Barbara Brown Lee is telling another story.
Fifty years of working at the Milwaukee Art Museum have made her its institutional memory, not to mention its most celebrated spinner of yarns. So it’s no surprise that storytime has stopped what her four colleagues are doing inside the museum’s compact George Peckham Miller Art Research Library. They’ve heard hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tales from the gray-haired, bespectacled 72-year-old woman. But they haven’t heard this one. So like children around a campfire, they lean in closer as she launches into it.
It took place in the late 1990s at the Pfister Hotel’s cafe. “Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved the Pfister,” Brown Lee says. “It’s a special treat to have my breakfast at the Puh-Fister, as I call it.” Yes, she’s something of a master malapropist. Co-workers have even compiled a Barbara-specific glossary.
BBL, as she’s come to be known, usually takes those Pfister breakfasts alone, often doing a crossword puzzle, which was the case this particular morning. One of the puzzle’s clues related to golf, and not being a practitioner of that specific art form, she asked a nearby athletic-looking man if he knew the answer. He did: birdie.
“And then he said, ‘That was fun, give me another one,’” BBL recalls. “So the two of us are now doing my puzzle.”
Brown Lee had her back to the cafe entrance as the white squares filled up, so she didn’t see another man approach. While looking down at the puzzle, however, she caught sight of the newcomer’s size-23 shoe. “The next thing I know, there’s a hand on my shoulder,” she says. A hand so big, “it practically went to my waist. And I didn’t know whether to breathe or what.”
When she got a look, she pegged him for a basketball player. “Tall. Oh my God, was he tall.” She thought the 7-foot-1 African-American man’s face looked familiar but didn’t ask his name as he joined her and her crossword partner. It came out that she worked at the art museum, and the large man asked her to explain what “abstract” painting meant.
She told him to look through a nearby window and squint his eyes, then asked what he saw. “Green,” he said. “Good, now open them. What is it?”
“Bushes,” he answered. “Green bushes.”
“OK, now squint again,” she commanded. “That’s abstract.” Satisfied, the man turned around. “And he thanked me.”
And that was BBL’s impromptu art lesson to Shaquille O’Neal.
Turns out the man she’d asked for help with the crossword puzzle was Jerome Crawford, O’Neal’s personal security guard. They were in Milwaukee because the Bucks were hosting O’Neal’s Los Angeles Lakers.
“When he left,” Brown Lee says of Shaq, “the whole restaurant went up for grabs because they knew that I had no clue who I was talking to. But I was doing my thing.”
A duty that wouldn’t have been complete without offering an invitation to tour the museum. “I hear he liked it very much,” BBL says. “He was very impressed.”
So is her current audience. Their jaws are down. Their heads shake. One mouths the word “Wow,” but sound does not accompany the gesture. And with storytime done, BBL is ready to get back to work.
That in itself is notable, considering she’s supposed to be retired. Brown Lee ended her half-century of employment at MAM in January, which doesn’t mean she’s stopped working there, only that she’s stopped getting paychecks. The tradeoff for becoming a volunteer is far more leeway in her schedule, a nod toward the realities of her age. “I don’t have the same strength to keep up the pace,” BBL says. But she’s still got her on-site office, still gives lectures and tours, still acts as an ambassador and still answers whatever questions are thrown her way, by staff members or outsiders, knowing that if she can’t answer them, it’s unlikely that anybody can.
Trying to pigeonhole BBL’s roles at the museum is really a fruitless pursuit. She’s been there so long and had her hands in so many things that she’s practically synonymous with the place. Still, for most of her tenure, she headed up the museum’s educational efforts, translating complex concepts into layman’s terms for adults, adolescents and children. She also led the volunteer docent program, teaching and training those who explain MAM’s collections to tour groups. She mixed in curatorial work, especially with decorative arts – chairs, sofas, clocks, tankards and the like. And the decades of dedication have brought accolades: the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Award and the Wisconsin Art Education Association’s Outstanding Educator Award, chief among many others.
“Barbara is sort of like a light in every hallway,” says MAM archivist/librarian Heather Winter, part of the studio audience for that Shaq story. “She’s always been an influential part of what was happening here.”
Today, that means identifying face after face in picture after long-ago picture from the museum’s archives. Several weeks prior, someone showed BBL a photo of a mystery woman. Because of the limits of youth or inexperience, nobody could discern that it was MAM grande dame Peg Bradley, who donated the museum’s treasured Bradley collection and who, for many years, was pretty much the face of the museum.
