Art and Old Money: Five Top Milwaukee Museums

Five museums not to miss in Milwaukee

Do you think of art when you think of Milwaukee? There are many reasons why you should. Art museums and other cultural venues are among the many highlights of Milwaukee that may surprise first-time visitors to this Wisconsin city. During a stay in May, I visited five museums that showcase diverse art and historic artifact collections that are not to miss in Milwaukee. Three of these places presented aspects of the city’s rich and famous from days gone by — beer barons and wealthy manufacturing families — that were an important part of Milwaukee history and responsible for some of its character.

Art highlights of Milwaukee

Milwaukee Museum of Art
700 N. Art Museum Drive

With stunning art and architecture and great views of the lakefront, the Milwaukee Museum of Art is a must-see for Milwaukee visitors.  On the Lake Michigan shoreline, it stands as a stunning example of urban landscape and architecture. The museum’s Quadracci Pavilion built in 2001 was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava renowned for his designs of building and bridge landmarks in many international cities.  The pavilion has a vaulted 90-foot-high glass ceiling with a movable sunscreen with a 217-foot wingspan that opens and closes twice daily. The other buildings (not shown) of the 341,000-foot-square museum also have impressive architectural credentials — the War Memorial Center designed by Eero Saarinen and the Kahler Building by David Kahler.

Exterior of Quadracci Pavilion of Milwaukee Art Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Quadracci Pavilion of Milwaukee Art Museum

This is a world-class art museum that cannot be fully explored in just one visit, but is a must-see even if you have a short time to spend. In its three levels of works spanning antiquity to the present, the museum’s permanent collections galleries (including Modern and Contemporary Art, European and American Art, 20th- and 21st-Century Design, Folk Art, and Photography and Media Arts) and a Special Exhibition gallery contain over 30,000 works.

Inside Quadracci Pavilion of the Milwaukee Art Museum designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava

Inside Quadracci Pavilion of the Milwaukee Art Museum designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava

With limited time, I know that I strolled right past treasures that deserve much more attention, but could not help but stop for a few moments at others that really struck me. A few are shown in the photo below. A goal for next time would be to dedicate a full day to the museum, breaking for lunch in the museum cafe and perhaps enjoying a glass of wine in the on-site wine bar.

Clockwise from left: Jackie and John (Elizabeth Peyton); Nancy (Chuck Close); St. Francis of Assisi in his tomb (Francisco de Zurbarán); Janitor (Duane Hanson); Yvonne in Pink Dress (Guy Pène du Bois)

The janitor shown bottom right in the photo above is not a painting. It’s actually a life-like sculpture of polyester, fiberglass that took me by surprise when I entered the gallery.

When I visited in May, there was a very innovative temporary exhibition, Milwaukee Collects, showcasing pieces from the private collections of Milwaukee residents. It was interesting to see the varied artistic tastes of Milwaukee collectors and imagine the art in their homes — and mine.

Shopping tip: The museum’s shop has a wonderful selection of gifts and art souvenirs. I bought a pair of sterling earrings designed by a local Milwaukee-area artist and jewelry designer.

Haggerty Museum of Art
530 N 13th Street

This was my first visit to the Haggerty Museum of Art, a teaching museum at Marquette University first opened in 1984, and it was a lovely surprise — including the free admission. As a teaching museum, it offers programs that benefit Marquette undergraduates as well as programs and activities for children that have been created in collaboration with local teachers and artists.

Inside the Haggerty Museum at Marquette University -permanent collection (left) and temporary exhibit (right)

Inside the Haggerty Museum at Marquette University permanent collection including art of the Rojtman Collection (left) and temporary exhibit (right)

The museum’s permanent collections include old master prints, European, Asian, African, Latin American, and local contemporary art. One of the permanent collections I admired was the Rojtman Collection which includes Flemish, Italian, Dutch, and French paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries.

