inspired donors such as Barbara.

BARBARA BUENGER, Emeritus Professor, Art History

Louise Henning (1970-1987) graciously provided reference assistance to all levels of readers. In 1993, as a measure of her devotion, she established the Louise Henning Kohler Art Library Fund. Library Assistant Beth Abrohams (1978-2007) managed circulation operations, including a full print reserves service, which began shifting to e-reserves in 2002. My initial job at Kohler, Library Technician (1978-1981), was card catalog editing, a task that ended with an online computer catalog in 1986.      

The Kohler Art Library will strive to become a library which asks questions as well as answers them.

WILLIAM C. BUNCE, Founding Director
Sammy Seung-Min Lee. Three Willows Bindery.
Sammy Seung-Min Lee. Three
Willows Bindery. Denver, CO:
Studio SML/k, 2012. Artists’ book
about rehabbing a desolate site.
Leonora G. Bernstein Artists’ Book

Limited budgets, coupled with brisk departmental and museum growth, led Bunce to seek funding from the Brittingham Foundation (1979-1982) and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation (1966-1981). With in-depth bibliographic knowledge, he enhanced the collection with out-of-print/rare books, reprints, microforms, catalogs of major art and architecture libraries, illuminated manuscript facsimiles, and exhibition catalogs. The library received vital collection support from the Friends of the UW-Madison-Libraries as well.

Bunce fostered cordial relationships with donors, including Beth Kubly and her father. She relates an encounter that led in 1997 to the Vincent F. Kubly Memorial Fund that honors her brother with its ongoing collection support:   

“When the Kohler Art Library opened, Professor Harold Kubly appeared in the office of the Director, Bill Bunce, and asked: “Let me know if there is any way I can help you.” Although Kubly was on the School of Commerce faculty, he was very interested in the arts. The two men became great friends, and that friendship grew to include the extended Kubly family.”

For me Kohler is an irreplaceable resource for artists, art historians/historians of visual culture on campus, as well as a special place.  The fact that it is located within the same building as our art history classrooms and museum collections allows for certain synergies. I love the fact that I can take my classes down to look at facsimiles of medieval manuscripts, or large folio volumes of historic monuments, or special exhibitions.  I also benefit from the specialized expertise of our wonderful library staff, including a dedicated art reference librarian, who can help our students learn the art of art history and image research.  I appreciate the partnership we have developed in building up a first-rate collection of facsimiles of manuscripts representing the global Middle Ages.  It has also added a wonderful dimension to my teaching medieval book history to be able to stage exhibitions on different themes in Kohler, teaching really important public humanities skill sets.   And I love the new classroom with flexible furnishings that allows us to work with the special collections in small groups.

TOM DALE, Professor, Art History

Additional donors bestowed significant largesse to support distinctive collections: the Leonora G. Bernstein Artists’ Book Endowment Fund (2001), the Oscar N. and Ethel K. Allen Memorial Endowment Fund for the Kohler Art Library (2007), the Steven N. Orso Fund for the Kohler Art Library (2019), and the Nene Humphrey Women in Art Fund (2019), which also supports research and programming for women artists. With this semicentennial milestone, it is hoped that others will be inspired to invest in Kohler’s future.

I have two favorite pieces of furniture on campus.  One is the John Muir “automatic” reading desk in the entry hallway at the State Historical Society, and the other is The New Book cart at the Kohler Art Library.  The John Muir desk has such a crazy and compelling narrative attached to it, that it is irresistible. I also find the Kohler’s New Book Cart equally if not more irresistible. I go to the art library sometimes to do specific research on an art-related topic, but often I just stop by to browse the recent additions to the collection that are temptingly displayed on a modest and conventional plywood cart that seems to roam around the lobby portion of the library. The New Book Cart tempts me to read on topics I didn’t know I was curious about and to deepen my understanding about many artists I might not otherwise investigate. Even if I’m on my bike and my backpack is already heavy, and I tell myself not to make it any heavier, I never fail to leave without a weighty stack of new reading.

TOM LOESER, Emeritus Professor, Art

The collection has notable depth in the areas of 19th-20th century German and Austrian art, Medieval art and architecture, illuminated manuscript facsimiles, African art, outsider art, artists’ sketchbook facsimiles, Frank Lloyd Wright, decorative arts, graphic arts, and artists’ books; as well as excellent holdings on Chinese and Japanese art. Significant gifts-in-kind from Arthur J. Frank, Jules Prown, Frank Horlbeck, Barbara Kaerwer, Richard Ellsworth Brock, Richard Askey, D. Frederick Baker, Simon, and Rosemary Chen, Tom Gombar, and Henry Drewal have enriched the library.

