This is not the first time Racine Art Museum executive director Bruce Pepich has been asked to compare his new building to the attention-grabbing Calatrava addition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, just 20 miles north. “I’m not going to say anything on the record about either of our two suburbs, Milwaukee or Chicago,” he jokes, adding that “Milwaukee created a world-class building that is an attraction in and of itself.” As for the Racine museum, which opened last month on Main Street in a $6.5 million rehab of a 60s renovation of a Civil War-era structure, Pepich says, “You get the ‘wow’ when you walk in here, and then the building steps back and lets all the objects come forward.”

He’s right. The RAM building–white on white with plenty of windows–looks like a Crate and Barrel store carried to some sublime next level. So it’s not really a surprise to find a window display of big red glass tchotchkes by Dale Chihuly, commissioned for the museum’s opening and smacking of salad bowls on acid. The museum, housed for 60 years in a farmhouse two miles away, has grown to national prominence since a lightbulb went on in Pepich’s head in the early 90s and it began to specialize in baskets aspiring to sculpture, teapots way past functionality, and other objects that defy the separation of craft and fine art. It didn’t hurt that this specialization was exactly the same as that of Racine’s most prominent art collector, Karen Johnson Boyd, a member of the town’s industrial royalty, the S.C. Johnson family. The new building’s galleries are named for her.

Pepich arrived in Racine 29 years ago with a newly minted art history degree from Northern Illinois University. The Westmont native says there weren’t any art classes at Benet Academy in Lisle, where he went to high school, and he never had a yen to make art himself. “I came to it as an observer,” he says. Hanging out at the Art Institute of Chicago on weekends with older cousins, he discovered he had a natural eye and the ability to write about what he saw. He’d been accepted to graduate school at the University of Minnesota when he took what he thought would be a temporary job with RAM’s parent, the sleepy little Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts.

In 1938 Jennie Wustum left 13 acres, a house, and a small trust fund (but no art) to the city of Racine for use as an art museum in her husband’s memory. It opened in 1941; two years later it landed a cache of 300 pieces of WPA art the government was shedding, including works on paper and textiles. For the next 50 years it functioned as a community art center, showing the work of local and regional artists, offering classes, and adding modestly to its collection of paintings and prints.

But as the museum approached its 50th anniversary, there was a reassessment, says Pepich, who’s been director and curator since 1981. “With two wonderful museums in the big cities on either side of us, we were wondering how to keep from being overlooked. We realized we couldn’t compete with them.” The Art Institute had textiles and the Milwaukee museum had glass, but neither was strong in other craft media, Pepich says. “This is a blue-collar community where people respect things made with the hand. Craft had always been popular with our audience. We thought, ‘This complements rather than competes–let’s just go with it.'” In 1991, Boyd donated 200 works including ceramics, baskets, and jewelry from her own collection to the Wustum. A longtime arts supporter, she had established Perimeter Gallery a decade earlier to give Wisconsin artists visibility in Chicago (and then at a second Perimeter location in New York) and to show craft in a fine art context. Now she was jump-starting a collection that would rapidly outgrow its quarters in a museum that shared her passion.

After that, M&I Bank offered to donate a building it was vacating at Fifth and Main in downtown Racine. The city was quickly convinced that a museum in that location could be a linchpin for redevelopment, while space in the original museum would be freed up for more classes and exhibits of local work. A campaign to raise $8.4 million had no trouble raising more than $10 million. Chicago architects Brininstool + Lynch, headed by Racine native Brad Lynch, got the design job and devised a relatively low-cost way to do something exciting with the exterior of the limestone-clad, three-story bank. “He called me and said, ‘I’ve got one word for you,'” Pepich recalls: “Plastics.” Lynch created a second skin for the building out of German-made, Canadian-processed white plastic panels that reflect the colors of sky and lake by day, are backed by white light at night, and are guaranteed not to yellow for at least 20 years. He opened the 46,000-square-foot building to the street in front and the lake in back, and created two floors of elegant Japanese-influenced exhibit space that makes the most of natural light and is spare without being cold.

Pepich (holding forth in a third-floor office with its own Chihuly and a panoramic view of Lake Michigan, while his wife, Lisa Englander, runs the gift shop) says with 10,000 square feet of gallery space he’s finally able to show more of the museum’s collection, which has grown to 3,000 pieces. The 50 percent of it that’s craft is “the fourth or maybe now the third most significant contemporary craft collection in the country, according to Michael Monroe,” former curator of the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian, says Pepich. It comes in right after New York’s American Craft Museum and the Renwick (where a jewelry exhibit Pepich is cocurating goes on display next fall). He says RAM could be a model for other small cities with limited means. “We’re an anchor for the downtown, attracting cultural tourists. The merchants are already seeing the difference.” Think of it as the Bilbao of Racine.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.