April 16, 2013

Mea Culpa: Milwaukee Art Museum

The Milwaukee Art Museum raised a lot of eyebrows in the museum world (including mine) several years ago when they needed to borrow money to finish their new Calatrava-designed addition, which included an extravagent folding Brise Soleil (an architectural sun shade). The board hoped that increases in attendance would pay the interest on the debt. When that did not happen, the museum reportedly laid off a significant number of staff as a consequence. Many of us shook our heads in a sad "I could have warned you" manner.

Perhaps we could have, but I am glad I didn't shake mine too vigorously. I finally had a chance to visit the museum with its new addition and I can now see why the board felt it was worth taking the risk.  The building is both beautiful and functional. The Brise Soleil  has not become an international icon, as some had hoped ("another Sydney Opera House"), but it is an icon for Milwaukee that everyone loves. It tells the world that Milwaukee is no longer just "famous" for being the home of Schlitz beer. The Brise Soleil punctuates the end of one of the city's most prominent avenues and is visible all along the waterfront, even when closed. I can't imagine Milwaukee without it.

While the Brise Soleil gets all the attention, the rest of the building is equally beautiful in a sculptured structure way. It takes the modernist dictum of form follows function and turns it into sweeping curves that are cathedral-like in their strength, symmetry, and repetition. The Brise Soleil marks the entrance, as it should. The rest of the building is essentially one long shed that connects the new entrance to the older building and its existing galleries. The new spaces include a large, open temporary gallery for major changing exhibits, a new store, an expansive lobby/event space, a new cafe, and parking under it all. These spaces connect to and compliment the traditional and contemporary galleries in the existing museum.

What I liked: The windows into the service entrance from the cafe and coat check level. The way the garage connected to the entrance. The entrance from parking, where you enter just as someone coming through the front door would. The children's workshops in the midst of the main galleries. The "Animation: Art goes to the Movies" exhibit, which was putatively for children, but which I found fascinating because of the juxtaposition of real works of art with the animations they inspired. The "Color Rush" photography exhibit. The "Museum Inside Out" exhibit, despite the fact that it didn't seem to be working for visitors.

What I didn't: The circulation was a little awkward: the new exhibitions space is in the middle of the "shed" with corridors on either side. The east, lakefront, corridor takes you to the entrance to the existing galleries; the west corridor seems almost superfluous. The lobby was filled with tables and chairs, presumably from an event. I suspect there is no convenient place to put them on the main level.

Most interesting artifacts: The Biedermeier Settee and clock. Wow!

Biggest disconnect: The old and the new.

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