History of the Milwaukee Art Museum

From its roots in Milwaukee’s first art gallery, which opened in 1888, the Milwaukee Art Museum has become an icon for the city and a vital resource for the community, the state, and beyond.

Layton Art Gallery facade drawing (1957) by Lawrence WeinmanMilwaukee Art Museum

Businessman Frederick Layton (American, b. Britain, 1827–1919), established Milwaukee’s first permanent art gallery in 1888. Layton erected a purpose-built Greek Revival building designed by London architects W. J. and G. A. Audsley. Layton provided the gallery with a $100,000 endowment and thirty-eight paintings, many of which remain in the Museum’s care today.

Homer and His Guide (Homère et son guide) (1874) by William-Adolphe BouguereauMilwaukee Art Museum

This founding gift to the Layton Art Gallery is a classic example of a history painting by one of the giants of French academic painting in the nineteenth century.

The Old Stagecoach (1871) by Eastman JohnsonMilwaukee Art Museum

Eastman Johnson was one of Frederick Layton’s favorite artists: Johnson painted a portrait of the collector, and Layton acquired many of the artist’s works.

Hark! The Lark (1882) by Winslow HomerMilwaukee Art Museum

The hundredth painting to be given to the Layton Art Gallery, in 1890.

Le Père Jacques (The Wood Gatherer) (1881) by Jules Bastien-LepageMilwaukee Art Museum

Acquired by the Layton Art Gallery in 1891.

Front facade of the Milwaukee Art Institute (ca. 1930) by Milwaukee Art MuseumMilwaukee Art Museum

Milwaukee Art Association + Milwaukee Art Institute

Established in 1888, the Milwaukee Art Association moved in 1911 to a building just north of the Layton Art Gallery and became known as the Milwaukee Art Society. In 1916, it was renamed the Milwaukee Art Institute. 

Lady in Black (Portrait of Carrie Donaldson) (1900) by Louis MayerMilwaukee Art Museum

Early gifts to the collection included works by Wisconsin artists, especially those, like Mayer, who trained abroad yet returned to Milwaukee to teach.

Drawing in the Sand (1911) by Joaquin Sorolla y BastidaMilwaukee Art Museum

This early foundational gift was part of the Buckner bequest, which focused heavily on nineteenth-century realist works.

On the Eve of Her Wedding (ca. 1882) by Antonio ManciniMilwaukee Art Museum

This early foundational gift is a classic example of the work of the Italian painter, Antonio Mancini, known for his loose, expressive brushwork and somber palette.

Portrait of Charlotte PartridgeMilwaukee Art Museum

The 1920s + 1930s

Under the leadership of Charlotte Partridge, the Layton Art Gallery broadened its activities: it lent artworks, dedicated one of its galleries to Wisconsin art, formed the Layton School of Art, and organized traveling exhibitions.

mam_1888_mai_lag_1923-1945_ocr-1Milwaukee Art Museum

The Milwaukee Art Institute, on the other hand, became a haven for community arts groups and presented numerous avant-garde art exhibitions. It also forged a partnership with Milwaukee Public Schools to provide art education to the community’s schoolchildren; the Museum continues this partnership to this day. In the 1920s, the Milwaukee Art Institute’s collection continued to grow with important acquisitions.

Moonlight, Hebron (ca. 1907) by Henry Ossawa TannerMilwaukee Art Museum

Faust (ca. 1652) by Rembrandt van RijnMilwaukee Art Museum

Three Sisters— A Study in June Sunlight (1890) by Edmund Charles TarbellMilwaukee Art Museum

mam_1888_mai_lag_1946-1957_ocr-1Milwaukee Art Museum

After World War II

After World War II, the Milwaukee business community became interested in building a complex for art and music dedicated to Milwaukee servicemen.

Headline for proposed memorial building (1944-01-09) by Milwaukee JournalMilwaukee Art Museum

Eero Saarinen-designed Milwaukee Art Center (ca. 1950) by Eero Saarinen and 1950Milwaukee Art Museum

The architect Eero Saarinen (1910–1961) designed the building, which is shaped like a floating cross, with wings cantilevered from a central base.

Eero Saarinen-designed Milwaukee Art Center (1970) by Eero SaarinenMilwaukee Art Museum

Eero Saarinen-designed Milwaukee Art Center (1950) by Eero SaarinenMilwaukee Art Museum

Saarinen’s innovative design was a masterpiece of modern architecture and won praise for its dramatic use of space.

Eero Saarinen-designed Milwaukee Art Center (1970) by Eero SaarinenMilwaukee Art Museum

Saarinen BuildingMilwaukee Art Museum

The War Memorial Center was dedicated “To Honor the Dead by Serving the Living” on Veterans Day of 1957. The Milwaukee Art Institute and Layton Art Gallery moved into their new quarters, and together became the Milwaukee Art Center.

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect (ca. 1900 (dated 1903)) by Claude MonetMilwaukee Art Museum

The collection continued to grow during this period, with important gifts such as Claude Monet’s Impressionist masterpiece.

Saint Francis of Assisi in His Tomb (1630/34) by Francisco de ZurbaránMilwaukee Art Museum

As well as critical, foundational purchases, such as Francisco de Zurbarán’s Saint Francis of Assisi in his Tomb.

Peg Bradley (1976)Milwaukee Art Museum

1960s–1980s: A Growing Museum

In the late 1960s, Mrs. Harry (Peg) Lynde Bradley offered her entire collection of more than three hundred Modern works of art to the Milwaukee Art Center. 

