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Milwaukee Talks: Milwaukee Public Museum director Dennis Kois

Museum professional Dennis Kois is a hometown boy who never expected to return to his native Milwaukee.

But in February, Kois was named the new director of the Milwaukee Public Museum, bringing him back to Brew City after a 20-year absence.

We sat down with him to talk about coming home, what he found at the museum when he arrived and what the future will bring for a venerable Milwaukee institution. How does it feel to be back home?

Dennis Kois: It's great. Milwaukee's changed a lot while I was gone in some ways. In other ways, it has not changed at all.

OMC: In what ways has it not changed at all?

DK: I'd say it's still as friendly as ever, and as this last winter proved, it's still as cold as ever.

OMC: You came back just in time for a cold one.

DK: Yeah, it was something else. To me, there's just a lot more variety of food, of culture, of sort of the ethnic mixes that continue to morph in great ways. I think those things are a little bit more exciting to see come back, to have sort of a nascent foodie culture in town is just awesome to come back to. It wasn't the case when I was a kid. It did not exist then.

OMC: Had you stayed in touch? Had you come back in the interim?

DK: Oh yeah, I still have parents who live in the city, so we would be back for holidays and things with our kids, so I saw little bits of it, but we were kind of in our little bubble just visiting family and stuff, and so diving back in here has been great.

The one thing that that's been striking to me, that's perhaps a more challenging change is just that the city's political dialogue has become so polarized, which has affected the whole country really, but that's also not the Milwaukee I remember as a youngster, a teenager. So I think that's one of the changes that actually makes me think about the role of the museum going forward. Sort of a forum for dialogue and discourse and civic engagement.

OMC: Has that affected you in your position here since you've been back, that discourse?

DK: It really hasn't. I mean, it's more of just an observation, but I think it sort of impacts on a grand scale how the city functions, what gets talked about, how things are happening. One of the roles, and one of the great things about the museum, other than a Brewers game or maybe the State Fair or maybe the public library, it's probably got the most diverse visitation, sort of across every spectrum you can imagine -- socioeconomic, racial, political, cultural, suburban, city. That's an incredible opportunity for the museum. What do you do with that?

Those people are all here. It doesn't mean they're still interacting with each other. How do you use that opportunity both for interaction among visitors and for interactions of the institution with visitors of all those different sort of stripes and categories? That's a pretty unique opportunity. I think that's kind of cool. That's what I've been thinking about.

OMC: Does it put the museum a little bit above or outside the political fray in the sense that nobody sees it as a Republican thing or a Democratic thing?

DK: It does. The museum's ecumenical. We have no agenda in that regard, but I think the museums have always played a role in forming a kind of civic base. What does it mean to be a citizen? What does it mean to Milwaukeean? What's the city? Where does it come from? Where is it going? What are we about? Right?

I think that piece of what the museum is, is something you'll see us maybe accent and move more toward in the future, just because it's an important role for the museum to play. I think as things have become a little bit more polarized, that it becomes even more key for the museum to sort of be neutral, the Switzerland of ideas about Milwaukee and vision about Milwaukee, where the city's going.

I think that's a great opportunity for this museum.

OMC: Let's circle back to one thing about your coming home. Had you always hoped or expected to come home or was it a surprise?

DK: I had not ever expected to come home. In fact, like a lot of people who grew up somewhere, you tend to define yourself as "That's the place I was from, and now I'm in this other place." I was gone for 20 years, so it never occurred to me to come back, but this particular opportunity came up and it just seemed like the right thing at the right time. I've got kids, I've got family here. This is the museum I first interned in when I was a student, so I only wished I stood outside and said, "I'm going to run this place someday." It just made sense at the right time, so I'm excited to be back.

OMC: Your other museum positions have been more arts-oriented …

DK: Almost exclusively, yeah. Two of those institutions, the one I was just at, which was really an odd duck, and then the one in Texas had a history, natural history, children's museum component, was sort of an all things museum, a classic American museum, but the rest are all art museums.

OMC: Does the arts background give you a different perspective perhaps than other museum directors had?

DK: For better or worse, yes it does. I think probably the downside is I need to get more informed about our content, what the natural history museum side of the world is up to and sort of where we're headed in that regard. But I think, fundamentally, running a museum is running a museum. We've got incredibly talented curators. We've got knowledgeable staff. My job's somewhat different.

The way it might be a positive is art museums tend to be a little more risk-taking and a little more comfortable with pushing boundaries of what it means to be a museum and how you interact with visitors, and I think that's something that might be beneficial for this museum and frankly probably for all natural history and natural science museums to be thinking a little more, in more challenging ways, about where they go.

What do you do with collections? How do you be topical and relevant for audiences? That's something I think art museums have to struggle with more because the content is a little more opaque to people, especially contemporary, which is where I was. That's challenging stuff. A lot of people don't like it, don't get it, and so a museum has to really work to make it connectable and understandable and engageable and interesting for a broad spectrum of people.

I think that's something that a public museum needs to think about, too. How do we connect with all those people in different ways, and what can we do differently?

OMC: Is the timing especially good in the sense that the museum may have been sort of conservative over the last few years, considering the financial issues it has struggled with?

