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Added value for Milwaukee museum

A high-profile addition boosted the institution's fortunes. It's a trend in the art world.

August 22, 2007|Carrie Antlfinger | Associated Press

MILWAUKEE -- A majestic white-winged addition designed by famed architect Santiago Calatrava can do wonders for business.

The Milwaukee Art Museum has pulled itself out of $30 million in debt, increased attendance and attracted acclaimed exhibitions since the internationally known Calatrava finished the structure on Milwaukee's lakefront in 2001. It was his first project in the United States.

"This has been a transforming event in the museum's life," said museum Director David Gordon, who leaves next year to become a consultant after more than five years at the museum's helm.

Milwaukee is not alone. A 2006 survey by the American Assn. of Museums found that 50% of responding museums had begun or completed construction, renovation or expansion in the previous three years.

The boom is partly due to museum officials' recognition that using name architects for expansions helps attract tourists, according to association spokesman Jason Hall. Also, it is easier for museums to get donors for capital improvements than for operating expenses because donors like having their names attached to the work.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York hired Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi to design an addition that opened last fall.

In San Francisco, the De Young Museum's addition opened in 2005, designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron and Fong & Chan Architects in San Francisco. The Denver Art Museum commissioned American architect Daniel Libeskind for an addition that opened last fall.

Milwaukee's addition took four years to build and cost $130 million. Attendance grew 43% from the year before the expansion to 2006.

Lance Jay Brown, a distinguished professor at the City College of New York's School of Architecture, Urban Design and Landscape Architecture, said that Milwaukee declared its commitment to culture with the structure.

"You don't have to go through the front door," he said. "All you have to do is come upon that building and see it and you know something exciting is happening in the city of Milwaukee."

Mayor Tom Barrett said it has become the city's unofficial symbol -- used in marketing and in national television and print advertisements. It spurred nearby projects, including the Discovery World museum, a state park and two new high-rises.

"In the short six years it's been in existence, it really has helped not only transform our image and update our image, but it's also worked as a catalyst along the lakefront," he said.

Calatrava has other American projects, including the Chicago Spire, the Atlanta Symphony Center and a new commuter train station in New York City, where he also plans his first residential project in the United States. He is known for his playful experimentation with kinetic, folding architectural forms.

Gordon, a former business journalist who came to Milwaukee from London's Royal Academy of the Arts, started in 2002, when the museum was looking for a way to get out of debt and raise its profile. He wanted to create a feeling of vitality at the museum, even with the "mountain of debt." So he appointed a new chief financial officer and put the museum's financial statements and annual reports online.

He also eliminated the fee for people to look around the museum's addition, put major exhibitions in one room, added more lectures in collaboration with local arts organizations and allowed other nonprofits to hold fundraisers, something banned previously.

Some of the more popular exhibitions the museum has attracted include "Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity," "Degas Sculptures" and "Leonardo da Vinci and the Splendor of Poland."

Gordon said he looks for riskier exhibitions, even if they don't pull in large numbers, to expose the public to different art. An example was "The Quilts of Gee's Bend," which he and his quilter wife loved when they saw it at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

At the time, no other museums were interested in showing the quilts created at a former Alabama plantation that remains largely populated by descendants of the slaves who lived there. The exhibition was in Milwaukee in 2003 and 2004 -- marking the first time a large number of black people visited the museum to honor black artists, he said.

He said the Francis Bacon exhibition, which ended earlier this year, was risky, too, because the Irish-born British Expressionist painter was not well-known in Milwaukee. Fewer people turned out than expected, but that didn't bother Gordon.

"We've got to do things which are artistically valid and worthwhile," he said.

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