Milwaukee Museum’s New Design
Lots of Creative Bang for the Buck
Museums are usually wedded to an addition model. They build more wings to accommodate their growing collection. The Milwaukee Art Museum’s recently successful renovation, instead, followed a design strategy of subtraction. It compressed three earlier, independent, segregated structures, built over a 45-year period, into a single unified whole. The result: a brand-new museum.
Last November, the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) unveiled the outcome of a six-year, $34 million reimagining of its Collection Galleries. The renovation integrated its two older buildings—the 1957 Eero Saarinen War Memorial Center (12,000 sq. ft.), the much larger David Kahler addition in 1975 (80,000 sq. ft.—with the Santiago Calatrava Quadracci Pavilion, opened in 2001. It also built a two-story addition whose floor-to-ceiling windows give visitors a stunning panoramic view of, and access to, Lake Michigan.
The Calatrava, with its arresting 217-foot louvered sunscreen, that opens like a giant bird’s wings, came to unfairly define the entire enterprise. This modern icon by a starchitect gave Milwaukee certain bragging rights. While attention was lavished on the new pavilion, the older units suffered from neglect. Water was dripping from the ceilings of those buildings, warping some of the wood floors.
A reordering of priorities was necessary. As museum director, Dan Keegan, remarked, “People shouldn’t come to a museum just for the architecture and this (renovation) brings back the balance to the art.”
The museum, one of the Midwest’s finest, not only increased its footprint with the addition of 30,000 square feet of new and reclaimed gallery space but the renovation made room to display an additional 1,000 artworks, putting 2,500 of its 30,000 work collection on view.
For the past six years, I regularly attended their excellent traveling exhibitions but was stymied in navigating the facility. It had always been possible to proceed down the eastern Galleria walkway into the modern and contemporary collection in the Kahler wing but the path down the western Galleria had always been blocked. I learned I was not alone.
Many spaces between the various buildings had been given over to storage and offices over the years–some with locked doors–that created “an impenetrable logjam” according to chief curator Brady Roberts. “The floor plan was a maze. Even staff people who had been here for 10 years would get lost”.
In September, 2014, the museum closed access to the entire collection, save for special exhibitions, to start construction. Roberts spoke about the planning process behind the entire collection’s reconfiguration and rehang that arose with planning consultants, HGA Architects of Milwaukee and lead architect, James Shields AIA.
“We began with the idea of celebrating the three architectural chapters of the museum. So, we have the oldest collection, the Layton Galleries, in the Saarinen building along with older European and American Art while, in the Kahler, the Bradley Collection and Modern and Contemporary is in the newer part.”
This past January, I walked with Roberts through the latter spaces and the new addition, the sites of the most dramatic transformations, to experience the reimagined gallery layout and improved traffic flow pattern. An exhilarating sight was to stare down an uninterrupted, 200-foot longitudinal span in the addition–from its southern end through to the Bradley Gallery at the north end. That space currently features an exhibit of master printmaker, Sam Francis.
Roberts began walking down the Calatrava’s eastern Galleria into the contemporary collection. We entered the first of three Great Halls that focuses on Pop Art and Photo Realism. In the foreground, on the floor, was an Andy Warhol box of Brillo and ten Marilyn Monroe silk screens on the right wall. Continuing down the long room was a Roy Lichtenstein on one wall. Behind that was a Chuck Close 1968 work, Nancy, a life-like Duane Hanson sculpture, Janitor, leaning against the left wall. At the far end of the room was a Christopher Wool lettering canvas that spelled F O O L.
From Pop Art, we veered right into the second Great Hall that featured Minimalist artists such as three striking Donald Judd pieces, before moving into galleries featuring newer 21st Century artists, like Larry Bell and Kahinde Wiley.
I’d never seen most of these works in prior visits. It only confirmed how strong a modern and contemporary collection Milwaukee has assembled. All the requisite masters are on the walls along with a rich assortment of emerging artists. The rehab has eliminated any danger posed to its signature, 400-work Bradley Collection by early 20th Century artists including Picasso, Kandinsky and Giacometti. The museum holds one of the largest collections of work by Georgia O’Keeffe, a Wisconsin native.
As we walked, I expressed surprise that two 1980s artists, David Salle and Julian Schnabel, had works on view. Though their time had passed, Roberts believes in presenting a true art historical narrative. “That’s the epitome of Julian Schnabel in the ‘80s. It’s a chapter (in art history) so why not tell it.”
When we moved into the third Great Hall, Roberts became visibly excited. He pointed out key changes to Kahler’s original Brutalist design that make the space feel totally new. Gone were the dark floors and the old concrete ceiling, with exposed utilities, and lighting that cast a dark, cave-like shadow on the art.
In its place were blond wood floors and a white dry wall ceiling with improved track lighting that created a brighter “white cube” space. Most of Kahler’s fluted concrete columns had been removed, giving the room a more spacious feel.
