Milwaukee Art New-seum | MAM reinvents with a lakefront entrance and a dynamic new plan for galleries

Matthew Reddin, Staff writer

Most museum renovations wouldn’t be undertaken the way the Milwaukee Art Museum’s has been — closing everything but the special collections gallery in the Quadracci Pavilion to the public for a year.

More common, says chief curator Brady Roberts, is for a museum to close sections of a permanent collection a bit at a time and revealing each revision as it’s completed. “It’s hard to tell what’s changed,” he says. “and it’s not very dramatic.”

MAM’s big reveal, on the other hand, brings new meaning to the word “dramatic.” The museum that reopens its doors on Nov. 24 will be completely different from the one that closed last November, thanks to an expansion and reinstallation that will add a new lakefront entrance and 25,000 square feet of exhibition space, filled with 2,500 works of art — a thousand more than the museum has ever been able to display. 

In many ways, Roberts says, the renovation, spearheaded by museum director Dan Keegan, was as much a matter of practical need as artistic innovation. The Milwaukee Art Museum is a multi-building complex, with this lakeside addition (informally dubbed the “East End” by curators) joining the War Memorial Center, designed by Eero Saarinen in 1957; a 1975 expansion, designed by David Kahler; and the iconic Quadracci Pavilion, designed by Santiago Calatrava. The older buildings were in dire need of repair, with severe structural issues, including a leaky roof and a failing HVAC system. “It was really putting the collections at risk,” Roberts says. “Water and moldy air and art don’t mix.”

But those practical concerns gave Roberts and his curators an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the entire museum. Judging the museum’s original floorplan a “maze” even veteran curators had been known to get lost in, Roberts says his team wiped the slate clean, redrawing the museum’s boundaries to find the best place for every gallery. “Say there are no walls, that you just have a blank canvas. How would you build the walls to best show the art?” Roberts asks.

For the first time, that question has different answers for each gallery. Previously, MAM’s galleries were largely uniform, with simple brown-gray walls. Now, each curator has been allowed to design galleries that best fit the art within. In addition, the Saarenin building has been restored to better resemble its original design, and elements of Kahler’s expansion now accent certain galleries.

The expansion also has given the museum the ability to create two new galleries. The 20th- and 21st-Century Design Galleries, arranged by MAM’s newest curator Monica Obniski, give the museum’s expansive collection of industrial design objects their own space for the first time, and Roberts says Obniski is using her new space to acquire works that push the collection closer and closer to our present day. “We’re surrounded by design objects,” he says. “You can be surrounded by beautiful design every day of your life, if you think about it.”

Also exciting is the new Herzfeld Center for Photography and Media Arts, located on the lower level of the museum. When the collections closed last year, Roberts says the museum’s photography gallery had been diminished to a wall that held about five photographs — an alarming lapse even before you know that MAM was one of the earliest museums to collect photography, with MOMA as its only real predecessor.

The Herzfeld Center, curated by Lisa Sutcliffe, is finally a space worthy of MAM’s collection. The word “photography” literally means “writing with light,” and Roberts says Sutcliffe and the museum have taken that as inspiration, including light and video installations along with print photography, making the gallery a national destination in the process. “In 200 years,” Roberts says, “when people look back at the 21st century, this will be the century of photo-based media.” 

Roberts says the renovation also fixes a persistent problem for the museum: the lack of an additional special exhibition space. While the Baker-Rowland Gallery in the Quadracci Pavilion (currently home to the museum’s Larry Sultan retrospective) is the main driver for museum attendance, it has to close for a month every time MAM swaps exhibitions, adding up to a full quarter of the year. With the new Bradley Family Gallery, on the second floor of the East End, that lost time vanishes. Starting with the new gallery’s first show — the unveiling of recently acquired works by abstract expressionist printmaker Sam Francis — there will never be a period in which both special exhibition spaces are closed.

And the rest of the museum will be more dynamic — with this version of the “permanent” collection being the least-permanent it’s ever been. Roberts says curators plan to rotate works in and out of galleries on a regular basis, so there’s always something new to see in addition to the old favorites — as if people needed a better excuse to return over and over again.

The Milwaukee Art Museum will unveil its renovated galleries at a grand opening on Nov. 24, with members-only previews the weekend before. For more information, visit mam.org.

To get a better sense of what’s in store in the redesigned galleries, WiG spoke to the museum’s curatorial team, responsible for reshaping the floor plan for its six major gallery collections. Read on for more details.

Brady Roberts | Modern & Contemporary Art Galleries

Goals for the galleries’ expansion: “For the Modern and Contemporary collections we created soaring, white cube spaces that serve as neutral platforms to emphasize the works of art. The floorplan is clear and logical, allowing for intuitive navigation through the galleries.”

Design of the new gallery space: The Modern and Contemporary Art Galleries include a series of halls filled with works by major artists of the 20th and 21st century, as well as a sculpture gallery overlooking Lake Michigan. Roberts says the spaces feature ceilings more than 17 feet high, better suited for the monumental works within. Also, the sculpture gallery exposes the original concrete columns designed in the 1970s Brutalist style by David Kahler, architect of the museum’s 1975 expansion. The Bradley Galleries also include new special exhibition space.

High-profile works to look for: MAM owns three sculptures by Donald Judd, considered one of the most important artists of the 20th century, but has never been able to put them together. “To be able to present these three sculptures in one gallery where they all have their breathing room is something that any modern art museum would be envious of,” Roberts says. Other significant works include Eva Hesse’s fiberglass sculpture “Right After,” a rare example of her work that has not deteriorated due to its fragile materials.

