Art / Culture //

Milwaukee Art Museum Turns Challenge into Masterpieces

When the Milwaukee Art Museum had to close half of its space for renovation, they recovered by assembling a special world class exhibit.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

While more famous art museums like MOMA in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and LACMA in LA get more national press, Milwaukee’s version made an ingenious play to overcome a serious challenge. 

On a recent trip through Milwaukee to get up to Whistling Straits for a media round previewing the PGA Championship, I stopped off at the Milwaukee Art Museum. It’s a two-part building along the city’s lakefront composed of the now world-famous Burke Brise Soleil by master architect Santiago Calatrava (above) and the older, original building — the War Memorial by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen (also the designer of the St. Louis Gateway Arch).

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The War Memorial side was showing some wear and tear after decades in use, so the museum had to close it for a full renovation. That immediately caused a major problem because the vast majority of the museum’s exhibits resided in the War Memorial. The Calatrava side is used more for public events a series of primary, special exhibits.

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So, as work began to restore the Memorial, the museum had to find one primary exhibit for the Calatrava gallery that would keep patrons coming to the lakefront when most of Milwaukee’s major artworks were locked away and awaiting a newly restored museum space.

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The minds behind the MAM brought “Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Rebels” to its main gallery space — a special assembly of modern masters worthy of any museum on Earth. The exhibit focuses on those artists who deliberately defied tradition and the accepted norm to change the art world. Quite simply, nearly every major painter since the mid 1800s is represented — including Van Gogh, Miro, Degas, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, O’Keeffe, Rothko, Dali, Kahlo, Lichtenstein, Pollock and Warhol. 

It seems a brilliant strategy for keeping the museum viable while most of its gallery space is temporarily shut down. And, it’s featuring names that transcended the art world to become a part of history and pop culture always attracts visitors who might not otherwise visit a museum.

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In other words, a museum always gets the art lovers and experts. But, they attract the guy on the street with a little, “Well, I know that Van Gogh guy. I should check that out.”

Some skillful maneuvering on the part of MAM made sure people are still checking it out until all of its doors reopen to the public this autumn.