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Monday, Sept. 23, 2013

A Legacy of Art

Frederick Layton’s gifts to Milwaukee

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Among Milwaukee’s great tycoons from a century ago, Frederick Layton led a relatively modest life. Much of the money he made from meatpacking was invested in art, especially the Layton Art Gallery, the city’s first art museum, and the Layton School of Art, a forerunner to the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

And yet, as architectural historian Eric Vogel writes in the preface to a magnificent new volume, Layton’s Legacy: A Historic American Art Collection, the tycoon’s tendency toward self-effacement cast him into the shadow of obscurity. His name is preserved on the city’s street map and in a significant legacy housed in the Milwaukee Art Museum. Otherwise, little of him is remembered. Layton’s Legacy is a monument to the man and his vision of making art accessible to everyone. Admission to his gallery was free and it was open on Sundays, traditionally the only free day for the working class.

Layton’s Legacy is heavy as a marble slab, 500 pages and 700 illustrations housed between hard covers. The salient details of his biography and personality are inscribed: English-born and self-made, Layton was regarded as a kind employer (he refused to buy an automobile because his coachman was too old to learn to drive) and rather than hoard his art, he made it available to the public. According to Layton’s Legacy, he only reluctantly capitulated to the idea of naming his gallery after himself. Uninterested in the avant-garde, he was concerned with art that spoke to the social conditions and better ideals of his age. Art, Layton believed, has the power to change lives.

A cultivated man, Layton traveled often to Europe to purchase art; the gallery he built was regarded as “the most important structure in the Midwest until the advent of Louis Sullivan”—its classicism enlivened by an eclectic flair. Located on the corner of Jefferson and Mason, the Layton Art Gallery was leveled in 1957 to make way for a parking lot. Its demolition was one of many cultural crimes committed in those days in the name of “progress.”

Layton’s Legacy contains many gorgeous color reproductions of paintings from the tycoon’s collection, many of them familiar to visitors at the Milwaukee Art Museum, along with archival photographs of the institutions Layton patronized. The book contains a great deal of incidental Milwaukee history, especially of lakefront development and the origins of the War Memorial Center written by local historian John C. Ewing.

Presentations on Layton’s Legacy will be held at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept 29 at Boswell Book Co. (2559 N. Downer Ave.) and 6-8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 18 at the Brooks Stevens Gallery (273 E. Erie St.).