In 2117, a local artist might be completing her greatest work thanks to Bird Ross and Brenda Baker.

Ross and Baker, artists working in Madison today, are behind the new endowment fund “Women Artists Forward Fund.” Expected to launch with start-up donations in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the fund will be set up to make unrestricted grants available to individual female artists in the Madison area long into the future.

The idea — and the fundraising effort — was sparked by the story behind the iconic statue “Forward,” which has stood on the Capitol grounds for well over a century.

Ross and Baker learned its remarkable history while brainstorming for a piece for the show “The Capitol at 100: Madison Artists Celebrate the Centennial,” a new exhibition in the Overture Center. An opening reception for the show, which is sponsored by the Madison Community Foundation as part of its own special 75th anniversary “Year of Giving,” will take place from 4 to 6 p.m. today.

Meant to celebrate the state Capitol’s 100th birthday and its artistic legacy, “The Capitol at 100” features original works by some of Madison’s best known and “emerging” visual artists: Baker, Ross, Eric Baillies, Randall Berndt, Michael Duffy, Leah Evans, Patrick Flynn, Lisa Frank, Tom Jones, Helen Klebesadel, Lewis Koch, John Miller, Yvette Pino, Beth Racette and Gregory Vershbow.

Each artist was asked to “consider the history, architecture, (and) our cultural symbolism of the Capitol building and grounds,” said the show’s curator, Martha Glowacki, who knows the Capitol well after helping to conserve murals in the east wing during a 1990 restoration.

The artists were given only a few months to create an original artwork for “Capitol 100,” she said. Of the works that resulted, some have a political twist; others tap into the building’s cultural significance.

“The Capitol is filled with artwork, inside and out,” Glowacki said. “To my delight, people have really looked at the building, especially the decorative arts in the building — the marble, the water fountains, the lights, things like that that have really inspired people.

“Many of the artists have focused on looking at details like that. Others have focused on looking at the history,” she said. “It’s really a mix. And then Bird and Brenda came in and said, ‘We want to do a big community project.’”

A statue by a woman,

funded by women

Ross and Baker began their research for “The Capitol at 100” by looking at some of the unsung heroes who are part of the Capitol community — not high-profile lawmakers, but the building staff and cleaning crew who every day preserve the splendor of Madison’s most recognizable landmark.

Then they came to learn about Jean Pond Miner.

Miner was the Madison artist who created “Forward,” the statue that welcomes visitors to the Capitol at the confluence of State, West Mifflin and North Carroll streets. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, it was Madison’s first piece of public art.

Miner created “Forward” for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where she was one of two Wisconsin women to participate in the historic event. Women from Madison and Janesville raised $6,000 — the equivalent of $155,500 today — to support Miner’s work.

Women also largely financed the restoration and replacement of “Forward” in 1995, when the original copper sculpture was preserved. (It’s now housed in the lobby of the Wisconsin State Historical Society headquarters.) A bronze replica is what stands outside the Capitol today.

“It felt like such a forward-thinking thing, that all these women came together to support a woman artist. It felt like such an important story to us,” Baker said.

“Then we thought, what if we were to do a piece of artwork that is a piece of social practice, where we’re working with community members to raise money to do exactly what those women did in 1893 — to perpetuate it and keep it going, to have a fund that’s a forever fund to support women artists.”

Ross and Baker had worked together on past installations related to the idea of “social practice,” art designed to raise awareness of a social issue. The two artists created “Lakeline,” for example, a huge clothesline along John Nolen Drive during the annual Bike the Drive event in 2012, which was designed to get people to think about the aesthetically pleasing, energy-saving act of drying clothes on a clothesline. In 2004, they created the joint work “Pedestrian Art for Democracy” — sidewalk chalk stencil drawings urging people to get to the polls and vote.

Ross and her husband, wood artist Tom Loeser, also designed and built the whimsical reception desk at the Madison Children’s Museum, where Baker is director of exhibits.

New connections

Bird and Baker’s piece in “The Capitol at 100” will feature a photograph of Miner working on the “Forward” statue, surrounded by 5-by-7-inch, black-and-white photos of 100 women who create or support the visual arts in the Madison area today.

The contemporary women all wear a robe and strike a pose akin to Miss Forward; each holds something that inspires her.

“One is holding a baby,” Ross said. Others might be holding a work of art, or a hammer to symbolize buildings that house art.

So many women offered to pose as Miss Forward that Baker and Ross may end up with more than 100 photos, they said. All will appear on an upcoming website.

Many other volunteers have rallied around the project, too.

“We’ve had seven different photographers, five people on our advisory board, multiple people at the Madison Community Foundation (which will administer the fund), and more than 100 women willing to be photographed,” said Ross, noting that neither she nor Baker are photographers or fundraisers by training.

“Even though we had this concept and really wanted to stretch ourselves, and improve the life of artists living in Madison, it’s been a very big effort on a lot of different people’s parts,” she said.

“Some of it has been by the seat of our pants, but a lot of it has also been some really great advice from some really knowledgeable, experienced advisers — the best in the field. We feel really, really lucky that we approached people with what we thought was a tiny idea. And they have absolutely jumped” on it.

The project also has led to new connections.

“I thought that I had a big circle in the Madison arts community, but I have met so many people I didn’t even know,” Baker said.

“The community foundation helped us get a group of people together that we could ask, ‘Is this a good idea?’ And we heard a ‘yes,’ a resounding yes.”

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Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.