County’s proposed $45 million contribution to new Milwaukee Public Museum building moves forward

Milwaukee Public Museum

Two Milwaukee County Board committees approved a plan Tuesday to provide $45 million in county funds for the Milwaukee Public Museum’s planned new downtown building.

With the endorsements of the Finance and Parks, Energy and Environment committees, the funding proposal will move to the full County Board on March 15.

The county portion of funding would provide a significant boost for the $240 million project and help catalyze MPM’s planned $150 million fundraising campaign. To date, the museum has raised $12.4 million in philanthropic dollars, with $27 million in pending solicitations as of last fall. It’s also slated to receive $40 million in state funding for the project.

The new museum is planned as a 230,000-square-foot development on a 2.4-acre site at the northeast corner of North Sixth Street and McKinley Avenue in downtown Milwaukee. The costs for the development and construction of the new facility are projected at $170 million, but that total swells to $240 million when including the cost of purchasing the site, transitioning to the new building and moving collections, building out a 33,000-square-foot space for Betty Brinn Children’s Museum and growing MPM’s endowment.

Current timelines have construction beginning in 2023 for final completion in 2026. Architectural and exhibit renderings are expected to be released this spring.

MPM’s current 400,000-square-foot facility is deteriorating due to roughly $70 million in deferred maintenance, which has put the museum’s collections in jeopardy, along with its accreditation status. In 2021, the museum’s application for re-accreditation was tabled by a national museum association as it works toward building a new facility.

Without accreditation, MPM risks losing federal grants, traveling exhibits, research opportunities, adjuncts and the ability to teach museum studies for Wisconsin universities.

“We have spent years preparing for this moment, working hard to find a solution to a mounting problem,” Ellen Censky, president and chief executive officer of MPM, told committee members Tuesday. “What you have before you today is a proposal that ensures the long-term viability of the museum and its important mission.”

The new museum is expected to decrease the county’s annual operational support to support the museum’s collections from its current $3.5 million contribution to $1 million, MPM leaders said.

A new 501(c)3, the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture has been incorporated to operate the museum once the new facility is open. That entity reflects how MPM plans to rebrand itself as a statewide institution when it opens the new building.

MPM has pledged to direct at least 20% of expenditures with minority or women-owned firms on the design of the project. Forty percent of workers will qualify through Milwaukee’s Residential Preference Program, and 50% of workers will be required to reside in Milwaukee County, according to MPM’s plans.

Concerns raised during Tuesday’s four-hour committee meeting centered on the financial impact to the county and impact on MPM employees’ current union.

Supervisor Shawn Rolland said he worries about “putting the cost of this on the credit card,” considering the county’s existing financial challenges.

“We cannot allow the county to go even deeper into the red,” Rolland said.

Supervisor Ryan Clancy said he wants to endorse the proposal, but said the public hasn’t been given sufficient opportunity to weigh in on it first.

Asked by Clancy whether MPM employees’ current union would be recognized by the new entity, Censky said that decision is up to them.

“It is the employees who choose their representation. It is not for MPM to decide that. It’s not for county supervisors to decide that. And, frankly, it is not for the union itself to decide that. It is the employees who choose their representation,” she said. “What I can guarantee (is) MPM and its successor will recognize whatever union the employees choose.”

Clancy and Sequanna Taylor, both members of the Finance Committee, voted against the proposal.

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