Letting Go: The Future of County-owned Cultural Institutions

Is Milwaukee’s top cultural landlord escaping the cultural landscape?

Recent developments suggest Milwaukee County government is handing off most if not all of the major arts venues and museums that it owns. Some officials see that as County Executive Chris Abele’s response to rising maintenance costs that have led supervisors and business leaders to call for a sales tax increase — an option opposed by Abele and the state’s Republican leaders. 

In a deal approved last week by the County Board, the Milwaukee Art Museum will take ownership of three of its wings (it already owned the Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion), plus O’Donnell Park, where the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum rents space.

That continues the trend that started when Abele convinced the state to transfer ownership of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts from the county to the Wisconsin Center District (WCD), as part of the legislation to build a new Milwaukee Bucks arena.

But after the WCD board put the transfer on hold until at least 2020, county and Marcus Center officials hammered out a deal to continue county funding for the arts center. Under the agreement, approved last week by the County Board, county operating subsidies would drop from $950,000 this year to $500,000 in 2026, while the county keeps paying for major maintenance. A district takeover, however, would end county funding.

Marcus Center President Paul Mathews hopes to wean his organization off county cash by replacing its parking structure with a mixed-use building that would include parking and generate new revenue. But to attract financing, he needs the stability of a 25-year lease, a negotiation that could be complicated by the continuing possibility of a district takeover.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Public Museum is studying whether to renovate its building or find a new home. And after falling concrete temporarily closed the Mitchell Park Domes, Abele raised questions about the conservatory’s future. He did not respond to an interview request.

The Public Policy Forum has long warned such divestitures could be necessary, as the county grapples with a projected $246 million in 2013-2017 capital needs, Policy Forum President Rob Henken says. Few U.S. cultural facilities are government-owned because donors prefer to give to nonprofits, Public Museum President Dennis Kois says.

Mathews backs the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC)’s call for the state to authorize new regional funding, such as a sales tax increase, to pay for those capital needs.

“It’s clear that Milwaukee County doesn’t have the financial resources through the property tax, now and into the future, to maintain these facilities,” Mathews says.

Retiring Supervisor Gerry Broderick, a sales tax supporter who leads the County Board’s Parks, Recreation and Culture Committee, blames Abele’s fiscal management.

“In reducing debt, he’s not paying attention to the things that make the tax dollar worth spending,” Broderick says.



Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.