By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Jun 23, 2008 at 5:39 AM

Dan Keegan became the Milwaukee Art Museum's director in March. Arriving in February from California, where he served as director of the San Jose Museum of Art for seven years, he landed amidst a torrent of winter storms and unfamiliar sub-zero temperatures.

But as a Green Bay native, he knew it'd only be a matter of time before the winter broke and the sun returned to cast a new light on the city he sees as "reinventing itself."

Keegan, 58, has some progressive ideas for the future of the museum; ones that will undoubtedly keep it on the forefront of Milwaukee's cultural attraction. sat down to talk with him about his plans in this latest edition of Milwaukee Talks. You've been here just over three months now. Is it starting to feel like home yet?

Dan Keegan: Yes, especially now that it's warmed up. I got here Feb. 20, got up and decided to go for a walk and it was 12 degrees. Coming from sunny California, it was quite a change. But I grew up in Wisconsin; I'm from Green Bay, so I knew it could get a little chilly here. I just have to rewire for it.

It's great to be back and leading this fabulous museum that has a wonderful growing national reputation. It's on international radar with the addition of the Calatrava. It's not just about returning home and being by the lake in Milwaukee -- it's a great city, great community -- but as a museum professional, the opportunity to lead this institution is tremendous. It's about the 15th largest art museum in the United States.

OMC: You arrived in Milwaukee at an interesting time. When the Calatrava addition was completed seven years ago, we were on a brink of this cultural renaissance. Today, the city is still in a state of growth, and I'm interested in how you see the Milwaukee Art Museum's role in helping to shape our new identity.

DK: I did a lot of work in California on these issues of great cities and the role that arts and culture plays and the research is pretty clear: Great cities thrive economically when they're destination cities and when they become destination cities, it's easy to point to those key elements that must come together to be successful, and arts and culture are always front and center. The interesting thing about this is that what makes a great community are all the soft factors -- the things that are hard to quantify and define, yet at the end of the day, we know what it is that attracts us to great cities, and what works as far as bringing new businesses and retaining talented workers and again, it's arts and culture front and center.

OMC: But now there's another interesting factor. The economy is a problem, and tourism is waning in all parts of the country. How do you plan to keep the museum on the forefront of Milwaukee's attraction?

DK: I actually think there will be something interesting coming out of the high cost of travel, and that is we will see more local and regional tourism. It's less easy to get out of the area. I think we'll find that families will be researching what they can do in a closer range, and the museum has to be part of that list.

OMC: Is this a family-friendly museum?

DK: It is, and I think it's going to become even friendlier.

OMC: What are your plans for that?

DK: One of the opportunities here is to do more weekend programming for families. We've already had discussions and are working on a new plan to expand programming, activities and interactive experiences for families, and you'll see that come into play very soon.

OMC: Interactive is key.

DK. Yeah, and that speaks to the demands of general audiences. Increasingly, audiences are looking for more options within an experience. They're also looking for ways in which they can customize the experience to their own needs, tastes, likes and dislikes. And I think there's an increasing roll for technology to play. For younger audiences in particular, access to information surrounding the things they're experiencing is important. Technology can play a big roll in that. That's not to say that looking at a handheld device is going to replace looking at great art. But I think what we're seeing is younger audiences expecting to gather information through cell phones as audio guides. Or maybe use an iPod and listen to music while they're looking at art. These are options that can be and will be provided in the months ahead.

My goal is to be able to use cell technology and every visitor who has a cell phone has their audio guide with them. Another goal we're working on it to make sure that every work of art on display has an audio link available through your cell phone.

OMC: Is this something you've seen at other museums?

DK: It's something we pioneered at the San Jose Museum of Art and more than 200 hundred museums now have this technology.

OMC: About two years ago I went to the MCA in Chicago and the main exhibit there was on the evolution of the Segway. It really struck me how art exhibits might be changing. Segways are scientific and usable; they're not just hanging on a wall. You've been in the museum circuit for about a decade now -- have you seen an evolution of the art exhibit to reflect the times?

DK: I think what we're seeing is a blurring of the boundaries of how we'd traditionally define art. The role of technology in art has been around a long time. Artists have always played with technology; they've used the latest materials, techniques and processes coming out of the traditional sciences and applied them to artistic process. It's the nature of the beast. The difference between the artist and the scientist is attitude and discipline, rather than creativity. When you talk about the Segway, you talk about fine design, artful design. There's a beauty, a simplicity, a cleanness to that object, and yes it is utilitarian, but it's also sculptural. The utilitarian aspect of artful living is an important connection here for the fine arts. I see it as providing more options for experiencing what we mean by creativity.

OMC: Switching gears, the latest art controversy in Milwaukee is surrounding the Bronze Fonz statue.

DK: Great! Bring it on.

OMC: You're for it?

DK: Why not? I think communities have to have a whole range of experiences, and the Fonzie connection to Milwaukee is a natural. I think we should just stop talking about it as fine art -- it's a different experience. But commemorative and memorial sculptures, I think that's great. It's fun, kind of quirky and helped put Milwaukee on the map, whether it's good or bad.

OMC: Former Hotcakes Gallery owner Mike Brenner called Milwaukee "intellectually bankrupt" in reference to the city's support of the statue and has said he's leaving town because of it.

DK: I'm sorry he feels that way. Again, I think we need to just get over it and stop calling it "art" or our only artful experience. Now, if this is the only thing we do, that's a problem. But great cities are not one-dimensional. Great city experiences are multi-dimensional and there is a need for an eclectic, diverse mix.

OMC: What do you see as the most exciting thing happening artistically in Milwaukee?

DK: Besides the art museum? The art museum's number one, no small bias there. I think Milwaukee is reinventing itself and this is exciting to me as a newcomer. It appears to me that there is a young, hip, fresh community that is creative; the Third Ward scene is exciting; galleries are surviving and it's all about critical mass. The exciting thing for me is not only the art scene, but also the fact that there is a broader range of lifestyle here than in any time prior.

OMC: Was that part of your draw to the city?

DK: Yes. I struggled with it, frankly, in Silicon Valley for over seven years. By many people's definitions, Silicon Valley is a place that lacks a destination urban center.

OMC: What do you really want to accomplish here?

DK: I think there's a lot that's already been accomplished at MAM, but one of the exciting things for me as the new director is moving forward on some of the problematic issues on the experience side. Now that the building phase has been completed for the next several years there is an opportunity to now focus on the programming and making this museum more inviting and accessible. There's the opportunity to create what I'm calling the new "visitor experience initiative" around the art, which is more hands-on, interactive aspects.

I also think there is an opportunity to build on the museum's tradition of working with contemporary and modern artists and infuse the institution with some new and fresh programs.

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”