Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Charles Allis and Villa Terrace Could Be Sold

New report looks at future of museums, with selling them a last resort.

By - May 5th, 2024 01:24 pm

Charles Allis Art Museum (top) Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum (bottom).

With budget deficits on the horizon, Milwaukee County has begun eying the Charles Allis and Villa Terrace Decorative Arts museums as a source of potential savings, and officials have decided that one option is to sell the historic buildings.

During the county’s financial crisis of the past two decades, its cultural institutions have not been spared the budget cuts that have diminished so many areas of county government. The county has put the Marcus Center, the War Memorial, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Milwaukee County Historical Society on a path to becoming financially independent.

For a long time, the Charles Allis and Villa Terrace museums have run quietly on a modest level of funding from the county. They’ve been jointly managed and operated by a single nonprofit, Charles Allis and Villa Terrace, Inc. (CAVT), since 2012.

The CAVT board has always wondered when county officials would look to their little museums for revenue, said Board Chair Claudia Egan, but they were always told the museums “weren’t big enough to worry about.” Now, apparently, they are.

In recent years, The Milwaukee County Board has struggled with funding for major repairs and maintenance to the 113-year-old Charles Allis building. In 2023, $1.8 million was included in the budget to make repairs to the historic building. But supervisors cannibalized the funding and spread it around parks projects in their districts.

During the 2024 budget cycle, made easier by revenue from the new 0.4% sales tax, supervisors held off from similarly picking apart funding for maintenance and repairs at the museum. But the board also passed an amendment, authored by Sup. Shawn Rolland, directing the county administration to investigate an “exit strategy” for the county concerning the two institutions.

“I know our board has had several conversations about Charles Allis,” Rolland said at the time. “Whether it fits well within the portfolio of capital improvements that we need to make, or if it feels off-center, in comparison to the long laundry list of things that we need to tackle.”

The report is finished, and the board will consider it during its May meeting cycle. It lays out four potential paths forward, and also hints at how the future may play out for these two museums.

The first option is maintaining the status quo. The second is developing a formal public request for ideas about how to sustain the museums going forward. The third option is transferring ownership and operations of the museums to the current non-profit operator, CAVT. And fourth, selling the buildings.

Recent appraisals put the value of the Charles Allis mansion at $330,000 and Villa Terrace at $2 million. The Villa Terrace building has no conditions on it that would prevent the county from selling. The Charles Allis building does come with conditions. If the county sells it, the revenue must be used for a new home for the art collection. However, the county’s attorneys believe this legal trust could be dissolved, relieving the county of this requirement.

The Museums

Both museums were originally built as homes in the early 20th century. Charles and Sarah Allis commissioned famed Milwaukee architect Alexander C. Eschweiler to design their 18,000-square foot-mansion, which was built in 1911. Villa Terrace, designed by architect David Adler, was built in 1923 for Lloyd Smith and his wife Sarah Smith. Lloyd was a scion of the family that owned the A.O. Smith corporation.

In 1945, upon Ms. Allis’ death, and in accordance with her last will and testament, the Allis mansion and its art collection were given to the City of Milwaukee along with a $200,000 endowment. The county took over ownership from the city in 1979. In 1966, Ms. Smith gifted Villa Terrace to the county.

It is Ms. Allis’ will and testament that requires the art collection be held in public trust and exhibited in a public museum.

The museums are operated on a combined annual budget of approximately $822,450. The county provides $225,108 annually to its operations. The majority of non-county funding comes from event rentals and alcohol sales. Villa Terrace is a popular wedding venue.

CAVT has operated the museums since 2012 without ever signing an agreement to do so. “Even without an agreement, this is a benefit to the County because the County is required to provide public access to the Charles Allis Collection under the Will,” the report states. “Additionally, both the museums and the collections benefit from being actively managed, reducing issues like deterioration and vandalism.”

