Cultural Attractions Are An Economic Engine

Visitors to historic sites and cultural attractions stay in communities 53 percent longer and spend 36 percent more than other types of tourists, reports Kirsten Lee Villegas, executive director of the Waukesha County Museum. And tourism spending in Waukesha County is the fourth highest in Wisconsin. “In 2010, tourism receipts totaled over $16 million,” Villegas marvels. “It’s because of the huge variety of destinations—the lakes, our museum, Ten Chimneys.”

Ten Chimneys, the former estate of theater legends Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, is a national historic landmark. “The Lunts were commonly accepted as the greatest acting team in the arts, and for half of the 20th century, the estate was the center of the theatrical universe,” says Sean Malone, president of Ten Chimneys Foundation. “Anyone who was anyone in theater, the arts and literature—Katherine Hepburn, Helen Hayes, Lawrence Olivier, Noel Coward—came here to be and work with the Lunts.”

In developing their estate, the Lunts didn’t aim to impress with their wealth. “It’s a wonderfully intimate estate that’s as personal as a diary,” Malone says. “It reflects who they were and the principles that guided their lives.

As you walk through the estate today, it looks exactly as in its heyday in the 1930s and ’40s. “All the artifacts are original,” Malone says. “You walk into the same room Kate Hepburn did.”

There are no scripted tours, only guided tours by volunteer docents (reservations are available at “They share stories about the estate, and it’s rejuvenating—amazing and powerful,” Malone says. “We’re proud and excited every tour day to give people that experience.”

At the Waukesha County Museum (, admissions are up more than 100 percent this year. “It’s phenomenal,” says Villegas. “Admissions have blossomed over last few years, partly because we’ve kept prices low and have been creative with our exhibits.”

All of the museum’s permanent collections relate to Waukesha County’s history, and it features traveling exhibits throughout the year.
“Owen Gromme: The 115th Birthday Exhibition” is set to open July 5 for a limited engagement. “It’ll be one of the premier cultural experiences of the summer,” says Villegas. “We’re curating it in-house, along with Gromme’s children, Roy and Anne Marie.”

The intimate exhibition will feature more than 20 original works and numerous personal items still held by the Gromme family. “We’ll include one of his favorite hunting rifles and an actual paint palette he used,” Villegas says. “And Michael Mentzer, co-author of The World of Owen Gromme, is providing exhibit text.”

Some paintings in the exhibit have never been publicly exhibited and the entire collection will never be exhibited again after its run in Waukesha. “The exhibit is very much about who Owen Gromme was as a person, a father, an artist and a nature-lover, all through the eyes of his children,” explains Villegas. “There will be very personal stories and things people may not know.”

The exhibit will be family-friendly, with interactive activities for children. “They’ll be able to color—Owen paid a lot of attention to color—and to learn about different animals,” Villegas says. “Roy and Anne Marie have been fantastic to work with,” she adds. “We’re very excited about the exhibit and look very much forward to seeing people enjoy it.”


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