Museum info

The Milwaukee Art Museum collects and preserves art, presenting it to the community as a vital source of inspiration and education.

30,000 works of art. 350,000+ visitors a year. 125 years of collecting art. From its roots in Milwaukee’s first art gallery in 1888, the Museum has grown today to be an icon for Milwaukee and a resource for the entire state.

The 341,000-square-foot Museum includes the War Memorial Center (1957) designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, the Kahler Building (1975) by David Kahler, and the Quadracci Pavilion (2001) created by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

Central to the Museum’s mission is its role as a premier educational resource, with educational programs that are among the largest in the nation, involving classes, tours, and a full calendar of events for all ages.


Four floors of over forty galleries of art are rotated regularly with works from antiquity to the present in the Museum’s far-reaching Collection. Included in the Collection are 15th– to 20th–century European and 17th– to 20th–century American paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, decorative arts, photographs, and folk and self-taught art. Among the best in the nation are the Museum’s holding of American decorative arts, German Expressionism, folk and Haitian art, and American art after 1960. The Museum also holds one of the largest collections of works by Wisconsin native Georgia O’Keeffe.

Important artists represented include Nardo di Cione, Francisco de Zurbarán, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Winslow Homer, Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Jóan Miro, Mark Rothko, Robert Gober, and Andy Warhol.

In addition to the works in the Museum’s Collection galleries, there are a variety of changing exhibitions throughout the year, including the three major feature exhibitions in the Baker/Rowland Galleries of theQuadracci Pavilion.


The Milwaukee Art Museum has its roots in two Milwaukee art groups from the 1880s. These organizations and their collections merged under one roof for the first time in 1957. The Museum and its holdings continued to grow over the decades. In 2001, a major addition put the Museum on the map, nationally as well as internationally.

1880s: A City Ready for Artistic Growth 
In the late 1800s, Milwaukee was a thriving port city, mostly German-speaking, with an industrial base that included wheat traders, meatpackers, tanneries, shipyards, brickyards, and breweries. The immigrants arriving daily were mainly northern Europeans—German, Irish, Scandinavian, Polish, Czech, and Italian. They brought with them their culture—languages, traditions, and renowned craftsmanship.

As early as 1872, a number of organizations were formed in Milwaukee, dedicated to presenting art exhibitions and ultimately expecting to establish a permanent art gallery—although none succeeded. During the 1880s, owing largely to the arrival at mid-century of the panorama painters of the American Panorama Company, attempts were made to establish formal art schools.

Noteworthy examples of these fledgling organizations included a committee founded in 1881 to mount art exhibitions at Exposition Hall, an impressive showplace for industry and culture. In 1882, Mrs. Alexander Mitchell led the Milwaukee Museum of Fine Arts, which was instrumental in forming the Milwaukee Art School, and which organized exhibitions until it disbanded two years later.

Out of this atmosphere emerged the separate but related efforts of Frederick Layton and a new Milwaukee Art Association in 1888, providing the foundation for today’s Milwaukee Art Museum.

Layton Art Gallery

The Milwaukee Art Association encouraged Frederick Layton, owner of a meatpacking business, to fulfill a promise he made a few years earlier to establish Milwaukee’s first art gallery. A new Greek Revival building costing $115,000 was erected downtown on the corner of Mason and Jefferson Streets, and opened in 1888 as the Layton Art Gallery. The building was designed by London architects W.J. and G.A. Audsley, and constructed by E.T. Mix & Co. Layton provided the gallery with a $100,000 endowment and 38 paintings, many of which remain as the nucleus of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Layton Art Collection. The gallery’s board of trustees included Layton and other prominent Milwaukeeans including John Mitchell, Charles Ilsley, and William Plankinton. In 1920, the Layton Art Gallery began to offer free Saturday classes for children.

Milwaukee Art Association + Milwaukee Art Institute

By 1911, the Milwaukee Art Society, formerly the Milwaukee Art Association, had moved into its newly purchased building and property on Jefferson Street, located just north of the Layton Art Gallery. Nearly 600 members strong by 1914, the Milwaukee Art Society began the annual Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors exhibition and offered free Saturday classes for children, a tradition continued by the Museum today. In 1913, Dudley Crafts Watson became the first director of the Milwaukee Art Society and, in 1916, changed the name to the Milwaukee Art Institute. In 1918, the first annual grant of $5,000 was provided to the Milwaukee Art Institute by the City of Milwaukee. In 1919, city support grew to $10,000, then to $13,000 in 1920, and to $20,000 in 1922. 

The 1920s + 1930s
Under the leadership of Charlotte Partridge, the Layton Art Gallery broadened its activities—lending artworks for the first time, initiating a special gallery for Wisconsin art, and organizing traveling exhibitions. During what was a time of social and political unrest across the nation, the Milwaukee Art Institute became a haven for cultural organizations and community arts groups, including the Men’s Sketch Club, Milwaukee Photo-Pictorialists, MacDowell Club, Civic Music Association, and Wisconsin Players. Joint programs with the public schools were established during this time as well, and the Institute held several exhibitions of work by area high school and elementary students. In 1925, Alfred Pelikan became the director of education for the Milwaukee Public Schools, and a year later, the director of the Milwaukee Art Institute, setting a visionary standard for excellence in art education.

After World War II

In the later years of World War II, three women’s clubs—Altrusa, Zonta, and the Business and Professional Women’s Club—became united in the purpose of establishing a war memorial in Milwaukee County. Inspired by their vision, the Milwaukee Civil Alliance formed the Milwaukee War Memorial Corporation and invited famed architect Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950) to design the War Memorial Center. When Eliel Saarinen died suddenly in 1950, his son, Eero Saarinentook over the project. Hailed as a masterpiece of mid-twentieth-century design, the War Memorial Center was dedicated “To Honor the Dead by Serving the Living” on November 11, 1957. When the Milwaukee Art Institute and Layton Art Gallery moved into their new quarters, the Layton collection came under the curatorial supervision of the Milwaukee Art Institute (today the Milwaukee Art Museum), where it continues to be preserved and exhibited today. In January 1958, the Milwaukee Art Institute changed its name to the Milwaukee Art Center. 

1960s–1980s: a growing Museum
In the late 1960s, Peg Bradley, wife of Harry Lynde Bradley who co-founded the Allen-Bradley Company, offered her entire collection of more than 600 Modern, American, and European works of art to the Museum. She challenged the community to build a museum addition to house the extensive collection, and donated $1 million towards construction. The challenge was met: in 1975, the Kahler building addition opened with vastly enlarged galleries.

In 1980, the Milwaukee Art Center changed its name to the Milwaukee Art Museum, to reflect its mission to collect, preserve, and exhibit art. The Museum was fully accredited by the American Association of Museums in 1983.

1990s + 2000s: the brink of change

In the early stages of planning for the Museum’s centennial birthday, another major expansion was proposed and accepted. In 1994, based upon his international vision and skill as an engineer and architect, Spanish-born architect Santiago Calatrava was chosen to be the designer to carry the Museum into the next millennium. On December 10, 1997, the Milwaukee Art Museum broke ground for the new addition.

The Quadracci Pavilion, the first Calatrava-designed building to be completed in the United States, opened in 2001 to rave reviews. The expansion project included new exhibition galleries and an auditorium, as well as a museum store and cafe. In addition, the Museum completely renovated and remodeled its Collection galleries.

Contributed by Anonymous
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