The Milwaukee Art Museum quickly turned into an architectural icon for Wisconsin’s largest city in 2001. That is when an addition with a 90-foot-high glass ceiling and 217-foot wingspan was completed.
The wing-like design by Santiago Calatrava stole the show from the museum’s older structures, but now is the time for them to resume co-starring roles.
Newly completed is a $34 million overhaul of the collection galleries, housed in the 1957 War Memorial Center and a 1975 addition whose recessed windows and lakefront entrance were concealed as the years passed.
Now the light returns, in more than one way. A new east entrance, which connects to a Lake Michigan pedestrian path, leads to a long and sparkling wall of windows with prime views of lakefront, especially from a new wine and coffee cafe. No museum admission is required to enter and linger there.
Modern and contemporary art pops within the stark simplicity of a former sculpture courtyard, now enclosed. It is an example of what Brady Roberts, chief curator, calls “a light cube” whose bursts of brilliance come from natural and manmade illumination. Elsewhere, especially for centuries-old paintings, lighting softens but rich hues of wall paint replace the white.
All said, this project adds space for almost 1,000 additional works of art in 75 galleries. That means about 2,500 of the museum’s 30,000 works can be displayed at one time – 8 percent of the collection. The average museum makes room for only 4 or 5 percent.
“Pieces that haven’t been on view for decades are back again,” says Daniel Keegan, museum director.
A hard-to-miss example is the 1983 “High Rise” by Claire Zeisler, which weighs almost two tons and was in storage about 10 years. Now it hangs from the ceiling of an indoor sculpture gallery that is near those gorgeous new Lake Michigan views.
“We wanted to fundamentally change the visitor’s experience with art,” Keegan says. New rotational galleries are designed to make it easier to change permanent collection displays.
“We wanted to showcase our collection as never before” and “we want people to lose themselves within these spaces.”
He believes the new interior design “sets a standard for 21st century museums and is an important part of Milwaukee’s downtown renaissance.”
New are 10,000 square feet for photography and media arts, and almost 5,000 square feet for galleries devoted to 20th and 21st century design.
“We want people to understand what design is on a larger scale,” says Monica Obniski, design curator. “These are things we live with on a daily basis – cameras, radios and lamps,” as well the many creations from industrial designer Brooks Stevens of Milwaukee.
Keegan says galleries specifically for photos and new media are logical because his museum began acquiring photographs long before most other major U.S. museums considered them artwork to be collected.
A critical need to upgrade infrastructure – plumbing to electricity – in the aging buildings is what precipitated the project, designed by HGA Architects, Milwaukee. The timing also made it an ideal opportunity to enhance and upgrade galleries, a delicate process that meant crating, removing, storing and replacing all aspects of the collections during the past 14 months.
“For years, we’ve known of the need to repair these buildings,” Keegan says. Milwaukee County, which owns these buildings, paid $10 million to proceed. The remaining $14 million came from museum donations.
The Milwaukee Art Museum dates back to 1888 and is among the oldest art museums in the nation. It is largest place to see visual art in Wisconsin and home to one of the largest collections of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings anywhere.
Other collections range from European antiquities to Andy Warhol pop art. Folk art holdings include works made close to home and a Haitian collection that is among the world’s largest.
The mix includes 55 Wisconsin artists and is eclectic: rare and delicate to hefty and made with castoff materials.
More than one gallery – including one where trash turns into art – has a hands-on area for all ages to create a little something. “Many museums put the educational experience in the basement or a separate wing,” Keegan says. “We put it front and center.”
The Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Dr., Milwaukee, is closed on Mondays and major holidays. One-hour tours, free with museum admission, begin at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. mam.org, 414-224-3200
Admission is free on the first Thursday of each month and on Dec. 6, when visitors can leave their mark on community mural. Admission otherwise is $17, but ages 12 and younger get in free. Museum members also get in free.
Open since Nov. 24 is “Sam Francis: Master Printmaker,” in place until March 20; “Light Borne in Darkness: Highlights from the Photography Collection,” ending April 10; “John Singleton Copley in Focus,” ending in May; and “Durer and the German Renaissance,” ending in late spring.
Throughout the year, the 217-foot wingspan on the Calatrava brise soleil – a movable sunscreen for the museum’s glass ceiling – unfolds and folds twice a day.