Milwaukee Talks: MPM's Dennis Kois on building a new museum
Though most of us only remember the current Milwaukee Public Museum building – opened in 1963 – the 54-year-old structure is actually the institution's third home. As times have changed, so has the museum's house.
The fact that the museum has been considering a new home to carry it into the future is no secret – in fact MPM has been working with a consultant for a few years now on the building – and it's a long process.
"When a museum makes changes," says Todd Happer, communications manager for the Association of Science-Technology Centers, a trade group to which MPM belongs, "they're slow moving, and they're almost always taken in response to needs of the community and in fulfillment of the institution's mission."
Here, the museum has an inefficient building with outdated infrastructure and inadequate conditions for housing its collections, according to President and CEO Dennis Kois. The current situation threatens the museum's ability to remain an accredited institution and to be financially viable going forward.
Milwaukee's museum is not unique in the challenges it faces, according to Happer.
"One of the institutional needs that really does drive that is that when these intuitions were founded a century ago, the builders didn't really anticipate the amount of collections that would be acquired over time," he says.
"Certainly they didn't know as much as we know today about the chemistry and environmental science behind keeping those specimens and those objects well preserved so that they're always accessible for the community."
These and other issues factor into MPM's decision to build new rather than renovate the current building.
Now that talk about a new Milwaukee Public Museum has again been in the news, we sat down with the museum's Kois about the kinds of considerations and decisions that figure into such a move.
OnMilwaukee: I posted a picture on social media last time I was here of the really nice marble water fountains in the museum, and someone commented, "I hope they're going to take those when they move." Is this a sign of some of the issues you face in terms of the idea of a new building?
Dennis Kois: Someone actually wrote that? Wow. There's incredible value in being beloved, and it can also become the albatross around your neck that you can get loved to death. So it's one of those things we're going to have to navigate really carefully as we go.
You have to play that middle ground, don't you, of not becoming staid and not ever changing, but then not changing faster than this community ...
Than the community can kind of support. Yeah, absolutely, and I think that's going to be hard to do. For institutions like this, though, where ultimately we've got to shift that mindset from being that the institution is beloved because it is the thing I went to as a kid, or it's the thing that it's always been, and that's why I love it, to carrying some of that forward but it's also got to be a place that people love and want to come to because it's telling stories and it's current and it has current science.
So we're finding that tipping point. The institution ultimately can't survive by being a nostalgia factory. At the same time, we've got to absolutely respect that past that it has. The people have community ownership. They feel like they own this place, and that's a powerful advantage we have, so it's going to be an absolute challenge, and when I get it wrong, just like the "Streets of Old Milwaukee" ...
People will tell you.
The people will tell me.
Did you get anything wrong in the "Streets"? Did people complain?
It's been amazingly well-received. When it was first announced, everybody was up in arms. "They're going to ruin it, they're going to screw it up, whose dumb idea was this?" Then once it was done, it's been sort of a resounding success.
I think people were worried it would be intrusive, but things like the figures behind the door at The Pfister, I see people peering through there all the time. Those have already become sort of beloved.
They're subtle enough that it didn't ruin the sort of core experience, and that was absolutely one of the reasons we did that project, was to prove that we can take beloved content and update it without ruining it.
So that was a preview of the bigger, in a sense, philosophically, of this discussion (of a new building).
In a philosophical sense, it was, because it's, "So how do you do that? Can we actually achieve that and can we do it in a way that later we'll be able to reference back and say, look, we didn't screw that up?" You're going to have to trust that it'll carry some of this forward.
What's the lesson that you learned from that?
For me, the takeaway from that was that it is hard to overestimate Milwaukeeans' connection to this place. I knew there was some of that, but I was shocked when that article ... I remember you showing some of the things that came out of that article, and it was just like, holy moley, people are really passionate.
It's 20 commenters or whatever, but still, it represents a wider community input and I think museums pay lip service all the time to wanting to have the community feel like they're owned by the community, and be representative of the community and all these things, and most museums struggle to ever get there, so the advantage we've got is we've actually achieved that. This place is really owned by Milwaukee, but we also have to make sure that we don't let that drive every decision we make. It would be easier to be irresponsible and not change anything.
You can't have a 600,000-member board of directors?
Right, exactly. Indeed, we cannot.
What could a new museum look like, in philosophical terms?
