By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Jan 12, 2008 at 5:38 AM

It doesn't get all the headlines, but just 40 miles northwest of Downtown Milwaukee, the Museum of Wisconsin Art is quietly going about its business featuring some of the best works of art our state has ever produced.

Situated in the quaint, almost retro downtown area of West Bend, the MWA doesn't look like much from the outside -- though that will change in a few years when the simple structure is replaced with a new and modern design.

Inside, however, is a treasure trove of art, from a visiting exhibit by the League of Milwaukee Artists, to a stunning permanent collection by Carl von Marr, to a diverse grouping of "Early Wisconsin Regional Art."

In short, it's a celebration of Wisconsin's tremendous, but little-known contribution to the art community. It focuses mainly on the works created between 1830 and 1950, and closely collaborates with the Milwaukee Art Museum -- currently borrowing about 70 pieces for display.

Formerly the West Bend Art Museum, the MWA's single most jaw-dropping work is Marr's opus, "The Flagellants," which was completed in 1889. Marr was a Milwaukeean who moved to Munich, and while he's widely celebrated in Germany, he's not well-known here.

"The Flagellants" occupies a 13 by 25 foot canvas, depicting a 14th century scene of Black Plague panic. It's so incredibly large and detailed that standing in front of it, one could easily imagine looking through a window instead of staring at a work of art. Purchased and donated to the City of Milwaukee a few years after its completion, Marr's masterpiece is on permanent loan to the MWA and worth a visit on its own.

Many more of Marr's other works are displayed on the main floor; paintings ranging from portraits to landscapes, from Realism-style works that explore how light and shadows plays off his subjects to a an afternoon social scene that pays homage to 19th century Impressionism. In total, the MWA holds the world's largest collection of Marr's art.

Downstairs, the museum features paintings, sculptures, mixed media, furniture and photographs from artists with a Wisconsin connection. These include watercolor works of the Historic Third Ward, Door County nature scenes and a sketch by Frank Lloyd Wright.

And this week, the museum unveiled a collection of photographs never before displayed in public -- dozens of images that chronicle Milwaukee's rich history of producing panoramic images at the close of the 19th century. Amazingly, a Cedarburg woman discovered a stack of glass negatives and eventually learned they belonged to German painter Bernhard Schneider, who moved to Milwaukee in 1885.

Schneider's restored images, as well as two samples on the museums lower lever, tell a visual story of the American Panorama Company. These gigantic works were the 1800s' version of today's IMAX theaters, and the museum hopes to increase its collection of panoramic memorabilia in the next few years.

Sadly, for now, the works inside the Museum of Wisconsin Art remain slightly obscured by its dated and bland physical housing -- but the MWA is undergoing a capital campaign to raise the $12 million necessary to demolish the existing structure and replace it with a 32,000-sq. ft. building that's as beautiful as the art inside. Museum officials say they've already raised $5 million toward the new building and hope to complete the project in early 2010.

While the Milwaukee Art Museum is close and convenient and features works of international significance, it's worth the 45-minute trip to the MWA for a taste of homegrown art.

Museum officials are hoping, too, that they can teach Wisconsinites an appreciation of the state's rich artistic tradition. Whether self-guided or through the free audio companion, the MWA presents an uplifting and encouraging tour, even if it's a bit under the radar -- for now.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.