“It was very scary to me,” says BBL, who not only knew Bradley but also many of MAM’s important collectors – von Schleinitz, the Flaggs. “Younger staff members don’t have that. But you can’t go back.”
She can, however, pass along the memories. Brown Lee is committed to helping MAM’s archivists work through mountains of material. Librarian Beret Balestrieri Kohn pulls black-and-white photos from their files and slides them in front of Brown Lee. She sees bygone exhibitions, old co-workers and friends, many having passed on, some recently. BBL sees herself quite often, too, as she does in the photo that’s just reached her weathered hand. Her voice skyrockets an octave.
“Holy titmouse,” she squeals. “That doesn’t even look like me.” The January 1970 photo is from the MAM exhibition “A Plastic Presence,” and she’s standing by one of the sculptures. She’s not yet 30, and her hair isn’t right, far longer than the self-described “Buster Brown” cut that’s become her trademark. Then she sees another faux pas. “I’ve got my hand on the knee of the sculpture. That is a no-no.” And then she notices Victor Sonnenburg, a beloved former head of security, dressed up to look like, in her mind, actor David Niven.
For an instant, she’s back in that moment, when she and the museum were both much younger. “Isn’t that a hoot,” she almost whispers. “My goodness.”
It started, as so many things do, with mom.
Betty Brown, Barbara’s mother, could’ve taught art – was even trained to do so – but it didn’t happen. “Had babies instead,” Brown Lee says. So while Barbara’s father, John, worked as an engineer in southeastern Wisconsin’s manufacturing industry, mom settled for an art class of three: her children – Elizabeth, John Jr. and Barbara.
“We got the benefit of it in the home,” Brown Lee says. She was the youngest sibling, but Betty made sure to keep baby Barbara busy. “We didn’t have TV. My father didn’t allow television in our home. So what did you do? We were always doing projects.”
The art bug stayed with her throughout childhood, which was split between Milwaukee and Racine, and into high school at Milwaukee-Downer Seminary, an all-girls private school. She also enjoyed music and playing sports of all sorts. She rooted hard for the Milwaukee Braves and adored Hank Aaron. A treasured memory involves being an honorary bat girl for the Racine Belles, one of the real-life women’s professional ballclubs fictionalized in the movie A League of Their Own. Brown Lee still has a photo showing her childhood self with one of Racine’s star players, pitcher Joanne Winter.
But for all her exposure to art as a child, it wasn’t until college that Barbara viewed art as a viable career option. She went out east to a small Boston-area women’s school called Pine Manor Junior College, where she crossed paths with an art professor named Rodman Henry. “He was my epiphany,” Brown Lee says. She knew about art, but not art history. “I didn’t know you could get a degree. I thought it was too good to be true. This is like my candy shop.”
After two years in Boston, she headed west to the University of Arizona. She’d visited the American southwest on a childhood family trip and became so fascinated with its deserts, cacti and Native Americans that she vowed to someday return. By making good on the vow, she also intensified her immersion into the art world, getting hands-on experience in the school’s museum. “We did everything,” Brown Lee recalls. “We swept the floors and the vaults, served the punch, gave the lectures. We labeled, we hung, we lit. I learned from the ground up.”
She also decided that if she was going to go into the business of art, she should know a bit more about making it. She had no dreams or illusions of crafting masterpieces: “I knew I was not an artist.” But she still took courses on pottery, painting and so on, just to know more about the techniques. (Friend and artist JoAnna Poehlmann says BBL doesn’t give her natural talent enough credit: “She draws like an angel,” the 80-year-old says, “but she just doesn’t have that interest.”)
Barbara graduated from Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in art history, and when it finally came time to embark on her career, Milwaukee seemed like the natural place to start. After spending the summer of 1962 in Mexico and that fall traveling through Europe to visit museums, she returned home and landed a meeting with Tracy Atkinson, director of what was still being called the Milwaukee Art Center.
“She just walked in the door,” remembers 84-year-old Atkinson, who ran the institution from 1962 to 1977 and is now retired in Thiensville. “She was so charming and so cute and so bubbling that you had to react. You just had to react to that enthusiasm.”
