John Brogan & the Bank of Kaukauna: Social Justice and Equality For All

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Photo by Mary Santaga provided by Bank of Kaukauna

Election season is almost over and it seems, among many other things, a large focus has been placed on small-town America, where industry left town and the need is significant for jobs and better resources. Candidates make big promises, but folks in these towns realize they must do for themselves and provide what the community needs. At some time or another, we’ve all driven through these towns, but more frequently they are being bypassed by new roads and highways. They are now places to be sought out. Kaukauna, Wisconsin is one such place.

The paper mill industry is still going strong, but Kaukauna is a small community that can easily be bypassed when traveling between Appleton and Green Bay on Highway 41. It’s rich in commerce and trade history, and the site of the first land purchase in the state of Wisconsin (in 1793). It is also a place that is undergoing revitalization and transformation. I met with John Brogan, chief executive officer of the Bank of Kaukauna, to discuss the bank’s recent transformation and John’s passion for, and commitment to, building the bank’s art collection and giving back to the community.

“My family bought the bank in the 1970s and my dad ran it for many, many years,” John informs me. “He died in 2005, and we had a different president in place to run the bank. Then in 2011, in the middle of the financial crisis, I left my law practice in the Twin Cities to come back and do what I could to help. We weathered the financial crisis and started to grow quickly, which meant that we needed more and better space to work in.

“Other than a piece or two, the work we had was pretty run-of-the-mill commercial art, and all of it had faded badly. I mean, everything fades, I know, but the commercial work had not stood up well, and it was expensive and uninspiring. It was obvious that we were just going to throw the existing work away, and it felt incredibly wasteful to me, and I committed to not do the same thing again.”

So John finds himself with an outdated building footprint, outdated interior design, and crumbling artwork. He was raised in a family where the arts were deemed important. His mom is an artist, as well as his sister and cousin. Besides banking, it’s the family business. He grew to be an appreciator of art and a collector. Facing the need for a remodel at the bank and a need for new artwork to display in that space, he decided to create an environment that would feel like a gallery and purchase art that would not only be beautiful to look upon, but would also retain, and hopefully gain, value moving forward.

“Going into it there were a couple of things I focused on; I wanted to buy pieces that would hold intrinsic value. I was looking to collect people who I felt were producing exceptional work and were already recognized, or were climbing, or who were producing work that I just adored. And so the standard was, ‘OK, are these people collected?’ And also, ‘Do I love what they do?’

Photo by Mary Santaga provided by Bank of Kaukauna

“Although I wasn’t specifically focused on creating a regional collection, many of the works are from artists who live in or have connections to Wisconsin. The goal was to create a great collection, and it turned out there’s a lot of wonderful work being produced here. So that was sort of the second thing.

“And then the third piece of it was that I wanted to make sure that the collection was available to the community. People don’t come into banks anymore. When was the last time you were in a bank, right?” John asks and shrugs, laughing. “I mean, with mobile banking, unless you specifically need to come into a bank because you need to close a loan or pick up cash for traveling, that’s just the trend. And that’s where we’re heading. We’re a single branch and we’re focusing on things like web banking and remote products, but I still wanted the bank to be a space where people would want to come because it’s beautiful, and have it be a gift to the community.”

And a gift it is. From the elegant furniture and light fixtures to the dazzling prints and sculpture, the Bank of Kaukauna’s museum-quality presence does not disappoint. The artwork takes center stage and commands attention from the viewer. The surroundings let you know that you are somewhere modern and notably nonbankish. I had heard from friends that the collection was beautiful, but I was admittedly overwhelmed once immersed in the space. John tells me that some people still don’t seem to notice the artwork, but it doesn’t bother him.

