Milwaukee Rep plans expansion, renovation of downtown theater complex

Will create new education and engagement center, larger lobby

Last updated on February 17th, 2020 at 02:20 pm

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater is planning a 30,000-square-foot expansion and renovation of the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex in downtown Milwaukee.

“We’ve repurposed hallways into offices, our venues are playing at capacity, we have not enough shop space, we have almost zero classroom space and yet we serve 20,000 students a year,” said Chad Bauman, The Rep’s executive director.

The Rep is laying the groundwork to expand the building at 108 E. Wells St near its Wells Street entrance to house a new education and engagement center and create a larger lobby.

Plans also include repurposing the existing complex to “create a new building from bottom up inside our current structure,” Bauman said.

The facility houses three theaters, the Quadracci Powerhouse, Stiemke Studio and recently renovated Stackner Cabaret, along with rehearsal facilities, production shops and administrative offices.

The expansion and renovation will involve a significant capital campaign, but costs for the project haven’t been determined yet, Bauman said.

A 2019 facility audit by national planning and design firm Auerbach, Pollack and Friedlander determined the theater company has outgrown its complex and all major systems in the facility are overdue for replacement, Bauman said. The facility also needs updates to improve accessibility, according to the audit.

When the Rep moved into the complex in 1987, its leaders couldn’t have anticipated how much the theater company would grow in the decades to come, Bauman added.

Other Milwaukee arts organizations have also made significant investments in their facilities over the past three decades, including the Skylight Music Theatre’s Broadway Theatre Center, Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava expansion, First Stage and Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, Florentine Opera’s Lueders Opera Center, Next Act’s new theater, Milwaukee Ballet’s Baumgartner Center for Dance, Milwaukee Film’s Oriental Theatre and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Warner Grand Theatre.

“The community has made significant cultural investments, but quite frankly, now is the time to invest in Milwaukee Rep,” Bauman said. “It’s grown to be the largest performing arts organization in the state in terms of number of people served and because of that it’s had significant wear and tear on the building that we need to address.”

Addressing the organization’s facilities needs is one of three main priorities included in the organization’s recently adopted 2020-’25 strategic plan.

While several nonprofit cultural organizations recently completed or have capital campaigns underway — including the Milwaukee Ballet’s $26 million campaign for its recently opened Baumgartner Center and the MSO’s $140 million campaign for its new Bradley Symphony Center — Bauman said he isn’t concerned about donor fatigue.

“I think donors will choose which projects are most attractive to their giving priorities and which are the most viable and which have the most impact on the region,” Bauman said.

Donors are often asked to “respond to crisis” when it comes to fundraising, but Bauman said the Rep’s project is instead an opportunity to build on its growth trajectory.

“This is not a crisis,” he said. “We believe we can make a strong case to donors because this project is a significant opportunity for Milwaukee, which is going through a very nice renaissance.”

Over the past five years, the Rep has grown from a roughly $9 million operation to a $14.5 million operation. In that same time, its audited revenues have increased from $10.1 million to $17.2 million, driven by a 40% increase in ticket sales, 41% increase in subscription revenue and 78% increase in contributed revenue (corporate sponsorships and individual donations).

“That growth has shown that we have a solid business model, significant growth and there is a clear demand for our work,” Bauman said.

The Rep hosts 700 performances of 15 plays to about 300,000 attendees annually, which contributes $25 million of annual economic activity, Bauman said. The organization currently has an all-time high 16,000 subscribers. One of the largest growth areas has been the education and engagement arm, which serves 20,000 students.

In 2018, the Rep completed a $1.75 million renovation of the Stackner Cabaret, which expanded its seating capacity from 124 to 186. Bauman said the Rep’s ticket sales have been limited only by capacity constraints in recent years.

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