DK: The museum's been on a really positive path in the sense that it focused on what we needed to, which was sustainability. If the previous presidents such as Dan Finley, who was an excellent politician and a fine museum director, it turned out, and Jay Williams, who was an excellent banker and businessman and fine museum director, it turned out; if they had not done what they did, there wouldn't be a museum here for us to run. This would not exist.

By default, it had to buckle down and just focus on, frankly, the numbers and finances and make sure what it was doing is sustainable. We're in a great position in that we're nearly debt-free. (Debt) went from $23, $24 million a decade ago to now we're at $1.6, and it'll be down to zero within about a year and a half. That's huge.

I think the way forward for the museum is fundraising. I think all the operational improvements that have been made over the last decade have been great, but you're not going to raise another $10 million by charging an extra 50 cents on admissions or charging more for hot dogs. Fundamentally, that's a philanthropic question. It's how do you raise more support and a broader base of support from this community. I think the challenge now is what does a museum do that's going to matter to this community?

What's the vision for the future? Then, are people going to support it? That's sort of what I'm here to do. I think that's the opportunity and the challenge in front of us.

OMC: What do you see as that vision for the future? When I'm the millionaire and you call me up, what are you going to tell me?

DK: I think there's a couple of broad themes that you're going to see the museum sort of push on. The first, I would say, is the museum is organized in a way museums grew 100 years ago, 150 years ago, right? We're 130 years old at this point. American museums came out of a legacy of academia and cataloging the world. Collecting it and cataloging it in this very Germanic sort of structural sense.

Milwaukee was particularly good at it because we came out of this great German immigrant history, and so I think we're still organized that way. Ultimately, we need to reorient ourselves towards what's going to matter to our audiences.

What's going to matter to our audiences? What's topical, what's relevant, what's interesting for people now and in the future?

Where are collections strong? Where can we make the most of what we own out of these four-and-a-half million objects? What matters most?

What's supportable? What's sustainable in this community? Ultimately, it's great if we're going to do shows about XYZ, but if XYZ has no fundability and the community couldn't care less, you're not going to succeed no matter how great the shows are. You've got to be supportable.

If you're trying to go at those three items and sort of map that out to the center point of that Venn diagram, it's where we need to be. For example, as opposed to having a history section and anthropology section and archaeology section and some scientists who are interested in biodiversity, you might see us talk about a Wisconsin history and culture curatorial focus, right?

That could be all of those things. It could be indigenous peoples. It could be contemporary Milwaukee. It could be food culture. It could be future Milwaukee. It could be global warming as impacting Wisconsin agricultural industry in the Great Lakes. It could be past, present, future -- but it's around Milwaukee and Wisconsin.

There may be something we choose to do around climate change or around biodiversity or around world cultures and areas where we can tell an interesting story and do something relevant.

I think you'll see us position ourselves as more of a statewide institution, which is not to say we're not going to still very much serve the county. We're a county collection. It's a county building. I talked to some of our county supervisors about this. Ultimately, it's to the county's benefit to get those resources out into the state and to lend more objects to other institutions in this state, to travel shows, to be a partner with other museums in the state, and the mercenary side of that is to also fundraise in other parts of the state.

We're the biggest institution in this state by far as far as museums go. Our 10-year average (attendance) is double that of the art museum. It's bigger than anything else in the state, and a lot of it comes from across the state, so we need to be out there more. I think you'll see that piece moving forward.

Overall, I also think you're going to see us focus on what I would kind of call local flavor: a local food movement and a local music scene. One of the things, I think, science and history museums have gotten themselves in trouble with is telling these really globalized stories in really generic ways. You could walk into the bio-diversity area and see the global warming exhibit in L.A., Minneapolis, or New York, and once you're in there, you would have no idea what city you're in because they're all going to show you a polar bear and an ice floe.

We still want to tell those global stories, but I would much rather we do it through a local or regional lens using those collections and connecting people what they know. I mean, polar bears are great in the abstract, unless things get much colder here, in which case maybe we'll have that.

I'd much rather we tell it through the story of Wisconsin food and what can be grown here and how the climate's changing and what the president's report on climate change this year, Wisconsin's the third most impacted state in temperature swing in the last 150 years. It's Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.

We're at the front edge of that, and we're kind of facing the unknown, so if we're going to talk about it, let's talk about it through a local lens. I think you'll see us do that in both the global stories we tell, and I think you'll see us become more local in turning the museum inside-out and getting out into the community. We don't want to just be a museum of objects that are about the past.

I'd love us to be the first natural history/history museum in this country to have a contemporary curator. There should be someone out there now collecting industrial memorabilia and culture and what's going on in the sub-communities of the city now.

OMC: Rather than trying to go back later and …

DK: … trying, you're right, exactly. Hunt those things down or wait for people to die and give them to us. That's not effective proactive strategy, right? We need to be out in the city, and we do need a place that connects you to what makes this city what it is and connect that to the history of it.

If you're interested in foodie Milwaukee, we should be able … We've got all kinds of interesting history around restaurants and hotels and German immigration, how food here became that aspect of it, and you could get out in the community and do a cool program with the chef of Circa 1880 or Wolf Peach or something where you're talking about, "so how are they thinking about what people eat here and where their food comes from and where they get their growers from," and we could connect that to the now.

It's not a program that's in the museum at all. It's out in the community. I think you'll see us do more of that.

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