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September 11, 2003

Milwaukee Art Museum

Friedrich --

Bilbao on Lake Michigan?

Ever since Frank Gehry put Bilbao on the art-tourist map, small cities have dreamed of commissioning a piece of starchitecture that'll attract moneyed throngs. And a number have actually gone ahead and built themselves fancy-schmancey new buildings, mostly museums. How are they working out?

Deborah Wilk has written a good piece for Chicago magazine about the Quadracci Pavilion, an addition to Milwaukee's Art Museum that opened in late 2001. Designed by Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava, it's a swooshy, swoopy, white-on-glass-on-steel, '30s-sci-fi-meets-contempo-cruise-liner thing -- half a clamshell, half a suspension bridge -- featuring a couple of giant seagull-like wings that open and close, and an eye-popping great hall with floor-to-ceiling windows. (I'd have loved to be a fly on the wall when Calatrava was pitching his ideas to the museum's trustees. What a salesman he must be.)

Chicago magazine hasn't put Wilk's piece online, so I'll summarize some of it.

On the plus side: Lots of approving national press. Big attendance figures for the first shows it has housed. The restaurant and gift shop are prospering. A feeling of civic accomplishment. The city has a striking new landmark on its skyline. And a chic factor that's undeniable: Porsche and Lexus have both shot car ads in the Pavilion's parking garage.

On the not-so-plus side: The project, initially expected to cost around $50 million, wound up costing more than $120 million. Fundraising went well but still came up $20 million short where the building itself is concerned ... and another $5 million short where the endowment is concerned ... and the Pavilion turns out to be a lot more expensive to operate than was expected, and ...

Well, depending on how you look at it, the Museum, in Wilk's words, "is arguably close to $50 million short of where it ought to be." There's also the matter of staff morale: Wilk learned that during the building's construction the Museum lost four of its six curators, and that within months of the building's opening the Museum's Director and his main sidekick also left.

Has it been worth the effort? Me, I haven't visited and so reserve judgment. Porsche and Lexus would probably say yes.

I'm enjoying my copy of Chicago magazine, by the way, which has an especially lively and well-edited front of the book. Their website is here.

Mary Ann Sullivan took the photo above, and has put up five pages' worth of images of the Quadracci Pavilion here. Here's an enthusiastic user's review of the Quadracci from Epinions. The Milwaukee Art Museum's website is here -- at the bottom of the page you can take a photo tour of the Quadracci.



posted by Michael at September 11, 2003


Well, I've been there and stayed to watch the closing of the wings at sunset--it was cool. Worth the price? Not that cool. Especially not in a primarily blue collar town that is more into football and baseball than the fine arts.

It took forever to find the bathrooms and the teeny coffee shop that we finally found in the basement was understaffed and served a terrible cuppa joe.

What was spectacular was the great hall, which juts out towards Lake Michigan like the prow of a ship. After dark, it's even more magnificent.

We went to see the Da Vinci on display with a traveling collection of Polish Art--"Girl with an Ermine" I think was the name of the painting-- and so didnt get much time to see the main collection. That will have to wait for another winter day.

Posted by: Deb on September 11, 2003 9:10 PM

You know, I've just got that teeny-tiny feeling that in the middle future -- say around 2090 -- a whole collection of these over-reaching over-conceptualized generally crummy "musuems" are going to be headed straight to landfill.

It a fad in crapkulture that will have its rusting day in the sun and then be filed into the vast cabinet called "What Could They Have Been Thinking?"

The multiple decamillions spent on these halls that do not aid the art but merely announce themselves first and foremost is exactly where one might look for funds for a decent collection of art, much less a few decent programs that fund training, classical training (like, perhaps, "drawing?") in the arts.

These things are merely ego-boondoggles.

Posted by: van der leun on September 12, 2003 12:11 PM

The Quadracci Pavillion is actually not meant primarily to be a space for art. If I remember correctly, it has only one small gallery in it. Its primary purpose is to serve as a space for the auxiliary functions of a museum--it houses the museum store, the restaurant, the ticket counter, offices, and so on--so that the older museum spaces can be devoted solely to displaying art.

What will we think of it in 2090? Who knows? Was it worth the expense? Its beauty--and I do think it's beautiful; it certainly has the most gorgeous parking garage I've ever been in--isn't really the issue when it comes to expense, is it? You can't put a price on beauty, but you have to justify an expense somehow. In the case of the Quadracci, as with the Bilbao Guggenheim, the ultimate determinant of whether the expense was justified will be what its long term economic effect will be on the museum and on the city of Milwaukee itself. To make a judgment on that, well, it's still too soon to know.

Posted by: Mike Kelly on September 12, 2003 1:22 PM

Dude--you found my flying car!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 12, 2003 3:11 PM

I'm one quotidian Philistine, sure...but your thumbnail reminds me of the new Denver airport. Sorry, but I'm on dial-up, so the really good piccies have to wait.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on September 13, 2003 12:32 AM

"Ever since Frank Gehry put Bilbao on the art-tourist map, small cities have dreamed of commissioning a piece of starchitecture that'll attract moneyed throngs"

Maybe this applies to the CAC in Cincinnati. It seems akin to my wearing fashion statement shirts with old jeans and running shoes. And by the time I figure out what's fashionable the fashions change, making my efforts doubly futile.

On the other hand maybe these structures are an affirmation of life, "We are not dead, rustbelt!" Taking the lead in change, revitalization, pointing to a new direction. I can't blame them for trying, I just wish the architecture was more evolution and less revolution. There is charm and dignity in Cincinnati's older structures. Other new buildings have managed to coexist better while adding something new.

Posted by: Matt L on September 14, 2003 4:06 PM

In London, between September 18, 2003 and January 4, 2004, the Victoria and Albert Museum will have an exhibit on exhibit on Zoomorphic Architecture. I came across this exhibit reading the news briefing section of one of my science journals. Apparently, Calatrava's MAM is an example.

With my curiosity piqued, I surfed around and found some neat pictures here and here.

Posted by: Rene on September 26, 2003 7:37 PM

I think so.

Posted by: phentermine on December 5, 2003 5:01 PM

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