The museums have experienced great success in recent years, CAVT Executive Director Jaymee Harvey Willms told Urban Milwaukee, breaking attendance and revenue records.

Willms, who became executive director in 2022, is an artist and has been reorienting museum operations, focusing on community and artistic programming. At Villa Terrace, CAVT recently negotiated a new contract with its event contractors, decreasing the amount of days set aside for weddings, but increasing the price of events. This should protect the bottom line, Willms said, while making more room for programming, “and maybe even reclaim the Villa a little bit as an art museum.”

Since 2007, the county has budgeted $2,040,874 for infrastructure needs at the two museums, with nearly $300,000 of that found in the 2024 budget. County officials estimate that if the two museum’s infrastructure needs are actually met, it will cost the county approximately $18 million over the next 18 years.

What Comes Next?

The new report on the two museums by officials from the Department of Administrative Services is clear on what the county administration would like to do: a public request seeking “creative solutions” for the museums.

“If that should fail and CAVT is not interested in obtaining the buildings, then the recommended option would be sale of the buildings,” the report states.

Historically, the county has been interested in transferring the buildings to CAVT. In recent years, the county has even tried to negotiate a lease for the buildings with CAVT, “but negotiations have stalled due to a reluctance of CAVT to take on any additional maintenance or capital responsibilities.”

If the county is going to transfer the properties and cease financial support, it would likely need to do some building maintenance first, Willms said.

“We’re committed to whatever the best possible future is,” Willms said. “I think that looking at our fellow cultural institutions, and how they’ve negotiated their properties and any exit strategies that become apparent, we would want to follow some of those templates and make sure that the county is able to take care of some if not all of the capital needs.”

Egan is less sure that’s the way to go, as an infrastructure buyout deal would require the county to fork over millions. “It’s a little harder for us because we aren’t like the Marcus [Center] would be: an entertainment venue that produces revenue,” Egan said. “We’re just, we’re a different animal than that.”

However, Egan does think it’s possible for CAVT to take over the institutions. “There is interest in finding that path in a rather passionate way right now on the board.” But first, the board and CAVT need the institutional support of the county to chart that path forward, she said, “We need a feasibility study to understand these facts that the report has provided and what it would really take.”

On the public request for ideas, Egan said she thinks the board would welcome new ideas and partners. “We want to find the best, highest use to sustain and maintain the museums, and that could involve a lot of things and other partners.”

An open request for ideas would be “democracy in action” and “something I’d be really interested in,” Willms said. “It’s also something that I think we, at the museums, do every day.”

Read the full county report on Urban Milwaukee.

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2 thoughts on “MKE County: Charles Allis and Villa Terrace Could Be Sold”

  1. Marty Ellenbecker says:

    “,,,county’s attorneys believe this legal trust could be dissolved,,,”
    Aren’t they just the cutest little bunch of contract-breaking weasels you’ve ever seen?

    None of this would be happening if Milwaukee had simply taken
    back its rights to home rule/taxation.

    Serve notice NOW to the Wisconsin State Legislature,
    in both written and suppository form.

  2. JonErik says:

    “In 2023, $1.8 million was included in the budget to make repairs to the historic building. But supervisors cannibalized the funding and spread it around parks projects in their districts.”

    How did an historical building get to the point where repairs or maintenance got to $1.8 million? This sounds like “deferred maintenance” from decades of neglect. I certainly hope the County will realize the great value these legacy treasures have for the community beyond their monetary value. I have fond memories of visiting the Charles Allis Library to view its Whistler and Rembrandt print collections. The collections are priceless. Does the County think it can sell this (presently unappraised) art collection and just pocket the profit for other priorities which the Supervisors have been misplacing over the years? Do County leaders believe that they can sell the collection off to the highest bidder for private collections that cannot be accessed by the public? And why would they want to do this?

    I hope that some solution can be decided upon that would preserve the two museums with the CAVT operation after the needed repairs and maintenance can be expended to allow many more years of public access to these two great cultural centers.

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