The Kohler Art Library and the Artists’ Book Collection is a true gem on campus and a national resource for book artists around the country.

JIM ESCALANTE, Emeritus Professor, Art

Recurrent space problems were mitigated by the installation of compact shelving in 1980, 1991, and 2005. A playful curiosity to users, movable shelving was crucial, noted Bunce, to address books piling up on tables with “increasing damage to tempers and tomes.” In 2018, 30,000 volumes were transferred to Verona Shelving Facility, providing space for the current 175,000 volumes onsite.

As Director since 1999, I have focused on access and preservation, facility upgrades, and collection promotion through eye-popping exhibits. I have diversified collections with e-publications and art by underrepresented groups and supported programmatic growth in areas such as Islamic Art and Architecture. In 2018, Design Studies (Textiles/Fashion and Interior Architecture) joined our liaison profile and prompted “Reimagining the Kohler Art Library,” a project of visionary architectural renderings by Roberto Rengel’s design students. 

The Kohler Art Library has been an extremely valuable resource in supporting my dissertation research on medieval textiles, which has been a lacunae in the university’s collection, by assisting in purchasing both foundational texts and the most recent scholarship that are critical to the development of my project. Anna Simon has also been very helpful in designing library resource classes for undergraduate sections during my time as a teaching assistant by tailoring the resources presented to both what was available at Kohler and relevant to the subject of the course

TANIA KOLARIK, Graduate student, Art History

Linda Duychak (2002-2016) filled the long-vacant position of Art Reference and Instruction Librarian. She began the library’s website, created UW Digital Collections’ renowned Digital Library for Decorative Arts funded by the Chipstone Foundation, and bolstered course-related instruction, leading to a dedicated teaching space in 2016 where students enjoy hands-on access to materials. Art Reference and Instruction Librarian, Anna Simon (2017- ), designs tailored instruction, manages outreach and social media and engages with Art graduate students in their studios. Other dedicated staff providing vital services include Soren Schoff (2007- ) and Kelly Tourdot (2013- ).

My first experience of the Kohler Art Library came over 30 years ago when I was a terrified new art history graduate student overwhelmed by the immensity of powerful imagery and scholarship contained in its collections. That awe never really left me, even after 2-1/2 degrees worth of student research and 20 years of librarian employment there.  I hope the Kohler continues to welcome and inspire researchers for many, many decades to come.

LINDA DUYCHAK, former Art Reference and Instruction Librarian
50th anniversary tote bag embroidered by Tania Kolarik.

Since 2006, the Artists’ Book Collection database has enhanced access to that acclaimed collection, Bunce’s greatest legacy. The Bernstein Book Arts Lecture has, since 2015, invited distinguished artists to campus to give a public talk and student workshop. Artists’ books were recently spotlighted in the Chazen exhibition, Speaking of Book Arts: Oral Histories from UW-Madison, which Tracy Honn and I co-curated. That collaboration, which included the Oral History Program, followed Kohler’s alliance with the Chazen and the Art Department to create Niche 11, a nifty museum reading area.

And for the next 50 years? The beloved Kohler Art Library will evolve to remain relevant as it “asks questions and answers them” about how it can continue to best serve the campus and community.

In 1978, I accepted the offer of a faculty position at UW-Madison on the basis of the campus research libraries. Since I had conducted research on my dissertation for six years in Rome at the Vatican Library, its Secret Archives and the Biblioteca Hertziana, and in Florence at the State Archives and the Kusthistorisches Institut, the quality of research resources was basic to my decision. On my arrival in Madison, I discovered that the Kohler Art Library is the gem of the campus libraries! It serves as a fulcrum for east campus arts. Additionally, it collaborates with many others across campus such Special Collections in Memorial Library. During my years on the faculty, the Kohler offered me constant resources for my own research as well as a wealth of teaching materials for my students. And the library directors and staff have been invaluable supporters and guides. A stellar aspect of the library, the artists’ books collection established by former director William C. Bunce, has been built further by director Lyn Korenic. Significantly, she has made that collection far more visible by creating stunning exhibitions. Many additional features of the library, such as its collection of facsimiles of illuminated medieval manuscripts, have also provided remarkable resources. In sum, the Kohler Art Library is irreplaceable.

GAIL GEIGER, Emeritus Professor, Art History

To read more about our stunning 50th anniversary Poster Exhibition, visit the story page!

Here is a gallery of more photos to enjoy!