The original pump house was built in 1880 as a water pumping station, hence the name pump house, it really was a pumping station and they used it to pump water from the Mississippi River for fire protection.
The Pump House Regional Arts Center has been an active hub for regional artists for over 40 years. It’s impressive that an art-based non profit could thrive in a community for so long. It says a lot about La Crosse, the strength of its arts community, and the quality of the programs presented by the Pump House, that it has remained a supported organization since 1979. The building itself is unique and on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Pump House Regional Arts Center
Executive Director Toni Asher
Interviewer: The Pump House Regional Arts Center has been a hub of the artist community in La Crosse for a long time, over 40 years. Since 1979 there has been an art community program within that building. I think that’s pretty impressive and it says a lot about La Crosse as a whole and about the strength of its art community, and also a lot about the quality of the programs that the Pump House Regional Art Center puts on. The building itself is also pretty cool, an old brick building near the downtown waterfront, and it’s been around since the 1800s. We stopped in today to talk with Tony Asher, she’s the executive director of the Pump House Regional Arts Center.
Interviewer: Talk a little bit about the history of The Pump House. The building itself has quite the history. So what can you tell me about it?
Toni: The original pump house was built in 1880 as a water pumping station, hence the name pump house, it really was a pumping station and they used it to pump water from the Mississippi River for fire protection. And eventually the city outgrew the capacity of the pumps here. And this facility was then used for several different things, it was also rented to the Happy Farmer Tractor Company, and if you know right where to look on the outside wall on the south of the building, when the sun is just right, you can see a ghost painting of the Happy Farmer logo and it’s a gentleman with a baseball cap on and it’s really special when you get to see that.
Interviewer: I’ve lived in this town for a long time and I’ve never noticed it. But now I’m going to look. It’s a beautiful old building that you have.
Toni: When you walk in this building I think you just feel that this is a special space. And it blows me away that they burned coal here to power the pumps, so you have this very industrial part of the neighborhood burning this very dirty material and yet they put in this beautiful vaulted ceiling and the angle wood. It just takes your breath away.
Interviewer: You get artists from the Tri-State region.
Toni: And beyond, yes.
Interviewer: Can you tell us a little bit about how you jury the artists that are going to be at the Pump House.
Toni: Yes, we do an annual call to artists that goes out in September and it’s open until January 31st each year. From that call we receive applications from artists throughout the United States, but strongly from Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota.
Interviewer: And so you have several different galleries within the Pump House, you can kind of hear the echo in here and this is probably your largest gallery space that you have.
Toni: This is our largest gallery, yes.
Interviewer: And sometimes you have events in here too, and what’s the capacity when you do things in here?
Toni: That depends on the event, in an artist reception where we aren’t seating people to eat a meal, we will frequently have two or three hundred people
Interviewer: And in the main area you have your secondary gallery.
Toni: This is our Front Gallery, and it is a smaller space. A very strong point of this Gallery is the black wall, that wall just makes artwork pop. Artists plan their exhibitions around having that wall space. And then you also have a standard white wall and then you also have a wall in the natural tones. So it gives artists something to work.
Interviewer: And you have the third one upstairs.
Toni: We do. We have a lovely balcony gallery. During the Academic Year we feature artwork by students. Sometimes it’s High School, sometimes it’s Elementary, sometimes it’s Middle School.
Interviewer: And to give them that opportunity that they are hung in a gallery.
Toni: They are in a professional gallery, and it’s quite an experience for the kids of course to have their work in the gallery, but also for the family’s, especially of the younger kids. Frequently this will be their first time coming to an art gallery. And sometimes they’re a little intimidated by the thought. “I’m going to an art gallery and I’m taking my kids?” But then they get here and they realize how accessible art is. And it can be a life changing experience. Now when they travel someplace and they see that there’s an art gallery open that they could go to, they might go and have that experience because they know, from this experience, that it is an accessible activity they want to engage in.
Interviewer: And it’s good for kids too, it’s not just for adults.
Interviewer: Not only do you have your gallery spaces here, but you also put classes on. Can you tell me a little bit about them?
Toni: Yes, we do have classes and we offer classes in really fun and unusual things. We do have a Pottery Studio and we have what we call an open clay studio. And that is open anytime the building is open. Sometimes it develops into this little community of people and they get together, put on some music, make a pot of coffee and make pottery together. And just have a wonderful time centered around the art
Interviewer: That does sound like a fun time.
Toni: We have a popular class that is the Art of Fly Tying.
Interviewer: Perfect for the Driftless. Getting out and doing some fly fishing in some of the trout streams that we have and are so lucky to have. Talking about all the things that you have here. You have all of this space, and you have all these activities going on, but you also have a stage here.
Toni: We have a lovely theatre. It seats 140. And we present Theater, we have a concert series, comedy, we have a film series. Pretty much always something happening on our stage.
Interviewer: When people want to find out what you have going on for events, what you have going on for classes, where can they find that out?
Toni: Yes, they can find it on our website, which is thepumphouse.org.
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La Crosse Local is an arts, food, and entertainment podcast and publication for La Crosse County and its surrounding communities.
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