Street at Schöneberg City Park (1912–13) by Ernst Ludwig KirchnerMilwaukee Art Museum

Milwaukee Art Center's Kahler addition (1980) by David KahlerMilwaukee Art Museum

She challenged the community to build an addition to house her extensive collection and donated $1 million toward construction. The challenge was met: in 1975, the Kahler building opened with vastly enlarged galleries.

Peg Bradley (1976)Milwaukee Art Museum

Kahler BuildingMilwaukee Art Museum

Milwaukee Art Center's Kahler addition (1980) by David KahlerMilwaukee Art Museum

Breezy Day, Tugboats, New York Harbor (ca. 1910) by William James GlackensMilwaukee Art Museum

Donald and Barbara Abert helped grow the Milwaukee Art Center’s collection of twentieth-century art through their interest in the Ashcan Circle and the Eight.

Bleecker and Carmine Streets, New York (ca. 1905) by George Benjamin LuksMilwaukee Art Museum

St. Nicholas Day (1851) by Ferdinand Georg WaldmüllerMilwaukee Art Museum

This decade saw a number of important gifts to the collection, including the René von Schleinitz Collection of German and Austrian nineteenth-century painting and decorative arts.

A typical spinner. Mamie – Lancaster Cotton Mills, S.C. Location: Lancaster, South Carolina (1908) by Lewis Wickes HineMilwaukee Art Museum

And gifts from the Sheldon M. Barnett Family and Floyd and Josephine Segel Collection of Photography.

Untitled (1967) by Cy TwomblyMilwaukee Art Museum

Important early works by influential contemporary artists such as Cy Twombly and Sam Gilliam also entered the collection.

Milwaukee Art Center's Kahler addition (1980) by David KahlerMilwaukee Art Museum

In 1980, the Milwaukee Art Center changed its name to the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The Newsboy (1888) by AmericanMilwaukee Art Museum

In 1989, the Museum acquired the Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art, establishing the institution as a leading center for folk and self-taught material.

Milwaukee Art Museum's Calatrava addition (21st century) by Milwaukee Art Museum, photo by Timothy Hursley and Santiago CalatravaMilwaukee Art Museum

1990s + 2000s: Campus Transformation

On December 10, 1997, the Milwaukee Art Museum began construction on the addition that Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava designed; it would become his first completed work in the United States. The bold Quadracci Pavilion opened in 2001 and was adopted as an icon of Milwaukee.

Quadracci Pavillion by John Magnoski PhotographyMilwaukee Art Museum

Windhover HallMilwaukee Art Museum

Leconte's Rebels, July, 1911 (Les Cacos de Loconte, Juillet, 1911) (1946) by Philomé ObinMilwaukee Art Museum

During this time, the Museum collection expanded significantly through the diverse collections given by Richard and Erna Flagg, which featured masterpieces of Haitian art, as well as European sculpture and decorative art.

Nautilus Cup (1575/1625) by Flemish, or South GermanMilwaukee Art Museum

Clothe My Naked Body, Print Tapestries...Poem Wedding Dress (1995) by Lesley DillMilwaukee Art Museum

The Museum also benefited from the addition of the Landfall Press Archive and the Marcia and Granvil Specks Collection of German Expressionist prints.

Native Sea Fight (1912) by August MackeMilwaukee Art Museum

And the Maurice and Esther Leah Ritz Collection of European and American paintings and works on paper.

Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1975 (1975) by Stephen ShoreMilwaukee Art Museum

Through the Ethel and Richard Herzfeld Foundation, the Museum acquired photographic masterworks from the inception of the medium to the present day.

Edge of England (1999) by Cornelia ParkerMilwaukee Art Museum

The contemporary art collection continued to grow with the acquisition of works by Christopher Wool, Cornelia Parker, and Kehinde Wiley.

East End by John Magnoski PhotographyMilwaukee Art Museum

2010s: Expansion

In partnership with Milwaukee County, the Museum unveiled designs for the restoration and renovation of the Saarinen and Kahler buildings. The project allowed the Museum to reinstall its collection galleries and reimagine the visitor experience. The Museum reopened in 2015.  

Fliegen-Wald (ca. 1921) by Adolf WölfliMilwaukee Art Museum

The Museum received important collections, including the Anthony Petullo Collection of self-taught art, which greatly enhanced the Museum’s holdings by European self-taught artists.

Nocturne Radio (Model #1196) (ca. 1935) by Walter Dorwin TeagueMilwaukee Art Museum

And established itself as a premier center for the study and presentation of twentieth- and twenty-first-century design through gifts and acquisitions from the Demmer Charitable Trust.

Milwaukee Art Museum's Herzfeld Gallery (2015) by Milwaukee Art Museum, photo by John R. GlembinMilwaukee Art Museum

The Herzfeld Foundation continued its support of the Museum, establishing the Herzfeld Center for Photography and Media Arts and a study room for works on paper.

L'Horloge: Les Girard (1875-1878 or 1880-1881) by Jules ChéretMilwaukee Art Museum

And Jim and Susee Wiechmann gifted their collection of more than 500 posters by Jules Chéret.

Milwaukee Art Museum Campus by Courtesy of VISIT Milwaukee.Milwaukee Art Museum


The Milwaukee Art Museum is the largest art museum in the state of Wisconsin, housing a collection of more than 30,000 works and hosting an impressive lineup of internationally regarded exhibitions. The Museum sees almost 400,000 visitors each year, with nearly 21,500 holding annual Museum memberships. The Museum’s stellar art education program serves over 50,000 youth each year through programs, tours, and internships.

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