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How Milwaukee Saved its Public Museum

Leaders public and private gambled on giving the county’s failing museum a second chance. How their efforts breathed new life into the old institution.

Apr. 8, 2009
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In 2005 a county committee convened to control the crisis at the Milwaukee Public Museum. A rogue chief financial officer had been covering up the museum’s snowballing debt by raiding the museum’s endowment, while a negligent board remained unaware that the institution was being run into the ground. With public confidence shaken and the museum bleeding money, the county weighed every option. Many suggested bankruptcy. Some argued for fully privatizing the public museum; others weighed selling some of its collection for quick cash. Always on the table was an even more humiliating option: closing the museum completely.

“No one wanted to see the museum fail, but it was something that we needed to consider,” says Gerry Broderick, a Milwaukee County supervisor involved in those tense discussions. “There was this question of throwing good money after bad.”

In the years since the crisis broke at the Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM), the country has seen countless variations of the same story, with institutions crumbling because of their own poor management. Many of these stories don’t have happy endings, but this one does. The county rallied around its museum, pulling it out of its tailspin.

“Everyone chipped in, from county government to private philanthropists to banks,” says Dan Finley, who took over as MPM’s president during the 2005 fallout. “Frankly, you can take the lessons that we learned turning this museum around and apply them to the national scene.”

Tough Decisions

A longtime Waukesha County executive with no background in academia, Finley was an unlikely choice for the position. When he told his wife he was considering applying for the job, she laughed at him and asked, “What do you know about museums?” But his confidence that he could fix the broken museum quickly won over acting CEO John Schlifske, who aggressively endorsed Finley for the job.

“When I arrived at the museum it didn’t need an anthropologist, or a botanist,” Finley says. “What it needed was someone who brought credibility. Someone who understood budgets, personnel management, fund-raising and public relations and had experience with government relations, since the museum is still owned by Milwaukee County … I think we’re going to see more cultural institutions heading in this direction, going with nontraditional CEOs who understand the business of running an organization. Even in higher education, I think we’ll see the realization that you don’t need a physicist to run a university.”

Finley set out to fix MPM’s finances and reclaim its standing. He overhauled its failed board of directors and reinstated business controls that had eroded over time to leave its chief financial officer with unbridled power. Finley made aggressive budget cuts, trimming employee hours and slashing more than a hundred positions, including most of the museum’s curatorial team.

Meanwhile, a wide-ranging coalition of allies demonstrated its faith in the museum, including county executives from both sides of the political spectrum, business leaders and philanthropists. The county’s backing helped MPM secure lowinterest loans from Chase and Marshall & Ilsley banks, while Finley worked to win back skeptical donors.

“A lot of donors were justifiably reluctant to reinvest, but we spent a lot of time meeting with corporate foundations and individuals and we were encouraged to see that, even after everything that had happened, there were a lot of people that never hesitated to increase their support,” Finley says.

Jim Popp, the president of Chase in Wisconsin, says his bank’s philanthropic arm initially was reluctant to fund an institution in such turmoil, but Finley assuaged his concerns. “Dan Finley and his staff over there made some hard decisions to get the museum back on solid footing,” Popp says. “They did a great job riding the ship through the storm.”

Chase is now the title sponsor of “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition,” the latest in a string of traveling exhibitions booked to generate excitement around the museum. “We’ve got some iconic exhibits here: the buffalo hunt, the butterflies, the Streets of Old Milwaukee, the rainforest,” Finley explains. “But a lot of people have already seen them. So we had to ask, ‘What can we do to make this place dynamic?’ We settled on the strategy of the blockbuster traveling exhibits. People would come in for those, then stay to see their favorite exhibits that they remember from when they were kids.”

That strategy paid off beautifully with the museum’s previous featured exhibit, “Body Worlds.” Its semi-sensational hook—actual human corpses on display— made “Body Worlds” a magnet for media coverage, and it lured spectators from around the region and became the museum’s most successful exhibition ever, drawing a record 338,000 visitors. In its final days, the exhibit remained open around the clock to meet the demand.

Vision for the Future

Though the Titanic exhibit hasn’t proven quite the blockbuster that “Body Worlds” was, it has performed well in the run-up to the museum’s busier spring season, drawing about 10,000 visitors weekly. MPM’s next planned exhibit, a collection of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of the oldest known surviving biblical documents, will be a symbolic victory for the museum. Several years ago MPM aborted plans to host the exhibition when Finley determined that the museum didn’t have the money or marketing infrastructure to support it. Finley now believes MPM has the track record to pull off nearly any touring exhibition.

“The only thing that holds us back is the square-footage of our exhibition area,” he says. “But really, we’re getting the greatest exhibits in the world.”

Of course, more challenges lie ahead. Like most institutions, MPM has seen fund-raising fall during the recession. Field trips are down this year, as is revenue. But the museum has built back $3 million in its endowment and is now operating cash positive.

Finley’s long-term goals include updating some of the museum’s more tired exhibitions; exploring the green energy movement, perhaps by installing a clean-energy source that doubles as an exhibit; and turning MPM into more of an anchor for its crowded but sometimes foottraffic-unfriendly region of Downtown, possibly by adding more food, coffee and retail shops to the museum’s underused ground floor.

Though Finley hopes to restore some of the curatorial positions cut during the crisis, he says that the role of history museums has changed. Where once they were in the business of collection and preservation, with staff undertaking costly artifact-finding expeditions, he believes their primary role now is simply education. He’s prioritized keeping admission prices low enough that the average city resident can afford them and advocated maintaining weekly free days for county residents (though he has debated switching them from Mondays to Tuesdays to capitalize on the revenue potential of Monday holidays).

“This museum plays a huge role in local culture,” Finley says. “We’re actually built into the curriculum of schools; there aren’t too many local institutions that can say that. Students learn about a subject, then take a trip to the museum to study it firsthand. We knew that whatever changes we made to the museum, we needed to keep it affordable for them. That’s vitally important to us.”

What’s your take?

Comment online at ExpressMilwaukee.com.

Photos by Dave Zylstra and Kate Engbring


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