By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 19, 2021 at 9:03 AM

As Milwaukee Art Museum is collecting testimonies and adding them to its community of storytellers, I’ve been asked to reflect on my relationship with the museum, and it occurs to me that despite writing about MAM frequently, I have never really stopped to consider what it means to me on a personal level.

Before I ever wrote about the museum, I already had a multifaceted relationship with it.

When I first arrived in Milwaukee in 1983, it was a place I’d stop to photograph on the outside, and to explore on the inside, the click and clatter of the 1950s parquet floor the soundtrack to wanderings through galleries large and small.

Milwaukee Art Museum, summer 1983.

It was not only a respite from the chill outside, but a place to warm the soul with new discoveries.

In one of those small galleries, I recall stumbling upon a brief exhibition of the works of Eugene Atget, those almost haunted, unpeopled 19th century landscape photographs. Nearby, I remember seeing for the first time those postcard-sized ultra-realist German portraits that, despite having been painted on canvas, almost appear to be photographs.

Slowly, over time and repeated visits, I came to know so many works that they almost feel like old friends. Sunny’s floppy hair and sloppy tongue in Alex Katz’s painting outside the Bradley Collection, Nardo di Cione’s gilt early Renaissance Madonna and Child, the expressionistic schoolchildren on the road in Soutine’s “Children and Geese,” Francisco de Zurbarán’s ominous and looming St. Francis of Assisi.

And thanks to some insider connections during the 1990s, I got to see inside Peg Bradley’s personal apartment (now gone, but seen here), and hear stories of Calatrava’s many visits and the groundbreaking design it seemed hard to believe back then that Milwaukee would embrace.

And there were the numerous First Friday events at which I performed with my band in the old East Entrance, a cavernous and not terribly rock-and-roll friendly space, acoustically speaking.

There have been so many exhibits over the years – far too many to count. But, I’ve spent so many years visiting MAM that not only did I see the 50th anniversary exhibition of Landfall Press in 2019-20, but I remember visiting the 25th anniversary show, too (and I have the catalog at home to prove it!).

There was the time I was fortunate enough not only to hear Jacob Lawrence speak – on the occasion of an exhibition of his stunning “Migration Series” – but to also shake his hand.

When my kids arrived, I got a new perspective on this familiar place. There were works to which the little ones were drawn – like Cornelia Parker’s suspended chalk from the cliffs of Dover – and others which they’d avoid at every cost, like the scary looking toga-clad dude with the hammer.

In the Kohl’s Art Studio, we’ve molded, cut, pasted, painted, folded and glued darn near everything to create artwork together.

For the past 20 years, I’ve visited the museum regularly for previews of all the major exhibitions and walkthroughs with visiting artists and curators, and there’s no better way to pass a couple hours doing research for an article.

Last November, after having been away for months as the museum had closed during the pandemic, I stopped in on a whim to visit the newly reopened museum, and although only the main floor was open and there was a restricted route to guarantee social distancing, it felt great to be back revisiting old friends.

I’ve seen the frost-covered glass in the staircase of Eero Saarinen’s War Memorial building in the depths of winter, I’ve stood atop the 1970s David Kahler addition, gazing out over Lake Michigan’s expanse, and I’ve not only seen the excavation, the concrete pours and the completion of “the Calatrava,” but I’ve climbed to the top of the spine of its “wings,” too. More recently, I had the pleasure of watching the addition designed by HGA’s Jim Shields rise, too (goodbye East Entrance!).

I’ve seen curators and directors and other staff members come and go.

I’ve sat in the registrar’s office and spent a couple hours in the conservation lab learning about how the museum works on a quotidien basis, and I was there for the uncrating of a Raphael masterpiece in 2010.

I’ve seen the glory of the artwork and the unglamorous behind the scenes spaces. And, taken all together, I realize that unlike almost any other institution in Milwaukee, I am the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Milwaukee Art Museum is me.

This content is in partnership with Milwaukee Art Museum. 

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.