Libraries As Art Galleries

Libraries Support Local Artists With Youth Art Month Shows

It might still be dull and gray outside, but if you walked into many of the libraries in Jefferson and Waukesha County in March, you would have seen nothing but vibrant color. Rows of paintings, photographs, sculptures, and more lined the walls and the bookshelves at the public libraries in Eagle, Oconomowoc, Sussex, Muskego, Delafield, Waukesha, Watertown, Fort Atkinson, and Menomonee Falls. Not only are these pieces a vivid reminder of spring, they’re also a celebration of creativity, the arts, and the students who made them. The art was gathered and displayed for Youth Art Month, a national celebration which ran throughout March, turning each library into a visually striking art gallery.

“The talent is amazing!”

Youth Art Month is possible through collaboration between local schools and the libraries, who work together to offer a positive experience for the artists and the public. Anywhere from 60 to almost 700 works of art are displayed at the libraries, all created by local students ranging in grade level from kindergarten to high school.

People walking up and down library stairwell. Walls are covered in displayed artwork.
Displayed artwork at Menomonee Falls Public Library

“The talent is amazing. We get comments everyday about how wonderful it is,” says Karol Kennedy, director of the Menomonee Falls Public Library, whose library had hundreds of pieces on display.

Watertown Public Library had almost 200 pieces on display in their lobby between February and March. Dwight Foster Public Library in Fort Atkinson hosted an exhibit of photographs from students at Northwest Passage, which focus on our relationship to water. Other pieces on display this year around the libraries included self-portrait paintings and photographs, mosaics, and intricate sculptures made of paper and straws.

Connecting people to ideas through art

Turning the library into an art gallery space may seem outside the norm, but hosting Youth Art Month shows fits into the mission of each library as a way to offer access to knowledge and information. “Our library and our community are committed to celebrating, promoting, and helping people learn about the arts, and this annual event is part of that commitment,” says Betsy Bleck, director at Oconomowoc Public Library, which partners with the Oconomowoc Junior Woman’s Club to put on the art show.

Row of artwork arranged on top of bookshelf at library
Student art at Pauline Haass Public Library in Sussex, WI

At Pauline Haass Public Library in Sussex, “the Art teachers connect people to information by posting commentary about the techniques used and the skills gained by students for each project, giving viewers a much better insight into how art is created,” according to library director Kathy Klager. In addition, she adds, art can provide commentary on the world around us, which “causes people to stop and think, connecting them to ideas.” 

Art shows source of pride for student artists

Supporting the student artists is another component of Youth Art Month at the libraries. “As an art teacher, I love the idea of the community being able to see and appreciate the hard work of our students,” says Dave Pawl, art teacher at Watertown High School who coordinates the displays at Watertown Public Library. “It also is a great confidence boost for our students to see their work displayed outside of the confines of their own building. I know there are many families that enjoy heading to the library and seeing their student’s work.”

Three photographs- one of a flower and two of a lake bed- hung on a wall
Photography exhibit at Dwight Foster Public Library in Fort Atkinson, WI

During the month, many of the libraries host receptions and awards programs to honor the young artists. Some of the libraries also encourage the public to interact with the art by voting on their favorite pieces or providing commentary on the artwork with comment forms, which the teachers then pass along to their students. “It’s so meaningful for these students to read praise from those in their community!” Klager says.

Libraries and Art- an ongoing relationship

Supporting art doesn’t end on March 31, though. Brookfield Public Library hosts art displays from area students in May, while Town Hall Library in North Lake hosts exhibits of local art in their hallway gallery space all year long. Art programs and classes for all ages run throughout the year at many libraries as well.

Youth Art Month collaborations prove that the value of libraries goes beyond the books and movies on the shelves. As people wander from piece to piece, as students pose in front of their artwork, smiling at the camera, we see evidence that the library is a true gathering place, that each library’s value lies in providing a space where people come together to learn, share ideas, and connect with each other. Like the best art, public libraries continue to encourage us to see the world- and each other- in new ways.  

Written by Jill Fuller. A version of this article appeared in the Waukesha Freeman, the Oconomowoc Enterprise, the Daily Jefferson County Union, the Waterloo Courier, and the Watertown Times. We will be sharing those pieces here on our website a few weeks after each piece has been printed.