About The Public Museum’s Name Change
Changing to a “Wisconsin” museum may be a key to its survival.
Milwaukee County officials were all smiles yesterday as they signed a deal to provide $45 million in funding for a new facility planned by the Milwaukee Public Museum. But as Urban Milwaukee reported, the ceremony came only after a county board meeting where most supervisors were miffed at the museum’s plan to drop “public” from its name even as it asked for so much public funding.
While the museum’s leaders haven’t decided for certain, they are considering renaming the institution as the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture and it seems clear that “Wisconsin” will definitely be part of the name. Behind that change is a long history of funding difficulties for Milwaukee cultural institutions that are the state leaders in their field yet get little state funding.
By then the audience for the museum didn’t just come from beyond the city, but from beyond the county, a trend which continued to grow. By 2013, as Urban Milwaukee reported, just 44% of the museum’s patrons came from Milwaukee County, with the rest coming mostly from other areas of Wisconsin, particularly Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington and Racine counties.
The MPM has a national reputation for its innovative style of presenting exhibits, but it’s worth noting that many other Milwaukee institutions are state leaders with a national reputation. The Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Ballet, Florentine Opera Company and Milwaukee Repertory Theater are all state leaders in their field that have won national attention and also draw fans from well beyond Milwaukee.
As Urban Milwaukee reported in 2013, the percentage of patrons from beyond the county was 57% for the county zoo, 55% to 65% for the art museum and 60% for the Marcus Center, home of the Milwaukee Ballet and Florentine, and presenter of touring Broadway shows. The Milwaukee Symphony’s analysis of ticket buyers found it drew heavily from six zip codes in Waukesha and Ozaukee counties, from Mequon, Thiensville, Brookfield, Menomonee Falls, Pewaukee, New Berlin and Elm Grove. It also had many attendees from Racine County
Nor has the state offered much support for Wisconsin’s leading cultural entities in Milwaukee. The Wisconsin Arts Board long ranked as the smallest, in per capita funding in the nation, but in recent years a few states have lowered the bar even further and Wisconsin now ranks 47th.
In the past groups like the Rep, MSO and Florentine have paid more to the state in sales taxes than they have gotten back in arts board funding. As small as the state arts board is, it has been even more insignificant for Milwaukee because it has never gotten its fair share of that small pie, when judged by its art groups’ budgets, employment or artistic quality.
Such was the situation the Milwaukee Public Museum faced when it set out to get state funding for its new $240 million building. Censky says the museum got immediate support from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and then worked to get backing from the mostly Republican members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee and state Building Commission, including some 20 to 30 legislators.
Censky offers a diplomatic response when asked about this. “While the state recognizes the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture as the legal entity that will own and operate the new museum, there is no stipulation for the name on the building.”
Censky seems to be suggesting the nonprofit entity that runs the museum might have a different name than the museum, but its leaders would be foolish not to use Wisconsin in the name of the museum itself. For it truly is an institution with a state-wide impact.
Board members, as Graham Kilmer reported for Urban Milwaukee, complained about dropping “public” from the name, given that the county will still be providing some support. After all, supervisors noted, the county owns the museum’s current building and its entire collection of some four million objects.
And while the county has continued to provide some support, that will be slashed from $3.5 million to $1 million per year, a payment intended to maintain the collection, under the new deal. The county will also have to spend an estimated $1.5 million per year to maintain the old building, while the museum finishes transferring the collection from the old to the new building, which is expected to break ground in late 2023 and open by 2026.
Natural history museums across the county often get state support and rarely have “public” in their name. The Public Museum name, moreover, leaves people knowing nothing about what kind of museum it is, Censky notes, while the Milwaukee Art Museum is immediately recognizable for what it does.
If it takes a change of name to “Wisconsin” to lower the cost of the museum for county taxpayers, I suspect many might support the idea. Indeed, they might support a similar name change for other institutions with significant county support, like the zoo and art museum.
Note to East Siders: I will be moderating a candidate forum for the Milwaukee County Board Third District race between incumbent supervisor Sheldon Wasserman and challenger Eric Rorholm that will take place Tuesday evening. More details here.
More about the New Natural History Museum
- Museum Won’t Preserve ‘Streets of Old Milwaukee’ - Graham Kilmer - Jan 10th, 2023
- Public Museum Picks Firms to Oversee New Museum’s Construction - Graham Kilmer - Nov 30th, 2022
- Public Museum Will Host Town Hall About Proposed New Home - Jeramey Jannene - Nov 9th, 2022
- Public Museum Wants Your Opinions - Graham Kilmer - Sep 15th, 2022
- Will New Public Museum Recognize Union? - Graham Kilmer - Aug 22nd, 2022
- New Public Museum Design Unveiled - Graham Kilmer - Jul 18th, 2022
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Demolition Starts For New Public Museum - Jeramey Jannene - Jun 7th, 2022
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Betty Brinn Pulls Out of New Museum Complex - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 8th, 2022
- Murphy’s Law: About The Public Museum’s Name Change - Bruce Murphy - Mar 22nd, 2022
- MKE County: Crowley, Nicholson Sign Museum Deal - Graham Kilmer - Mar 21st, 2022
Read more about New Natural History Museum here
State Near Top In Slashing County FundingMar 16th, 2022 by Bruce Murphy
City-County Sales Tax Proposal DeadMar 9th, 2022 by Bruce Murphy
Supreme Court Shows Ugly DivisionsMar 8th, 2022 by Bruce Murphy
2 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: About The Public Museum’s Name Change”
The idea of relinquishing “Milwaukee” in the name is offensive, really. This is a city institution with a storied local tradition; it’s never had anything to do with the state (beyond what’s in its collections). Is the implication that nothing that says “Milwaukee” will draw people from outside the county, or that only a “Wisconsin”-branded venue merits statewide interest? This just buys into the fallacy, promoted by the same outstate politicians who redirect millions in shared revenue away from Milwaukee, that the state’s economic and cultural epicenter is no more important than, say, Oshkosh.
It was the same with the convention center. Milwaukee couldn’t get state funding for expansion until a change in administration (Republican to Democratic) and it’s renaming as the Wisconsin Center. The argument that people from the rest of the state visit the Museum or that the collection comes from beyond Milwaukee proper is ridiculous.
Republicans hate Milwaukee.