“When I started looking for art, I didn’t have a particular focus in mind, but it turns out that there is a strong social justice theme running through the work,” John says and puts his hands in the air with a shrug. “For a collection in little Kaukauna, we’ve got a lot of diversity. We have Asian artists, Asian American artists, Mexican artists, Mexican American artists, younger black artists, older black artists, female and male artists, and even though our clientele isn’t terribly diverse, I think it’s important to display a collection that’s inclusive. Given where the country is with race and social justice issues right now, I want to emphasize what brings us together rather than what tears us apart. Some of the people in their offices, maybe they didn’t like the pieces at first or didn’t understand why those pieces were chosen, but now they really love the work, and they get the pleasure of telling other people about it. And then those people come in and tell others. That’s the goal. The collection is just getting started, but we’ll keep looking for pieces to add, as well as placards so there’s an educational element too. The people who work in the bank know the stories behind the pieces in their offices, but it’s important to me that the public gets to hear those stories too.”

The moment you walk in the door you see the incredible Judy Pfaff print that John dubbed Money Tree. “I don’t know what the actual title is,” says John. “We’ve just always called it Money Tree, which is kind of ironic for a bank. My cousin Anja studied with Judy at Bard [College]. This was the first piece we bought for the collection because of that connection.”

In the mortgage lending office, another ironically placed piece shows up: the systematically constructed Foreclosure Quilt: Chicago , by Kathryn Clark. John says, “We don’t want people to foreclose on their homes, but it is a reminder about what can happen—and did.”

Photo by Mary Santaga provided by Bank of Kaukauna

Back in the reception area of the lobby, Johns points out a Robin Grebe glass sculpture, titled Tempest. “This reminded us of sailing safely through the 2008 financial crisis.”

The collection is not just beautiful, but insightful and inspiring. As John guides me through the bank and relays the story behind each piece, I come to realize that he is not only deeply invested in each piece the bank has purchased, but also acutely aware of the statement the collection makes as a whole. His vision for not just the here and now, but also for the future is loud and clear: social justice and equality for all.

There is a Fred Stonehouse painting that hangs in the Board Room, titled Search for a Cure . John purchased it after visiting the University of Wisconsin–Madison faculty show at the Chazen Museum of Art. “I love this piece,” John tells me. “I assume it has something to do with zika or AIDS or some other modern plague—I mean I haven’t actually spoken with Fred to find out what he was thinking, but I love the metaphor of the plague doctor in the Board Room. The false consciousness of thinking you are protecting yourself when, in fact, you are not. Taking the reigns of these imagined beasts, tattooed with excuses. I love that the Board has to think about that message every time they meet.”

Back in the lobby, we look at a mixed media sculpture by Margarita Cabrera, titled Coffee Maker (Yellow) . Margarita’s work focuses on Mexican labor that happens just across the border. This series of small appliances was picked up by the Smithsonian, and Cabrera collaborated with Mexican women who helped her build out and sew this work. It is a simple, almost understated piece that continues to challenge your thoughts after you realize what the work is really about.

In another section of the bank hangs a set of three sugar sack prints by Allison Saar, titled Sweet. She often prints on fabric, and also paints and makes sculpture. Her work discusses being African American in the United States today, and harkens back to the oppression of African Americans with many historical references to the products created through the forced labor of these people. The prints at the bank show three dark-faced girls confronting the viewer with blank eyes. Like the Cabrera, it is simple yet powerful. It sticks with the viewer after they have left it.

It’s amazing that this collection exists within a small bank in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. Furthermore, it’s impressive that John is filling this void in the community. “Really, I don’t care if the work doesn’t appreciate,” John tells me quietly. “But I thought, why buy something that will only be thrown away in 20 years? Now I come here and I just feel happy every day. There’s something about the natural beauty in Kaukauna. The river forged this community, in fact the whole area, through the fur traders and then industry. It’s why this is where the first deed of the state was taken out. But I think we’re all just starting to appreciate what a wealth of resources we have here. We have a community-improvement mindset here at the bank, and I’m just trying to do my part to get involved.”

The Bank of Kaukauna is open for business Monday through Friday, 8:45 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. They are located at 264 W. Wisconsin Avenue in Kaukauna and available on the web at bankofkaukauna.com .

Kay Myers is a local artist and freelance writer.