One of the oldest art institutions in the United States has just been given a makeover. After nearly six years of planning and two years of reconstruction, the reopened 125-year-old Milwaukee Art Museum has been completely remodeled and reconfigured. New and reorganized galleries, a reopened entrance, and closer connection to Lake Michigan completely change the museum experience. Most recognizable for its Santiago Calatrava–designed Quadracci Pavilion, which opened in 2001, the museum also boasts a 1975 David Kahler wing and the 1957 Eero Saarinen War Memorial Center. The remodel focused on the two older structures.
Included is a new 20,000-square-foot addition, informally referred to as the “East End,” designed by the Milwaukee office of Minneapolis-based Hammel, Green and Abrahamson. Clad in copper and zinc panels, the addition extends the roof top terrace, on which Saarinen’s War Memorial sits nearly on the edge of Lake Michigan. From its cantilevered upper level, the interior includes floor to ceiling windows that provide an uninterrupted shoreless view of the lake immediately below. This relationship to the lake was lost when the Calatrava wing was added, and the windows of east facade of the Kahler wing were removed. Along with reintroducing a lakeside entrance—also lost at that time—the all-glass lower level includes a small-plate cafe just steps off of the lakefront walking path.
“We wanted to fundamentally change the experience,” remarked museum director Daniel Keegan at a press conference before the opening. “We have turned the museum on its head.” While maintaining much of the exposed concrete work of the Kahler building, nearly every gallery wall in the museum was repositioned and every piece of art rehung. The new configuration allowed for 1,000 new works to be put on display, upping the number of overall presented works to 2,500. The design untangles the circulation of the formerly labyrinthine space and created new galleries for Photographic and Media Arts and 20th and 21st century design out of former administration offices. The result is a museum that is hardly recognizable to anyone that has visited in the past.
Like so many other Rust Belt cities, Milwaukee is in the process of reinvention. Considering the $34 million spent on this new investment in the museum, it would seem that Milwaukee is placing its bets on architecture and the arts as a way to attract tourists, as well as locals, to its downtown.