Sharp Angles

Much changed when the Museum of Wisconsin Art’s flashy new building opened in 2013. Did those changes work?

In the two years since the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) moved into its angular new digs in West Bend, attendance has skyrocketed. Now, according to its unconventional director, Laurie Winters, its board is discussing expanding MOWA’s “footprint” to Milwaukee and Madison with contemporary exhibition space similar to New York City’s Museum of Modern Art’s PS1. “If you want to come in and make changes and do something differently, there’s no better place to do that than with an organization that is going through dramatic change,” says Winters, who took over at MOWA in November 2012 as plans were being made to fully transform the museum from a small community gallery to a regional museum.

MOWA moved into its $9.3 million, 32,000-square-foot structure, a white wedge along the Milwaukee River, in April 2013. Funded through private donations, the new building, which houses a collection that includes upward of 5,000 works of art, now has double the exhibition space and nearly double the employees it had in the old structure.

Attendance grew to 24,000 in 2013, and reached nearly 30,000 in 2014, up from 3,000 visitors in 2012. Winters projects attendance this year will surpass 35,000. Crowds have been flocking to MOWA to see works by artists such as 1930s-era painter John Steuart Curry, whose exhibit received a positive review from the Wall Street Journal.

Despite not breaking even in 2012 or 2011, total revenue had nearly doubled by 2014. “We knew we’d have a challenge doubling the budget, but we’ve been in the black,” says Dale Kent, a MOWA board member and chief financial officer at West Bend Mutual Insurance. Part of this can be explained by Winters’ implementation of a $12 annual membership fee, which covers all admission costs for the year. (To compare, Madison’s Museum of Contemporary Art, whose permanent collection is close in size to MOWA’s, has a $45 individual membership fee.) Kent calls the fee an “extremely novel idea” that prompts return visits. MOWA also began offering most of its programs for free.

“We don’t believe in nickel-and-diming people,” says Winters, who previously served as director of exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum and heads an international think tank about museum practices called the Art Consortium. Judith Ann Moriarty, a painter who once owned Art Muscle magazine, thinks the museum’s populist atmosphere serves it well. “There is nothing elitist about it,” she says.

Winters even takes a nontraditional approach to hiring, such as tapping fashion designer Miranda Levy, who competed on the reality TV series “Project Runway,” to lead MOWA’s educational programs. “She has absolutely no training in education, but I didn’t want somebody who came with preformed [ideas] of what education should be like,” Winters says. And she hopes that MOWA has become more than a handsome building, even as she acknowledges it helps get people through the door. What she hopes will keep them there, though, are “the exhibits, programs and relationships we are building.”

Tune in to WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Nov. 19 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.

‘Sharp Angles’ appears in the November 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the November issue on newsstands Nov. 2

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.