Bruce Murphy
Back in the News

Newspaper Critic Says Don’t Build Art Museum Addition

Schumacher, Journal Sentinel critic, calls Milwaukee Art Museum’s design a “dose of dullness.”

By - May 5th, 2014 01:24 pm
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Proposed addition.

Proposed addition.

It was back on April 7 that Urban Milwaukee reported that architect Jim Shields had dropped out of the project to build a lakeside addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Shields also said the museum’s newly-announced design was not his work.

On April 10th, Urban Milwaukee’s architecture critic, Tom Bamberger, wrote a column blasting the revised design as “a monumental blunder,” that “cannot, must not be built.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, meanwhile, offered an editorial roundup (on April 13) championing the addition. “It’s good to see the Milwaukee Art Museum moving ahead with designs for its addition on the lakefront… It’s an exciting project,” the newspaper editorialized.

So things stood until the newspaper’s art and architecture critic Mary Louise Schumacher came out with her view, in a story published in the May 4, Sunday arts section, where she dismissed the addition for its “humdrum design.”

“Unfortunately, the museum is proposing a dose of dullness for our most prized public space, a revision of a much more elegant design unveiled two years ago by architect Jim Shields,” Schumacher announced.

I’m glad to see Schumacher weigh in on this issue, if belatedly, and I hope her viewpoint carries some sway, both with her newspaper’s editorial board, and with board members of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

But I question Schumacher’s suggested solution, that the museum should hold off for now and not build any addition: “I believe the museum should simply stop building for a time… The most daring thing to do right now is to build nothing at all.”

While Shields’ design for the addition is better, Schumacher says, “either would be a stopgap measure, a sort of half wing that would tide the museum over until it builds a full one, which many at the museum including director Dan Keegan consider an inevitability within a decade or so.”

The problem with this suggestion is both the Kahler addition and the War Memorial have well-documented problems that endanger the museum’s art collection and must be repaired as soon as possible. Keegan’s creative solution was to tackle that problem while also creating a new lakefront addition. Unfortunately Keegan and his staff eventually lost sight of that original objective and have decided to make their lust for more exhibition space drive the design, with disastrous consequences.

Schumacher, instead, suggests the museum simply try to restore the old design of the Kahler addition: “It is often accused of being a hopeless eyesore, but this is after years of misguided modifications and neglect. Its eastern face with concrete cubes and deeply recessed windows was handsome in its day. It was an entrance once. Let it be so again.”

That’s not such a bad idea, strictly from the perspective of design. But practically speaking, trying to raise money from donors to go backwards seems like a difficult sale to close. And if you truly restore the Kahler, you lose the new space created by enclosing the seldom-used sculpture garden. Meanwhile, I doubt you would save any money. I think at this point Keegan’s instinct to start from scratch makes more sense, both architecturally and financially. If only he could be convinced to let Shields create a real design for the addition.

Proposed Design

4 thoughts on “Back in the News: Newspaper Critic Says Don’t Build Art Museum Addition”

  1. Sean S. says:

    You people are crazy. The point of an art museum is to display art. Stating that they have a “lust for exhibition space” means you either don’t get the point of an art museum, or want a pretty building that is functionally useless. The reality is the MAM must expand it’s exhibition space if it wishes to be able to attract the level of patrons and to display exhibits of increasing complexity and literal size,

  2. Dan says:

    I have to agree with Sean – first and foremost, I like the idea of seeing more space for viewing art. The idea of scrapping the whole project because of the facade seems way too hardcore. And as Bruce mentioned above, the museum needs repairs, and having an expansion sweetens the pot for investors.

    Just today they announced that Shields is back on hand with the project and they’ve again revised the concept art to show what looks to be a compromise between Shields’ original design and the boxier revision. I’m curious to see what the art community has to say about this.

  3. Tim says:

    They can put up any building they want… in an industrial park next to the airport.

    If you’re putting up a building on land you don’t even own, on the 5th largest lake in the world, sitting on the front door of the great city of Milwaukee… then you’re foolish if you think an art warehouse is acceptable.

    Personally, this new version is better but still falls short. The way the building poorly mimics the Saarinen while simultaneously looming over the lake & any visitors is sad. It will be even worse if this is built… I’m feeling a little used by Shields right now, did he just play this game with public outrage to get a commission?

  4. Chloe says:

    I agree with Mary Louise Schumacher in that the MAM might be better off focusing on rotating their art collections. The Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend (another HGA / Shields project), does a fabulous job of storing their off-exhibit collections in a “teaser” space that is visible to the public, but inaccessible while it is stored. Frankly, the existing collections at the MAM are overall underwhelming. The museum would do better to increase its acquisitions funding to provide a solid legacy for the museum. In the meantime, those repairs MUST be done, and an east entrance to the museum MUST be added to accommodate the north parking spaces and lakefront pedestrians. More exhibit space is debatable.

    @ Tim – Jim Shields (HGA) already had the commission: there was no reason to “play” anything. I am certain he had the greatest regard for the stewardship of this very unique building.

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