New directors, new directions

By - Jan 4th, 2008 02:52 pm
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The day I found out that the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra would be announcing the music director to replace Andreas Delfs after the 2008-2009 season, I went to bed wondering when the Milwaukee Art Museum would get their ducks in a row and pick someone to replace Director and CEO David Gordon, who will be leaving in March.

I didn’t have to wonder long — I got an email the next day from the MAM press team announcing that a “successful museum director,” Daniel T. Keegan, would be taking the job. After months of what I imagine to have been sweaty deliberation, secret rehearsals, googling for dirt, maybe even confessional audition tapes, two of the city’s brawniest art organizations rang in the new on the same day. Their choices make sure statements about how they see themselves and where they hope to head in the next few years.

The Symphony’s choice, Edo de Waart, is absolutely magnetic. At 23 he served as Leonard Bernstein’s assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic; over the course of a storied, cosmopolitan career, de Waart has conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Holland, the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and most recently the Hong Kong Philharmonic. Edo de Waart also brings an extensive catalog of recordings with a number of orchestras on major music labels. In person he is full of European charisma — funny but focused, comfortable and sincere.

He just moved to Middleton with his wife and family, but everyone, including Edo, went to lengths yesterday to stress that this is not a late-career move made out of ease or laziness. De Waart called the MSO “a great sleeper orchestra,” unfettered by the weighty reputations that sometime “exceed reality.” In the past he has spoken with impressive conviction about what a wonderful symphony orchestra can do for a smaller city, or a city in transition (take a look at this interview about his work with the orchestra in Hong Kong). His experience in opera conducting — including but not limited to the Met in New York and L’Opera National in Paris — as well as a track record of taking chances on contemporary composers and lesser-known repertoire should prove revitalizing to the MSO. And I think Milwaukee is going to love him.

Daniel T. Keegan, a different choice for a different beast, comes to the Milwaukee Art Museum from the San Jose Museum of Art, rather persistently described in the press so far as a “Silicon Valley museum.” The phrase gives a lot away about what MAM was looking for in its new leader; San Jose’s most notable distinction, besides its expansive collection of West Coast and Pacific Rim art, is its use of technology and multimedia in exhibitions and galleries. Their podcasts are award-winning, and you can dial their audio guides from your cell phone.

The Milwaukee Art Museum has been reaching for a savvier demographic — a multi-tasking, wireless, gadget-infatuated and quick-on-its-feet group of people — for some time, with limited success (did anyone ever catch the almost-endearing Francis Bacon blog?). Keegan seems to be a clear affirmation of MAM’s desire to shuffle forward with the rest of us.

He also has a reputation as an attendance booster, and the Milwaukee Art Museum, like most art museums in America, definitely wants to boost attendance, more now than ever since crowds arriving to witness the glittery novelty of the Calatrava have leveled off. His record of support for educational programming is a good fit, too, considering the Museum’s dedication to education in the community and its reputation as a “teaching museum.”

Keegan is markedly unlike David Gordon, who came to Milwaukee from the Royal Academy in London and served as the CEO of The Economist in the ‘70s. Gordon brought a sharp financial mind and frugal management skills to bring MAM out of its expansion debt, but he also brought an old-Europe attitude and a starry sense that the Milwaukee Art Museum could be key in promoting Milwaukee as a modern, urbane city, more like the German Athens of old than the post-industrial Rust Belt town perception cuffed on the city now. In one of MAM’s greatest coups, the 2006 decorative arts exhibition Biedermeier traveled to the Louvre and the Albertina in Vienna. David Gordon has not since given up the joke that goes something like this:

Austrian: So, Milwaukee? Beer?
Gordon: No, Beer-dermeier.

I hope that Keegan’s nonlinear agenda will continue to steer the Museum toward mounting original, exciting exhibitions of scholarly importance and popular appeal and enhance the Museum’s collection as well as its reputation. Podcasts, cell phones, attendance initiatives and solid supplementary programming are all good things, but at the end of the day the work hanging in the galleries should speak volumes for itself. Perhaps Keegan will have less of a taste for bad puns, as well, though that may be missed.

So look out, Milwaukee. There are some new sheriffs in town.

Edo de Waart conducts the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest Holland in Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”

Categories: Classical, VITAL

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