Brandon Ruud | Constance & Dudley Godfrey American Art Wing

Goals for the gallery’s expansion: “I was particularly excited about creating a space that not only showcased the beauty and power of the Museum’s important American art collections in all its forms — decorative arts, paintings and sculpture — but one that allowed us to reveal the full, rich history of the nation’s arts and crafts.”

Design of the new gallery space: The new American wing at MAM will feature paintings and decorative art objects — including the collection curated by the Chipstone Foundation. Ruud says he considers the museum’s collection of 17th- to 19th-century decorative art to be one of its greatest strengths and the new gallery space was designed to include decorative art in vignettes that suggest how they were used during their time periods. “These spaces range from airy, grand galleries where visitors will hopefully have a ‘Wow!’ moment, to more intimate spaces that allow for intense examination and viewing,” he says.

High-profile works to look for: Ruud says the expansion has motivated new acquisitions and donations, including a rare canvas by 18th-century painter Jeremiah Paul and a Long Island scene by Thomas Moran. In addition to John Singleton Copley’s better-known portrait “Alice Hooper,” Ruud recommends patrons check out a pair of Copley portraits that haven’t been presented in the United States since they were painted more than 250 years ago.

Monica Obniski | 20th- and 21st-Century Design Galleries

Goals for the new galleries: “This is the first time the design collection will have dedicated space within the museum, so my goal is to display a diversity of works within thought-provoking vignettes. … I am really excited about building a contemporary design collection that makes sense for MAM.”

Design of the new gallery space: One of the two new spaces in MAM’s addition, the design galleries bring the museum’s decorative artworks to a prominent position near the new lakeside entrance. Obniski says the space is designed so a viewer traveling around the periphery can get a loosely chronological survey of design from about 1900 to the 1960s, but also can dig deeper, exploring the interplay of dichotomies — beauty and functionality or art and technology.

High-profile works to look for: Since the design galleries are new, Obniski is excited to display works that were tucked away in the archives, like experimental furnituremaker Mathias Bengtsson’s “Slice Chair.” She’s also pursuing new works to add to the collection, including MAM’s first 3-D printed chair (arrival TBD). And you won’t be able to miss the “chair wall” — a display of chairs from the 20th century hung along an exposed concrete wall.

Margaret Andera | Folk and Self-Taught Art Gallery, Haitian Art Gallery

Goals for the galleries’ expansion: “Both the Haitian art and the folk and self-taught art were in parts of the building that didn’t make as much chronological sense for the collections. The collections now are adjacent to contemporary and modern art, exactly where they fit into the chronology.” 

Design of the new gallery space: Before the renovation, the mezzanine level of MAM wasn’t used for gallery space, so Andera says it may surprise regular attendees when they see it for the first time. To convert a former study center into the folk and Haitian galleries, the museum knocked down walls and doors, dramatically opening up the space. “It’s now this one, contiguous gallery space and I think it’s one of the most transformed spaces in the whole re-installation,” Andera says. That also allowed the museum to open up a balcony overlooking the first floor, allowing patrons to see into the sculpture gallery from the mezzanine.

High-profile works to look for: Andera says the museum’s “Newsboy” sculpture has long been used as visual shorthand for the folk and self-taught galleries, and its new placement will allow patrons to see it from multiple angles for the first time. She’s also excited that the museum will be able to exhibit a banner by Milwaukee self-taught artist Josephus Farmer — previously too damaged to present to the general public but restored by the museum’s conservators for the reopening.

Tanya Paul | Antiquities and European Galleries

Goals for the galleries’ expansion: “My goal was twofold. On one hand, I wanted to respond to and better highlight the strengths of our collection — in particular its uniquely broad, pan-European perspective with distinctive strengths in German art. On the other hand, I also wanted to fully integrate our collections of fine and decorative European art.”

Design of the new gallery space: The two-floor galleries, twice the size of the original space, will interconnect MAM’s collection of European paintings and prints and its European antiquities collection. Paul says the spaces will “blend into one another, resulting in a complex portrait of European art and its interrelatedness.” The museum’s salon-style room for the Layton Art Collection will return, presenting works from the collection as they would have been in a late-19th/early 20th-century gallery.

High-profile works to look for: Viewers should look forward to once again seeing the museum’s arresting “Saint Francis of Assisi in His Tomb,” by Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán, along with other recognizable works like Jules Bastien-Lepage’s “Woodgatherer” and the museum’s Monet painting. Paul also recommends keeping an eye out for a monumental decorative vase by Barbedienne and new acquisitions from French portrait painter Alexandre Cabanel.

Lisa Sutcliffe | Herzfeld Center for Photography and Media Arts

Goals for the new gallery: “The photography collection has never had dedicated galleries at this scale before and it is exciting to show the work in the broader context of light-based media including video, film and digital media. The first show celebrates our collection highlights and gives the community a chance to get to know our photography collection, which hasn’t been shown together for 25 years.

Design of the new gallery space: The other new space in MAM’s addition takes over the lower level of the museum, providing Sutcliffe with a light-controlled space to work in. Sutcliffe says exhibitions will rotate on a shorter cycle (3 to 4 months) to offer an evolving selection and help preserve the light-sensitive photographs. 

High-profile works to look for: Sutcliffe is well aware that there’s an excitement among patrons-in-the-know about the return of Stanley Landsman’s Walk-In Infinity Chamber, which uses two-way mirrors and light bulbs to create a unique, near-magical space. But she’s also excited for them to get to know Anthony McCall’s “You and I Horizontal, II,” a participatory light installation that digitally recreates a solid light film from the 1970s. MAM will also be installing its earliest photographic acquisition, Edward Weston’s “Bad Water, Death Valley.”