At the north end, two major works of sculpture, a tall hanging of fiber art by Claire Zeisler, a color etching on the wall by Richard Serra, occupied space that had previously been a lecture hall. To the right of the sculptures was a new space devoted to 20th and 21st Century Design, a field the museum was previously unable to exhibit. Gone was a concrete wall, erected in the 1990s to keep out damaging light rays but also shutting out any lake view. That eastern part is now bathed in light.
The effect of all these changes has made people see the works anew. Roberts noted that “Even the works that have been on view before, the curators come up to me and say it looks new. I tell them you just didn’t see it before because the building didn’t allow it.”
We next walked up the stairs to the Mezzanine. Though this level has a relatively small footprint, the museum has replaced the Prints and Drawings office (which had a locked door saying “By Appointment Only”) with two collections that are among the strongest in the nation–American Folk Art and Self-Taught Artists. The impressive Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art and the fascinating Anthony Petullo Collection of Outsider Art. The Flagg Collection of Haitian Art moved from the Saarinen wing into a new mezzanine space as well.
The second floor contained more surprises, not those hanging on walls. HGA’s Shields adopted an architectural technique, “Enfilade”, that situates a series of galleries across several doorways in perfect symmetrical alignment. This allowed me to look directly from the middle of Kahler into the American Art rooms, far down the hall, without any obstruction. Visitors can now quickly orient themselves and not get lost in what a staffer called “mystery moments”, a common museum malady.
We passed through a room devoted to great German Expressionist artists, such as Gabriel Munter, George Grosz, Otto Dix and entered the East Addition. A stunning view of Lake Michigan and the Calatrava wing to the right greets us. The room contained an upside-down Claes Oldenburg’s “Eraser” along with not one but four Harry Bertoia sculptures and, farther down the long hall, three Barbara Hepworths.
Returning to the mezzanine, I confronted a real show stopper: a two-story high installation by a self-taught artist, Albert Zahn, called “Bailey’s Harbor”. It depicts a gigantic photo image of his home in Door County with a profusion of hanging carved wooden birds flying in the foreground. It’s a breathtaking and not-to-be-missed attraction.
I did miss seeing what sounds like another star attraction: a rooftop terrace, 42 feet above the Lake, that replaced a sunken courtyard that once served as a sculpture court but was not well-situated and, worst of all, leaked.
We ended the tour with Brady on the north end of the new addition. This long space houses a cafe where one can sip wine, eat small plates of food while staring out at majestic Lake Michigan, only 30 feet away. More importantly, this lobby gives the museum a critically-needed second entrance to let visitors enter from the adjacent parking lot or the lake’s waterfront path.
For the remaining part of the tour, we followed David Russick, the museum’s chief space designer. We began in the American Galleries at Kahler’s far west end. Russick noted that its arrangements of walls and gallery spaces were all new, having replaced previous office space and the outdoor sculpture court.
“Basically, every wall in the museum is new, every floor has been redone,” Russick said. “There were no ceilings in this space. We did everything but knock the building down to the studs.”
Visitors can now traverse the western Galleria and not hit a wall. They can access collections in the Saarinen structure that they once skipped, due to the museum’s labyrinthine maze. They now walk into the oldest part of the collection containing Egyptian, Greek and Roman and Renaissance Art on the ground floor. There is also the fascinating Flagg Collection of rare northern Renaissance clocks.
The second floor continues a linear art historical journey, beginning with the historic Layton Gallery of Old Master works of 17th through 19th Century art, displayed against handsome colored walls of purple, green and ruby reds. We then stepped over a seam in the floor, which was the only clue that we were back in the Kahler’s American Gallery rooms with modern and contemporary art in the distance.
The lower level held a final surprise. A 10,000 sq. ft. gallery was created for the museum’s first dedicated space to its near 4,000 print photography collection plus home to an expanded palette of video installations, film and digital media. The Herzfeld Center for Photography and Media Arts is headed by curator Lisa Sutcliffe, who came from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, to conceptualize the new center’s possibilities from scratch. She has installed three mesmerizing video works that are truly state-of-the-art.
Milwaukee’s success greatly improves the museum experience for its visitors. “We got a lot of creative bang for our buck,” says Roberts of the project’s modest $35 million budget.
Former director, Russell Bowman, who led the museum from 1985 to 2002 and is now an art adviser in Chicago, is a fan. “It seems to be an entirely successful rethinking of the collection and its presentation. It’s a pleasure…to see the museum continuing to grow and be exciting.”
I asked architect Shields what had been the design’s main challenge. “Trying to figure out how to design an elegant work of architecture in the space between a Saarinen and a Calatrava”, he said. “I was given the task of doing a background piece in which access to the lakefront was respected.” This modest addition blends in well alongside the other architectural elements yet makes a powerful design statement within.
The challenge now for the museum? “How do we connect with the community”, Roberts replied. Milwaukee hopes the new North entrance and lakeside stepped staircase will boost attendance past the current 400,000 mark. “The question now is how do we do even more, how do we get more diverse audiences. This definitely sends a clear visual signal that the museum is for you, the community.”
Tom Mullaney Chicago Editor (Retr’d)
Volume 30 number 4 March / April 2016 p 26-30