NEW YORK — I was standing in one of the largest museums in the world, thinking about the future of farming and the changing culture unfolding across rural Wisconsin.
This wasn’t a work trip.
It was a Thursday in late June and our family was in the midst of a five-day, four-night vacation in New York City. There are reminders of home here in this mass of skyscrapers and subway tunnels populated by more than 8.6 million people, or about 3 million more people than in all of Wisconsin.
Our visit took us throughout the week to Little Italy, a taping of “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah, and Harlem, where we dined on soul food at Sylvia’s Restaurant and took in amateur night at the famed Apollo Theater. We visited chaotic Times Square, saw Adam Driver and Keri Russel in “Burn This” at the Hudson Theatre and took in a Yankees game. We even made the trek to Rockaway Beach in Queens, which was a 90-minute subway ride from our tiny Airbnb fourth-floor apartment walk-up on 110th Street in Spanish Harlem.
But on this day, my wife and son chose to bike Central Park, which is surprisingly hilly, while my daughter, Leah, and I explored the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. The Met is no ordinary museum. It gets more than 6 million visitors a year, has nearly 2 million items in its permanent collection and covers over 2 million square feet. The museum is about six times larger than the Milwaukee Art Museum and has 10 times the floor space of Madison’s Chazen Art Museum.
Our first brush with Wisconsin in the Met came in “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll,” a temporary exhibit that runs through Oct. 1 and features 130 instruments played by musicians like Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, Lady Gaga and Jimi Hendrix. Just around the corner from the Beatles display, which included Ringo Starr’s Ludwig drum kit, we found a Gibson Les Paul Custom guitar that was purchased by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page in 1960. The guitar was stolen in 1970 but it was returned to Page in 2010. Les Paul was born in Waukesha, was a singer and songwriter and in 1940 began building his own guitars, which are now legendary in the industry.
After leaving the exhibit, we stumbled onto a 1931 painting by Sun Prairie’s Georgia O’Keeffe before going deeper into the American Wing of the museum, where we found John Steuart Curry’s painting, “Wisconsin Landscape.” It was created in the late 1930s when thousands of small farms dotted the state.
But while Curry’s 42- by-84-inch oil painting is relatively modest, its meaning, 80 years after it was finished in 1939 while Curry was an artist in residence at UW-Madison, is even more pointed. We are in a time where the rural landscape of Wisconsin is undergoing a seismic shift thanks to a variety of factors that include too much milk, low prices, increasing input costs and, more recently, tariffs that have driven down demand from buyers in foreign countries, primarily China.
Since 2004, the number of dairy farms in the state has been nearly cut in half with less than 8,000 remaining. The number of cows milked, however, has remained steady at nearly 1.3 million, as many surviving farms have expanded into mega operations, something unheard of when Curry ventured to southwestern Wisconsin to create the painting that now hangs in the Met. Curry was a Kansas native who lived in Madison from 1936 until his death in 1946 when he was just 48 years old.
“Curry loved Wisconsin. He engaged with the university’s students and football team and with the state’s rural artists, many of whom produced their art at the end of a hard day’s work,” according to a bio of Curry in the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend. “Curry also connected with the land; he hunted, camped, and fished. He felt appreciated and at home in Wisconsin.”
Our final reminder of Wisconsin at the Met involved Spring Green’s Frank Lloyd Wright.
In 1907, the architect designed a house for Francis and Mary Little that would later overlook Lake Minnetonka in Wayzata, Minnesota. The 250-foot-long Prairie School house followed the contours of two small hills with the living room perched on the crest of one of the hills. Francis died in 1923, and Mary in 1941. Family members lived in the home for another 30 years but had closed off the living room. Unable to keep up the massive house and pay taxes, the family decided to tear down the home and construct a smaller residence. So, in 1972, the living room and its contents were purchased by the Met, taken apart and shipped to New York, where it was reassembled in the museum. It might be one of the few Wright structures that will never again leak.
“I alternated between greedy admiration for that living room and absolute horror at the thought that Wright’s house was going to disappear,” Morrison Heckscher, the curator of dismantling the living room, said at the time.
But Wisconsin was not just a museum or a New York find. A few years ago we visited Boston, where Wisconsin-grown ginseng could be found in its Chinatown. This summer, Scott Bauer, who covers Wisconsin politics for The Associated Press, visited the East Coast with his family. He shared on Facebook a ride he took in Maine on a bike from Waterloo-based Trek. When his crew stopped in Boston, the sharp-eyed scribe took a photo of a sewer grate manufactured in Neenah.
The genesis of this story actually began at a New Jersey truck stop on our way into New York City. That’s where we found a standalone cooler stuffed with cheese, sausage and other meat products from Wisconsin. Later in our trip, we ventured to Broadway, where theaters are filled with lighting and other stage equipment from Electronic Theatre Controls in Middleton.
Greenwich Village also paid big Wisconsin dividends.
Murray’s Cheese is here and was founded in 1940 by Murray Greenburg as a neighborhood grocery store but since 1991 has been a world-class cheese shop where Wisconsin products have a solid presence in the display coolers.
The offerings on the day we were there included Tall Grass Reserve from Landmark Creamery in Paoli and bandaged cheddar from Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds, each at $37 per pound. Dunbarton Blue from Roelli Cheese Haus east of Shullsburg and Pleasant Ridge Reserve Extra Aged from Uplands Cheese Co. near Dodgeville were each going for $40 a pound.
We also happened to be in the neighborhood during the massive Pride rally that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Across the street from the Stonewall Inn, where the police raid was initiated in 1969, Christopher Park is home to the Gay Liberation Monument. The statues of two LGBTQ couples created by George Segal were originally commissioned in 1979 and planned for a park in New York City. However, it was deemed too controversial and, instead, installed in Madison’s Orton Park in 1986 before it was finally moved to New York in 1991.
But perhaps our most Wisconsin stop of all came across the street from the park at Kettle of Fish, a bar owned by a former Wisconsinite.
The Brewers game was playing on the television, Ouisconsing Red Ale from Central Waters Brewing Co. in Amherst was on tap and posters, newspaper articles and bumper stickers about the Green Bay Packers, Wisconsin Badgers, Wolski’s Tavern in Milwaukee and the mythical hodag in Rhinelander filled the walls.
When I approached Patrick Daley, who purchased the business in 1998 and moved it to its current location, he was sipping a bottle of Miller Genuine Draft and, I kid you not, speaking with Peter Lee, who is part of a UW-Madison alumni organization in Boston. Lee wanted to know which vendor supplied Daley with the Usinger’s sausages he serves at an annual tailgate party at Citi Field when the Mets host the Brewers.
“I have a ball with this. It’s just a huge part of my life,” Daley told me. “There’s a lot of Wisconsin expats here. We’re from Wisconsin and we like where we’re from. And that drives a lot of people out here nuts, but we like where we come from.”