The work we did over the last two years with Gallagher & Associates was really around two things. One was, why has the museum not been sustainable in the scenario it's been in, and then what could it look like that would both make a great museum but also make sure it's around 200 years from now, like it's going to be sustainable going forward.
Some of the things we knew going in. Some of the things about why it has not been sustainable, why it's been a challenge, I think everybody's got a pretty broad community understanding outright, that it's because it's directly related to the government and the county owning the collections, owning the building, and they haven't been able to keep up with that. People understand that. We were built the same year as the Domes, so people understand as soon as you say that, oh, you know, they get it.
The thing that was surprising, I think to all of us, and nobody went in knowing this, was when we really did the study work on what is the core issue that's been driving the challenges the museum has faced in its past. It was founded in the '60s. The city ran it for a period of time. The city's mill tax couldn't support it any more, so they transferred it to the county. The county ran it for a period of time, kept up some of the content, but the county couldn't afford it, and at some point, due to this public-private partnership, we know how that ended and what that resulted in, which was a big fiscal crisis. Those issues have been addressed and fixed, and the museum is doing well, but still is not able to afford and just keep up this building and all this content, and so the question we all have is why? What's fundamentally the issue here?
The thing that we realized is that this structure, when we built it, when the city built this museum in 1963, we were incredibly ambitious as a city, and because we'd invented the diorama, we designed this huge shell to just fill in with dioramas, to fill in with "Streets of Old Milwaukee" and walk through glacial fronts and dinosaurs because that was the mode, that was where we were on the cutting edge.
We were on the front end of what was being done in the world on dioramas and experiential exhibits. That served us really well for 30, 40 years, as we built out those exhibits, but what I think nobody thought through at that time or just didn't have a plan for was how do you keep all that stuff up? How do you build these gigantic, incredibly elaborate, incredibly expensive installations and then what do you do 30 years later when all the science is out of date and time has moved on and technology has moved on?
We filled this place in, and then maintained it at the very same time that over the last 20 years, museum footprints pretty much globally, and particularly in natural history museums, have been getting smaller. New museums are getting built and they're getting smaller and smaller and smaller, not because there's less but because technology lets you make them smaller. Media, interactives, touch screens, theatrical experiences – you can cram more content into a given amount of square footage than ever before as a museum.
I assume, the fundraising being what it is, if you can build a smaller museum, that does not hurt you in terms of raising money.
It certainly doesn't cost more, but to right-size, it matters a lot. This is the key to all this. This building, when you look at how it compares for a city this size, one of the things that makes it really special is it's huge, and you get lost in it, and it's sort of this magical experience. That's the real value and we'll have to talk about how to carry some of that forward, but it also drives incredible amounts of expense: exhibit expense, utility expense, fundraising, maintenance, upkeep, the floor staffing to keep those doors open and everything dusted and cleaned.
It drives unbelievable resource needs, and so when we looked at every museum of natural history that has been built in the world in the last 15 years – since 2000 – there's only one museum in the world that has been built that is larger than the Milwaukee Public Museum, and that is the National Museum of Natural History for China, in Shanghai, which is basically one "Streets of Old Milwaukee" bigger in its gallery space than MPM.
And it's in a metro area with 30 million people.
Thirty-plus million people, right, so if you were building this building today – if you announced, I'm going to build a museum in Milwaukee and you built this – you'd be building it for a city of 25 million. You'd build it for New York City or L.A. The reason it's not sustainable is it is too big. Now there's value in that, and there's beauty in it, and there's the part about it's beloved, but it can't sustain itself at this scale in a city of 1.7 million people.
Is there also an opportunity cost in that you have all these people who have to dust all this stuff, and have this floor staff to do all this kind of stuff, that's money you can't spend on something else?
That's absolutely true. You think about the fundraising in this community, you're raising from a fairly finite set of foundations and philanthropies and corporations. You're not raising from 25 million people to keep up a museum designed for a city of 25 million, you're raising from 1.7 million people to keep up a museum designed for a city of 25 million.
It's a city that doesn't have anything approaching the wealth of a city like New York.
Or Chicago, in philanthropic wealth. So there is opportunity cost, and one of the better examples is, of the three-and-a-half million dollars that the county provides to help operate this museum, which is about a quarter of our operating budget, half of that amount literally flies out the windows and doors just to heat and light the building, and then to grease the wheels on the escalators. Not fixing the building, just your basic maintenance, that's a million-seven-five a year.
