Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Will Museum Drop ‘Public’ From Name?

Attorney says maintaining a 'public museum' is a financial necessity. Museum officials say 'public' in name confuses people.

By - Mar 14th, 2022 06:49 pm
A conceptual design for the Milwaukee Public Museum back plaza. Rendering by Rinka Chung Architecture.

A conceptual design for the Milwaukee Public Museum back plaza. Rendering by Rinka Chung Architecture.

On Friday, the Milwaukee County Board called a special meeting for Tuesday March 15, rushing forward consideration of a $45 million funding proposal for the future Milwaukee Public Museum. Though, once built, the museum will likely no longer be called the Milwaukee Public Museum.

MPM Inc., the nonprofit that operates the public museum, officially let the county board know in December 2021 it wanted to rename the museum as the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture or something similar. A report from the county’s Department of Administrative Services and MPM Inc. stated “the actual title of the future museum is undecided.”

The $240 million project has an estimated $190 million construction cost. Along with the proposed $45 million from the county, the state of Wisconsin has committed $40 million in funding to the project. These public funds will go toward construction and are also intended to catalyze a private capital campaign for the remaining project costs. MPM staff have repeatedly stated that without the county’s funding the project will fall apart.

At a recent joint committee meeting of the board’s Finance Committee and Parks, Energy and Environment Committee Sup. Sheldon Wasserman asked Dr. Ellen Censky, president and CEO of MPM Inc., if there were any contingencies on the state’s funding that precluded keeping the name “Milwaukee Public Museum.”

Censky did not say there were any naming requirements from the state; and told the committee the plan is to call the new facility the Milwaukee Museum Commons, which would house the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum and the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture, formerly known as the Milwaukee Public Museum.

The plan is to have some of the county-owned collections stored in view of the public. MPM staff told supervisors that there will be signage indicating these are the “Milwaukee County Collections.”

The new title is intended to reflect the statewide draw of the institution and its history as a museum of nature and culture.

We cannot have the word public on the museum,” Censky told supervisors. “And the reason for that is we are a separate 501c3 and not a governmental agency. Having the word public in the name confuses people as to where the finding is coming from.”

Legally speaking, MPM Inc., the operator of the museum, is a private nonprofit. The majority of its funding comes from private donations. But the current museum building is owned by the public, as are the four million objects in the museum’s collection. In 2020, the county’s annual contribution to the museum made on behalf of taxpayers accounted for 30% of the museum’s operating budget.

Margaret Daun, Milwaukee County corporation counsel, said it was her understanding that removing the “public” branding was based on recommendation from counsel for MPM Inc., so as to preserve its “private organizational structure.”

It is a legal technicality so that the public doesn’t misconstrue it, as would be interpreted by a court, that it is a public or governmental controlled and run entity,” Daun said. “Whether or not any of that holds water, we can have a lovely and vigorous debate about. But I believe that’s the underpinnings of that rationale.”

According to the county’s bond attorney, the future museum must be operated as a “public museum,” or else the county doesn’t have the authority to borrow money for the project. In a letter to Milwaukee County Comptroller Scott Manske, Attorney Brian G. Lanser of Quarles & Brady LLP confirmed that state statute gives the county authority to issue bonds for project, but said, “The key requirement of the statute is that the museum is public.”

To meet this requirement, the term sheet for the deal between the county and MPM Inc. states the new museum will continue annual free days and reduced admission for county residents and free admission for school groups.

The institution has been the Milwaukee Public Museum for more than 100 years. The current building has been owned by the county for approximately half a century. In 1992, it turned over operations to MPM Inc., a separate 501c3 nonprofit incorporated to run the museum.

This will change, to a certain extent, with the plan for the new museum. The new building will not be wholly owned by the citizens of Milwaukee County the way the existing building is. A nonprofit created by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce, called Historic Haymarket Milwaukee I Inc., is purchasing the land for the new museum and will act as the developer. Once the building is finished, it will transfer ownership of the building to a new entity called Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture Inc., a new 501c3 nonprofit, that will succeed MPM Inc. and operate the new museum. Censky is the registered agent for this new entity that will own and operate the future museum.

The collections will still be the property of county taxpayers, who, under the proposed deal, would continue to contribute $1 million annually for their storage and maintenance. In order to pay for the new facility the plan is for the county to borrow $45 million. Based on varying interest rates and repayment schedules, this borrowing will cost taxpayers between $55 and $63 million.

Censky defended plans to drop “public” from the name to supervisors, saying they often have patrons that are confused why they have to pay for a ticket when the museum is “public.” Sup. Joe Czarnezki said the same issue about tickets and fees is often heard at wholly-owned public facilities like golf courses and pools. He also disagreed that the museum, even under the future iteration, could really be considered private, “I mean, the collection is owned by Milwaukee County. It’s owned by the people of Milwaukee County.”

Sup. Sequanna Taylor offered a similar view. “We are an integral part of the museum, and I take $45 million to be a big chunk,” she said. She also pointed out that MPM had told supervisors earlier in the meeting that private donations could not be secured unless there was public buy-in.

Censky explained to supervisors that the museum is facing a deadline of mid-April to submit a report to the American Alliance of Museums for re-accreditation. The museum’s initial application for re-accreditation was “tabled” in 2021 because the building’s very poor state is putting the museum collections in jeopardy. MPM Inc. has estimated the building has an excess of $50 million in maintenance needs.

Censky told the supervisors during her presentation that without accreditation, the museum would lose access to millions in grants and donations, and the ability to host traveling exhibits. Without the new facility there is no accreditation, and without accreditation MPM Inc. would lose access to funding and begin the process of shutting down the museum and returning it to the complete control of the county.

“Not to be overly dramatic, but, the truth is, the future of this institution lies in your hands,” Censky said to supervisors.

Sup. Steven Shea said, “there is the question, what’s in the name. Well, there is something very important in the name; it states what the values are behind a museum, or any institution.”

He went on, “There is a lot of public money going into this project, this institution – I understand corporate counsel’s explanation that this is a, legally speaking, non-governmental agency – that is a technicality which the average person, lets face it, doesn’t appreciate and doesn’t particularly care to appreciate.”

4 thoughts on “MKE County: Will Museum Drop ‘Public’ From Name?”

  1. NieWiederKrieg says:

    America never has trouble finding trillions of dollars every year to start new wars. Why is it so difficult to come up with a few million for a new museum??

  2. btdn says:

    When shall we rename Wisconsin Public Radio? Milwaukee Public Museum, Inc.’s argument is absurd. As a 501c3 tax-exempt organization that is not a private foundation, the majority of it’s funding must come from “the public”.

  3. hillard says:

    The collections being the property of the public alone is enough to justify the name, and changing it because of some vague assertion about people thinking they should get in for free (who are these people? why would they think something being public would mean it’s free? why is this an issue big enough to change the name after a century?). Also, and I admit this is petty, but “Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture” (WMNC?) sounds like three different museums got into a car accident.

  4. Polaris says:

    Censky says:

    “I can’t raise private funds without public support.”
    “State taxpayers, give me $40 million.”
    “Milwaukee County taxpayers, give me $45 million.”
    “County Supervisors…not to be overly dramatic but, the truth is, the future of this institution lies in your hands.” *

    Apparently, Censky can’t do her job without public, taxpayer support. THE major donor to the Museum must have its name on the Museum. That donor is the taxpayers, and their name is “Public.”

    * Not to mention the public collection that is the basis for the Milwaukee Public Museum’s existence.

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