Top Architect Quit Project for Museum Addition
Architect Jim Shields had falling out with Milwaukee Art Museum; new addition was designed by committee, not Shields.
Two years ago, when the Milwaukee Art Museum announced it would be building a new $15 million addition along the lakefront, the plan boasted the pedigree of a top designer — Jim Shields. For many years, Shields has been the go-to architect in the metro area for high profile projects, particularly involving museums. He designed such highly regarded buildings as the Discovery World Museum, the Museum of Wisconsin Art, and the Milwaukee Public Museum’s Butterfly Vivarium, not to mention the De Vos Art Museum at Northern Michigan University.
For the Milwaukee Art Museum, Shields would be creating a new lakefront entrance that would replace the old Kahler addition to the museum and better connect the museum to its famed Calatrava addition and the War Memorial Center built by internationally esteemed architect Eero Saarinen. Earlier today, the museum released an updated version of the design and it was credited to Shields by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But it is not Shields’ design.
“I kind of exited the project back in February,” Shields told me.
So is this your design, I asked. “No, not really,” he said.
Why did he withdraw from the project? “I’m not sure I want to get into it other than to say that as (Milwaukee Art Museum Director) Dan Keegan brought in other staff to work on the project we just had some basic disagreements. It just wasn’t a good fit for me.”
So who, then, is the architect for the newly released design? That seems to something of a mystery. The company Shields works for, HGA Architects and Engineers, is still working with the museum, but without his involvement. Jim Vander Heiden of HGA tells me he is overseeing the project, but is not the designer.
“I’m the principal responsible for the project,” Vander Heiden says. “We have a team that’s responsible for the design.”
As to who is leading the team or who has become the designer in Shields’ place, Vander Heiden said I would need to talk to Keegan about that. Keegan emailed me to say that “HGA is the architect of record who has designed the building addition. There is a team involved that includes architects, MAM curators and designer, and the construction manager.” Notably, his comment left out Shields’ name.
One source told me that the David Russick, who joined the museum in August 2012 as its exhibitions’ designer, is now the key person overseeing design changes. Keegan said this was untrue and that Russick is “responsible for the design and layout of the reinstallation of the collection” which will be part of the new project.
Schumacher’s story credited Shields for the design, quoting him to the effect that the structure was designed to avoid “the pitched battle between the two masters on the lakefront,” Calatrava and Saarinen. But Shields says this quote was from a year ago, back he was still involved in creating the design. The new design, as Sean Ryan reported for the Business Journal, now seems to lean toward the Saarinen, given its cantilevered look. (It’s not clear whether this conclusion was Ryan’s or was suggested by Keegan.)
Needless to say, there is no architect on staff at the Milwaukee Art Museum. As for Shields, he has received over a dozen Design Awards from the American Institute of Architects in Wisconsin, including for Discovery World, the DeVos Art Museum and the Butterfly Vivarium. Shields has also received a number of National Design Awards for religious architecture for such works as the St. Boniface Church in Mequon, the St. Norbert’s College Chapel and the Milwaukee Catholic Cathedral. Shields is an Associate Professor of Architecture at UW-Milwaukee, where he has served as curator of more than 25 exhibitions on contemporary architecture in the Upper Midwest. He is the author of two books: “The Cities of James Duane Doty,” and “Architectural Representation.”
Shield says it’s not unheard of for architects and clients to part ways. “The relationship between an architect and a client isn’t an easy thing,” he says.
So how often has he had such disagreements as this? “It’s rare,” he says.
Update 9 p.m. April 8: In response to my story, Keegan contacted me to offer a different take on what happened and Schumacher rewrote and expanded her article. Schumacher’s story, which ran on the Journal Sentinel’s front page, top-of-the-fold, announces to the world in the second paragraph that Jim Shields designed the new addition. Some 15 paragraphs later, deep into the story, Schmacher lets slip that Shields “left the project team in February.” That’s called burying the lead. She quotes Shields saying “yes, I was involved in that scheme,” but this cryptic comment is never explained. Meanwhile, Keegan emailed me to insist that Shields “created the design for the east addition used as the basis for the renderings released today” and that “Jim was the conceptual design architect on retainer with HGA hired to help the Museum and HGA with the design concepts” and “he finished that work which has now advanced to the design implementation phase with HGA’s architect team.”
But this revisionist view of how the design happened falls apart in the face of a blizzard of contradictory facts:
-Shields says flatly it’s not his design;
-Jim Vander Heiden of HGA, who is overseeing the project, could not tell me who the designer of the new addition was. Given that he works in the same office as his colleague Shields, I think he would have known if Shields had designed the addition.
-In his original response to me, Keegan avoided naming any designer of the addition and instead said “There is a team involved that includes architects, MAM curators and designer, and the construction manager.” Translation: it’s a design by committee.
-In Schumacher’s revised story, Keegan is quoted rhapsodizing about how wonderful the design is. Shields offers not one word of praise or defense of the design. His use of the word “scheme” to describe the revised design tells us what he thinks of it.
-Keegan dances around the question of why Shields left the project. To Schumacher, Keegan said “In my role as the museum’s director I didn’t want to delve too deeply into that.” So the town’s top designer of museums leaves the project and you don’t want to ask why?
-Keegan offered a slightly different take to me, saying “I do not control HGA’s decisions regarding how they choose to work with contract employees, which Jim Shields is” and “I can’t speak to Jim’s dissatisfaction with HGA but we feel very good about his design work.” So Keegan is now implying either that HGA dismissed Shields from the project or that Shields was unhappy with HGA rather than with the museum and therefore left the project. That’s extraordinary.
-As to Shields statement that he left the project because he had basic disagreements with Keegan and his staff, Keegan just ignores this.
The only reasonable interpretation here is that Shields was pushed into changing the design in ways he disagreed with, finally had enough of it and withdrew from the project. Precisely how much of the current design he created may never be known, but it’s clear Shields doesn’t consider it his design. All of which is embarrassing for the museum, which is working hard to downplay or deny that he had a falling out with the organization.
A final note: this controversy would be a problem even if Shields was an average architect, but he’s a national award winner and an expert on creating beautiful museums whose work speaks for itself. The fact that he was supplanted by the decisions of a huge team, including unnamed architects, does not seem like a small problem that you bury in the bottom of a story. The readers — and this community — deserve better.
-I have previously written to urge support for the Art Museum project, whose full cost is $25 million and includes repairs and restorations to the War Memorial. That building and the Kahler addition have together suffered from a leaky roof, mold infiltration, a failed HVAC system, broken concrete, leaking windows, and foundation seepage. The problems have endangered the art at the museum, which is the state’s greatest collection of art works.
-The new design has been compared to the old Milwaukee convention hall, MECCA, in comments at the Journal Sentinel and at Urban Milwaukee’s Facebook page. In comments after the Business Journal’s story, Justin Racinowski of The Kubala Washatko Architects said this: “Wow that is horribly bland. The designers gave up before they even started, the art museum certainly deserves better.” The art museum, it appears, disagrees.