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A view of the proposed east facade from near Harbor House. Personally, I'd like to see more windows.
A view of the proposed east facade from near Harbor House. Personally, I'd like to see more windows. (Photo: Milwaukee Art Museum)
An interior view of the expansion space that will add 17,000 square feet to the museum's existing 345,000 square feet.
An interior view of the expansion space that will add 17,000 square feet to the museum's existing 345,000 square feet. (Photo: Milwaukee Art Museum)

Expansion plan opens up space for museum "bursting at the seams"

Two days ago the Milwaukee Art Museum officially announced its Plan for the Future, including an expansion of the 1975 Kahler building, which sits beneath and to the east of the 1957 Eero Saarinen-designed War Memorial Center.

Yesterday, MAM director Dan Keegan hosted a media event at which he offered more details on the plan, which is expected to cost $25 million, including $10 million Milwaukee County will spend to repair and upgrade portions of the buildings it owns.

MAM has already raised more than $13 million of its $15 million share, Keegan told a small group of reporters.

The expansion will add 17,000 square feet to the three-building, 345,000-square foot complex.

"We feel this is high, high impact for the museum and major bang for the buck in terms of what we need to accomplish and what we’re trying to get done here," said Keegan.

Since the announcement, the merits of one highest-profile aspects of the plan – the HGA-designed facade that will replace the east face of the Kahler building, which Keegan said MAM staff calls the "East Berlin view" – has been a major point of public discussion.

"It’s as if it’s a derelict building," he said, candidly, of the current facade.

But, Keegan added, the project is really about the art.

"Over time the collection has grown tremendously," he said. "We’re now a collection of over 30,000 works of art, spanning the history of art. The collection has become fractured over time and so that’s at the core of the major changes around the reinstallation of the collection."

"The good news is that we’ve grown the collection. The bad news is it’s presentation has not come from any master plan that has been continually updated. So, a major piece of this project is to reinstall the entire collection."

Though the new space totals only 17,000 square feet and not of all that is dedicated gallery space, Keegan estimated that the changes will actually add nearly 20,000 square feet of space for the exhibition of art.

That’s because spaces that have been walled up for storage or subdivided into offices will be re-opened for the display of art. Included in that is the outdoor sculpture garden that has been off-limits for as long as I can remember. Surely, it’s been at least two decades if not considerably longer.

That leak-prone dead space – visible through windows from inside the galleries, but inaccessible – will be reclaimed as part of the galleries.

The result will be not only more, but more wisely-organized, space.

American art – currently scattered among three locations – will be brought together. A new, 5,000-square foot changing exhibits gallery will be in the added space. Works on paper and 20th century design will get permanent exhibition space. And the lower level of the expanded Kahler building will house a new Herzfeld Center for Photography and New Media.

According to Keegan, who said the new layout will open vistas that will make wayfinding more intuitive and sensible, reducing the need for directional signage, said the older Saarinen building will house the oldest art.

Meanwhile, the newer Kahler building will house more recent works, including modern and contemporary art on the first floor. Upstairs will be the Bradley Collection, American art, new European art, a new sculpture gallery overlooking the lake and offering views of the Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion.

So, what about that Kahler facade?

After hearing Keegan explain some facets of the plan and pointing out some of the ways it draws subtle inspiration from Saarinen’s building, I have mixed feelings about it.

"he goal was not to try and compete with this (the Quadracci Pavilion) or to imitate this (the War Memorial Center), but rather to be respectful to both," Keegan said. "By design, it is restrained, it is minimal. It is meant to harmonize."

It will look great at night, illuminated from within, though that’s a view relatively few will see, as the facade orients out to the lake. But I think the opaque surfaces on both levels of the facade waste an opportunity for broader communication between the exterior and interior.

While more window space would force a re-think of the floor plan inside, it would afford more striking views over Lake Michigan, and would render the building more striking from the outside at night.

It’s hard to say how the building will, in the end, behave with the Quadracci Pavilion and the War Memorial Center because the exterior finish – including its color – has yet to be determined.

Architectural renderings portray it clothed in Calatrava white, but Keegan said it could be a different white or it could even take on a color more akin to the pale brown of the War Memorial. Time will tell.

Inside the museum, some work is already being removed in preparation for the changes, which will ramp up in fall, when the collections will close for 12 months. During this time the Quadracci Pavilion and its galleries will remain open.

According to Keegan, the result will be worth the inconvenience.

"Bigger is better, in this case, because we’re bursting at the seams. It doesn’t take us all the way there; we will still be pretty tight," he said, adding that he foresees the museum taking another expansion step sometime in the next quarter-century.


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