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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Special pricing tip: Ask for these discount packages when buying your tickets. The savings are modest, but every dollar counts!
Dual Museum Pass
Villa Terrace/Charles Allis
Magnificent 3 Museum Pass
Charles Allis / Villa Terrace / Pabst Mansion
Milwaukee Museum Mile Museums Pass (get discount online)
North Point Lighthouse / Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum / Charles Allis Art Museum / Jewish Museum Milwaukee / Museum of Wisconsin Art Gallery at St. John’s On The Lake
Disclosure: Thanks to Visit Milwaukee and participating attractions for hosting my Milwaukee experiences.