I was quite taken with one of the 2017 spring exhibitions, Look How Far We’ve Come, with the Native American art of Jeffrey Gibson. In these particular works, he incorporated materials common to Native American culture such as beading, jingles and rawhide to represent cultural values and traditions (photo above right).

Getting there and parking tip: The museum is on the campus of Marquette University and not visible from the main streets. The nearest parking is in Marquette University’s Lot J, accessed from North 11th Street between Wisconsin Avenue and Clybourn Street. From there, a sidewalk leads onto campus and the museum is in a standalone building to the left.

Charles Allis Art Museum
1801 N. Prospect Ave

Many years ago I attended a wedding at the Charles Allis Art Museum — my own! This was before I even knew Mr. TWS, so much has changed in my life since then. But the ambiance of old money and focus on art remains in the mansion. The furniture, decor, and art collections reflect the good life of Milwaukee gentry of the past in this home built in 1911 for Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company’s first president Charles Allis and his wife Sarah. The mansion is on the National Register of Historic Places.

French parlor of Charles Allis Art Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

French parlor of Charles Allis Art Museum

Throughout the mansion and its eclectic galleries there are permanent art collections whose origins span 2000 years including paintings, sculptures, and ceramics that were collected by the Allis family. There are also changing exhibitions such as the one running during my visit, Carlos Hermosilla Alvarez and Colin Matthes: Echoing Concerns, with a strong theme of societal and political causes.

To me, the most beautiful place in the mansion is the marble staircase that leads from the 2nd level living quarters to the main entry foyer with glass and ivory objects from China and Japan. I love the floor to ceiling stained glass windows on the staircase landing. On the first level, the French Parlor (shown in photo above) was the family living room. Notable is the room’s walls covered in silk damask, the marble fireplace, and the art and furniture (notice the Louis XIV chairs) from France. Many pieces of elegant antique furniture belonging to the family are situated throughout the residence.

Charles Allis Art Museum : Grand staircase and windows; bowling lane

Grand staircase and windows; bowling lane

A walk to the lower level of the mansion takes you to a game room and its one-lane bowling alley, a fun feature in a city with a long bowling history.

Special event tip: The Margaret Fish Rahill Great Hall, built in 1998 to expand the museum’s displays, and its adjacent garden may be rented for weddings and special events.

Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum
2220 N. Terrace Avenue

The Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, once the grand home of Lloyd R. Smith of the A.O. Smith Manufacturing Company family, was designed by architect David Adler in the style of a 16th-century Italian villa. Indeed, the marble statue of Mercury (Hermes) in the entrance courtyard and many other features of the villa exude the Italian Renaissance.

Italian Renaissance entrance courtyard of Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Italian Renaissance entrance courtyard of Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum

While touring the rooms, each with permanent collections (furnishings and art from the 15th through 18th centuries) or changing art exhibitions, I could imagine the Smith family living here in the 1920s.

Cyril Colnik wrought iron objects: stained glass window of Villa Terrace

Cyril Colnik wrought iron objects: stained glass window of Villa Terrace

The special exhibition at the time of my visit was Ornate/Activate which included the art of South Asian women with themes of inequality, discrimination, segregation, and other cultural and political issues. My favorite one was created by artist Radhika Mathews that I included in a previous post about highlights of my Milwaukee trip.

Statues on the terrace above the Renaissance Garden overlooking Lake Michigan at Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Statues on the terrace above the Renaissance Garden

It’s when you open the French doors to the terraced gardens that you see the real beauty of the villa overlooking Lake Michigan. In fact, the home was originally called “Sopra Mare”, meaning “Above The Sea.”

Visiting tip: Call before visiting because the museum is very popular for weddings and other special events which limit access to the public 

Pabst Mansion
2000 West Wisconsin Avenue

Pabst is a prominent family name in Milwaukee history as well as in the American beer industry. Tours can be taken at the old Pabst Brewery but it’s at the family’s mansion on Wisconsin Avenue that you get a feel of the privileged life of a beer baron at the end of the 19th century. I was surprised to learn that after the deaths of Captain Pabst and his wife the mansion was sold in 1908 to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and was the archbishop’s residence for over sixty years until 1975 when it was nearly demolished to make space for a parking lot. Luckily, there was a successful preservation campaign and it was put on the National Register of Historic Places.

Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Pabst Mansion

It’s really an elegant home with many of the original 66 beautifully-furnished rooms of the first through third floors open to the public. The

Looking down through the staircase; telephone room; Dining Room at the Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Looking down through the staircase; telephone room; dining room at the Pabst Mansion

Captain Pabst and his wife had a great love of art and furnished their Milwaukee home with an impressive collection of fine art. Many pieces in the art and artifact collection of the mansion have been loaned or donated by the Pabst family and other items on display are authentic objects and furnishings of America’s Gilded Age.

Ladies Parlor, Stained glass atrium, and hand-painted delft tiles of Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Ladies parlor, stained glass skylight above the staircase, and hand-painted delft tiles in the kitchen

Over the past 30 years, the interior of the mansion including ceilings, walls, and floors have been beautifully restored and renovations on the exterior also continue.

Beautifully-restored ceiling and walls of Pabst Mansion

Beautifully-restored ceiling and walls of Pabst Mansion

Parking tip: There is limited parking at the mansion, but additional parking is available in marked parking spots across the street at 2023 W. Wisconsin Avenue.


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21 thoughts on “Art and Old Money: Five Top Milwaukee Museums

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Milwaukee is often a surprise to people when they first visit or read an article like this. I’ve long known that Milwaukee had many cultural gems, and I’m glad to share that with the world!

  1. Tawanna Browne Smith

    Well I’ve never thought of Milwaukee and art museums together. Honestly, I don’t know much about Milwaukee. I think I’d spend a lot of time in the Charles Allis Art Museum as well as Pabst Mansion. I love museums that share old lifestyle/living.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Those would be great choices for you in Milwaukee if you appreciate a glimpse of the old world when you visit places. Definitely try to get to Milwaukee sometime — it’s a wonderful city!

  2. Jackie Smith

    So glad to see the Pabst Mansion on your list because – okay, I hate to admit it – when I think of Milwaukee I always think of beer thanks to those master minds of public relations and marketing in my younger years. Their message stuck! A fun post~

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Nothing wrong about thinking about beer when you think about Milwaukee — it’s good stuff. But good to know that I might have opened your eyes to the other attractions of the city.

  3. Marilyn Jones

    Milwaukee certainly has a lot to offer its visitors! As much as the art is impressive, so are the settings. I am especially partial to the mansions filled with art, but the Milwaukee Museum of Art is amazing too! Very interesting read!

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Thanks, Marilyn. Yes, the Milwaukee Museum of Art is totally amazing and worth visiting over and over again. Always something to new to see. The mansions really give you a sense of the lives of the old money families.

  4. Sue Reddel

    You would think with all my visits to Milwaukee I would have at heard of all of these museums. I’m really surprised there’s so many. I’ve been to the Pabst Mansion and the wonderful Milwaukee Museum of Art but I’ll be putting the others on my must-visit list for sure.

  5. Jeff Titelius

    I just knew beer would come into the picture sooner or later in this fabulous roundup of all that Milwaukee has to offer! 😉 An “ArtOdyssey” for sure!! I am quite fascinated by the Charles Allis Art Museum. I must visit one day!

  6. Cindy

    Wow! You covered a lot of territory in one trip! So jealous that you got to Villa Terrace – it wasn’t open when we last came through Milwaukee. I wonder if all those years of Laverne and Shirley made people forget that Milwaukee was once a very, very wealthy city filled with art and great architecture. Luckily much of that legacy remains.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Ha! I think you’re right that Laverne and Shirley really gave some people their main vision of Milwaukee. I hope that this post has gotten people to see it in a different light.

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