Hartman Rock Garden awarded $75,000 grant

A recently awarded $75,000 grant will help the Hartman Rock Garden to begin planning for a possible new structure at the site, enhance efforts to conserve its stone figurines, and make other improvements.

Kevin Rose, the Hartman Rock Garden curator, called the grant a “huge gift to our community” and a “game-changer for a site like Hartman” that has an annual budget of about $100,000.

Rose says the Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden, the organization that owns and oversees the site, are studying the feasibility of putting a new building on the property that will provide a better experience for the 13,000 visitors who come every year.

Maintenance of the hundreds of mini-sculptures at the Rock Garden poses a constant challenge, because the art works are all outdoors and subject to rain, changing temperatures, and other degradation from the elements.

“Right now, while we’re talking, the Hartman art is deteriorating,” says Rose on a wet, rainy January day.

For a historic site like Hartman, repair means more than just sticking some new stones in a hole. Rose says replacing stones can mean doing a search for materials that will match the original and then molding and casting a piece to fit. Other fixes can be even more complicated.

“Ben’s “Betsy Ross House” offers a good example: We needed to carefully remove non-original paint on the roof, replace missing stone by sourcing similar pinkish-red granite from area fields, find and install missing pieces of historic half-inch tile, rebuild and paint miniature wood windows with hand-cut glass, and source a digital copy of the original “Birth of Old Glory” painting and print it on stainless steel using UV ink,” Rose explained.

The Hartman Rock Garden, located at 1905 Russell Avenue, was created during the Great Depression by Ben Hartman, a unemployed molder who crafted stone structures and figurines on themes of history, patriotism, and religion. From 1932 until his death in 1944, Hartman filled his backyard with hundreds of small statues and stone structures to create a unique art environment.

Ben’s widow, Mary, maintained the collection and gave tours to visitors until her death in 1997. The garden began to fall into serious disrepair until 2008, when it was acquired by the Kohler Foundation, a charity created by the family that owns the Wisconsin-based plumbing products company of the same name. The foundation oversaw a thorough renovation of the site, then gave the property to the Friends group.

This most recent grant was awarded by the Ruth Foundation for the Arts, which was created through a bequest from the estate of Ruth DeYoung Kohler II, a granddaughter of the founder of the Kohler Company. Ruth Kohler, who died in 2020, was a lifetime supporter of the arts and an advocate for overlooked art forms. She served as director of the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, Wisc., for more than 40 years, in addition to being the chairwoman of the Wisconsin Arts Board, a site evaluator for National Endowment for the Arts and other arts-related posts.

The Ruth Arts Foundation has a special fund, the RDK Legacy Fund, “dedicated to honoring and continuing Ruth DeYoung Kohler’s steadfast support of regional and craft-based organizations and artist-built environments,” according to a press release from the foundation. The Legacy Fund will provide $2.5 million annually to support 40 organizations, including Hartman, that Ruth Kohler had championed.

Rose says Hartman’s inclusion in the Legacy Fund doesn’t mean funding is guaranteed every year, but it will provide a source to ask for help with special projects.

“Hartman was something important to Ruth DeYoung Kohler,” Rose says. “It’s amazing that one person had the power to do so much for us and other arts organizations across the nation.”
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