Since the award-winning re-design of the Milwaukee Art Museum was unveiled in 2001, this arts writer has been contemplating a visit. With the Art Institute of Chicago
, the Museum of Contemporary Art
and breathtaking architecture in my own city, it sort of felt ridiculous to travel to another state to see art.
I finally made the trip last weekend, and quickly realized that architect Santiago Calatrava's futuristic-looking nautical-meets-bird structure is one of the most important architectural designs of our time. Making me one lucky duck to have a home a mere 90 miles away from this piece of "living art," as a friend once put it.
What makes daytripping to Milwaukee so easy is that you don't need a car to do it. You can pick up an Amtrak train at Chicago's Union Station and make it to downtown Milwaukee in about 80 minutes for $21. Watching Chicago steadily roll past, I booted up my laptop on a Saturday at about 10:30 a.m. and rolled into Milwaukee before noon.
Jason, who had already been in Wisconsin with the car, picked me up at the Amtrak station, and we drove to the lakefront for our museum visit. (We could have easily walked the 1.3 miles through the historic downtown to get there, though.)
The museum emerges as a massive ship on the horizon. The whiteness of its structure against the blue mass of Lake Michigan evokes thoughts of the Mediterranean, and feels quite exotic for a city whose legacy rests upon cheap beer.
En route to the museum lobby, we saw three sets of bridal parties filtering onto the museum's porch with veils and sashes wafting in the lakefront wind. While purchasing our $14 admission tickets, I asked the saleswoman how many brides show up on any given Saturday, "A LOT," she replied. "And they can't take the pictures inside because then they would have to pay $700."
This kind of beauty comes at a price.
If we had better timing, we could have seen the Burke Brise Soleil, a massive sunscreen which sits atop the glass-encased reception hall and museum lobby, flap its wings open and closed. This routinely happens at opening time, noon and close each day.
The $14 ticket was an-all-access kind of pass, including admission to the "Biedermeier: Invention of Simplicity" show. Furniture, paintings, china and clothes from 200 years ago, at a point when Victorian aesthetics were shifting to more modern styles in Germany, England and France, wowed us for four rooms. Afterwards we rested in the Viennese Cafe with an espresso. While sitting there we analyzed and admired the building's skeleton: repetitive rows of white beams (which support the sunscreen made of wings) extend from the periphery up to the ceiling, and windows fill the space between the beams, to bring the sight of Lake Michigan into the museum.
With more than 20,000 works of art from antiquity to the present, acquired since the museum's collection started in 1888, the Milwaukee Art Museum shows countless eras and types of art, from Renaissance to Haitian to modern.
But what impressed us most of all was the contemporary collection. Art since the 1960s is divided in rooms according to movement, from minimalism to conceptualism to Pop Art, and so on, with an educational plaque describing the movement. To see works by Duane Hanson, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Julian Schnabel, Eva Hesse and Robert Gober, all of the most important contemporary artists under one roof, was an exciting treat!
We could have had a late lunch in the Museum Cafe, but opted to explore more of Milwaukee. Walking along the lakefront path (accessible from the museum) gave us more to see, from sailboats in the marina to a posse of geese that crossed our path to a war memorial in Veterans Park. We ended up at Bradford Beach, a sandy set-up where we watched some kids with kites and the waves roll in.
It felt good to be away from Chicago, for a change in both art and scenery.
Romantic getaway tip: The historical Pfister Hotel, at 424 Wisconsin Ave., offers a "Milwaukee Art Museum Package," which includes an overnight stay, a $40 dining credit, bottle of wine, complimentary art book, free parking and two museum tickets for $259 per night.