Atkinson offered her a job, but she also tried her luck at landing a museum gig in New York. “One lady at the Guggenheim said you could sell postcards. At the Met, they said I could reshelve books in the library.”
It wasn’t enough.
“It took me all this time to get this training, and I worked in a museum in school, and they want me to sell postcards? Who are they kidding? And this woman said, ‘Most of the women your age who come to New York just want a husband. We give them something, and it sounds good to tell their friends, and then they get married.’
“And I said, ‘How do you tell the difference between that person and me, who wants a life’s career?’
So the answer became Milwaukee. “I called Tracy and said, ‘I’m coming home.’”
She started in January 1963. The place was still 17 years shy of being renamed the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Franny Lee was every bit the mentor to a fresh-faced Barbara Brown. Schooled at Yale and a fine artist in her own right, Franny ended up at MAM as the head of adult education, the post she held when Barbara came on the scene. And while Barbara was learning the museum’s ropes as a curatorial assistant, Franny took the new girl under her wing.
“I think she felt sorry for me,” Barbara says. “I looked about 12.”
Franny advised Barbara on everything from what clothes to wear to the finer points of scholarship. She had Barbara go on the radio to help market the museum’s events. She made Barbara do seminars and lectures. And hard as it is to believe about the ever-glib BBL of today, public speaking was a stomach-turning experience.
“Franny just kind of nurtured me. I used to throw up, and then go and give my lecture, I was so nervous. She helped me get over the fear.” Barbara says. “And then one night, she had this aneurysm in the hall, and we lost her.”
Franny was leaving the museum offices with her husband, Wally, and Barbara was helping her put on a heavy winter coat. The aneurysm struck, and Franny slumped back into Barbara’s arms. Barbara helped Wally carry Franny to a couch. A hospital stay of several days couldn’t save her. On Feb. 15, 1967, Barbara’s mentor died at age 50.
“We were a small staff, and we were very close. Very close,” Barbara says. “To this day, I carry a picture of her in my wallet. The only one.”
Franny’s death marked a turning point for Barbara, who at the time was still headed down a curator’s career path. But Atkinson needed somebody to assume Franny’s duties while the museum searched for a replacement. “Barbara was there ready to fill in,” Atkinson says, so that became the temporary plan.
Less than two weeks later, Barbara wanted the plan to become permanent. “Tracy, start looking for a young curator. I’m done,” Barbara told her boss. “I don’t want to be in an office studying. I want to be out there playing with the people and the children.”
She’d found her calling, and Atkinson certainly wasn’t going to talk her out of the decision. “She loves to tell tales,” he says. “That storytelling aspect makes her good at what she does. She was a natural.”
It was unmistakable in her work with children, no matter their age. The younger ones, she engaged with enthusiasm; the older ones, with respect and honesty. And wherever Barbara took them in the galleries, she brought along her now-famous tan cart, a rolling, rectangular, three-shelved unit with “EDUCATION” stenciled in black paint across the front.
Student outreach programs were numerous, to the point that today, some 50,000-60,000 students go through the museum each year. “She could make things accessible with a story or humor or whatever,” says Russell Bowman, MAM’s director from 1985 to 2002. “She’d somehow relate it to their experience, draw them out and interact with whomever.” Barbara was also instrumental in getting the annual statewide Scholastic Art Awards exhibition moved to the museum in 1976, where it has remained.
One of her most celebrated endeavors involved a Milwaukee Public Schools’ satellite program, which brought in area high school students and turned the museum into their classroom. An MPS teacher would do most of the instruction, but Barbara complemented the program, giving talks on art history, introducing them to artists and showing them what museum life was like.
Winter, the museum archivist/librarian, went through that satellite program as a Nathan Hale High School senior. She has vivid memories of Barbara. “She’s honestly the reason I’m in this field,” Winter says. “I remember seeing her speak about the art and thinking, ‘Whatever I do with my life, I want to be that enthusiastic about it.’ Art was no longer just a picture on the wall but the reflection of an entire experience.”
When Winter returned to work at MAM, full of enthusiasm and with relevant college degrees in hand, she couldn’t wait to reconnect with the woman who’d gone from teacher to colleague.
“The day I was introduced to Barbara, I remember my hand being sweaty,” Winter says. “Her inspirations for the formation of my career were sort of manifesting themselves.”
But kids didn’t have a monopoly on being inspired.