It's an incredible amount of money, partly because the building's not insulated, it hasn't been kept up, systems are old. If you could say, "Hey, I can right-size this museum and that utility bill's going to become $400,000," well, gee, that's like I just fundraised $1.3 million every year for the next 50 years, because I don't have to pay those expenses anymore.
If that money still does come in, you can spend it on collections or you can spend it on something, research, or something else.
Whatever it may be, right. The other sustainability long-term issue, and then I'll pivot to the questions of what does it look like or what does it start to feel like, but the other issue that we face that's a challenge for the whole community is the idea that there's going to be public dollars to continue to invest in all these cultural assets in Milwaukee, meaning direct governmental support, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now.
Nobody would be wise to bank on that as their sustainability strategy. If you bank on that, the county's going to have endless resources to just keep plowing money into these places, you're going to be out of business, because the county will be the first to say, we don't anticipate that being the case.
Right now a quarter of our budget comes from the county every year. They've been incredible partners and provided great operating support. When that number goes down, what are you going to do? You're already raising a significant amount in the community, you're in competition with every other need in the community, so you've got to come up with a strategy that makes sense for where Milwaukee's going to be 20 years or 50 years from now, and that is in a community where 100 percent of the county's tax base is taken up by pension obligations, and we have to be able to be thriving and succeeding when we get there as opposed to that becoming the next crisis or the next challenge for an institution.
So in a sense this is also a potential exit strategy from the current situation, which you think will prove untenable?
Absolutely. We're creating a museum that fundamentally the non-profit entity would own, MPM would own. They would still be the county's collections it would be exhibiting and leasing and showing there, and so the county would still have some obligation to keep those collections maintained and care for them, as long as they continue to own them, but similar to what the art museum has done, where it's kind of incrementally stepped away from being a war memorial center that is run by the county with county dollars, we've got to similarly go down that path, and I think that that's one you'll see the community needs to address in a lot of different dimensions over the coming years.
Do you think funding for a new building will include money from the county?
It's going to have to. There's no question that what we're gonna put forth in the larger plan. The county's got to be essentially the lead investor, the first one through the door, because it's their building that we're trying to solve for, it's their funding resource that is the thing that we're trying to make sure they don't need in the future, so it improves their bottom line in the end, and it's their collections.
It's also going to require state-level support in some way, shape or form. We're spending a lot of time in Madison figuring out what that would look like, and what mechanism could possibly work, but I absolutely think there's a path to that.
Are you finding some openness in Madison to that?
Yes. It's premature to know, but I think there is a incredibly strong case that this museum can make that would be hard for many culturals in Milwaukee to make, that we are a state-wide institution. We serve every county in the state, we serve every legislative district, and we've got the numbers that we show every legislator to prove it. Our collections encompass the entire state.
We are the only natural history museum of any scale in the entire state, and so unless as a state we don't want to value that and we want to take it away, there has to be some kind of state mechanism to support its advancement.
I do think that's a case that even the art museum, as great as the art museum is, and as great as that building is, that would have been a hard case for them to make. There's a Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. There is more than one other art museum in this state. Just the scale of visitation here and the state-wide support (means) there does seem to be an opening and an opportunity I think, for state-level support.
They have not slammed the door in your face?
No. I'd say the opposite. I'd say it's been a very active and engaged conversation at the state level on how to make sure that the state's biggest museum is here 100 years from now. There's a vested interest everyone has in that.
County support, state support and then you're going to have to find a mechanism for philanthropic support, for fundraising, and I think again, the other opportunity we have is that we are a state-wide institution, so we can fundraise in Madison, fundraise in Green Bay, fundraise from individuals that have been successful in Wisconsin all across the state.
I think Milwaukee has to get away from fundraising only in its own backyard a lot of the time, because I don't think that that's going to be a recipe for success long-term. We'll find what that mix looks like, and there will definitely be a way to get this done.
Great piece. It will be interesting to see how county and state support comes together. Many parts of the state see money spent on highway transportation in Milwaukee and the new Buck's arena coming out of their pockets. Will politicians warm up to a state funded museum on the lake front? How will a broke county paying out million dollar checks to public servants find money for this as well?
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