, ,

Milwaukee County considers cutting costs by cutting ties with 2 art museums

Selling museums would be a 'last resort,' says Milwaukee County project manager

The Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum is seen here on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Evan Casey/WPR

The future of two historic Milwaukee museums is up in the air as the county is facing a looming budget deficit. 

Milwaukee County owns the Charles Allis Art Museum and the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum.  But a recent report found it will cost the county around $18 million over the next 18 years to maintain the two properties, which are both on the National Register of Historic Places.

Meanwhile, a five-year financial forecast from the Milwaukee County Office of the Comptroller found the county could see a budget deficit of $11.5 million next year. 

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

“We have to face reality that we can’t save everything in this county,” Milwaukee County Supervisor Steve Taylor said at a recent Committee on Parks and Culture meeting.

The Charles Allis Art Museum was built in 1911 as a home for Charles Allis, the first president of the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company, and his wife, Sarah E.B. Allis. The art collection includes over 800 items, including pieces from China, Japan and France, as well as “19th Century American paintings, a Rembrandt etching and many other items of significance,” according to the report.

The Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, built in 1923, was originally the residence of Lloyd and Agnes Smith. It’s a “Mediterranean country house dropped into an urban setting,” according to their website. There’s art and gallery spaces in the building, as well as a Renaissance garden.

The Charles Allis Arts Museum at 1801 N Prospect Ave, in Milwaukee. Evan Casey/WPR

Since 2012, the nonprofit Charles Allis and Villa Terrace Museums, Inc. oversees and staffs the two museums, but Milwaukee County is responsible for maintaining the buildings. From 2007 to 2024, the county spent just over $2 million on capital needs for the two properties. 

A 2020 estimate found deferred maintenance and capital improvement projects for the Milwaukee County Parks system could cost nearly $500 million in the next 25 years. Meanwhile, it could cost Milwaukee County around $480 million to build its new Criminal Courthouse building. 

“With insurmountable infrastructure needs across the county, underfunding of these historic  buildings (museums) will continue to be an issue,” said Erica Goblet, a project manager for Milwaukee County who prepared the informational report. 

The Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum in Milwaukee. Evan Casey/WPR

The county report examines future options for the properties, which includes selling the museums, transferring them to the Charles Allis and Villa Terrace Museums, Inc., maintaining the “status quo” where the county would be responsible for all maintenance and capital needs, or put out a request for information to “solicit ideas for the future of the museums.”

Goblet said maintaining the status quo would not be “fiscally sustainable,” while selling them would be a “last resort.”  Goblet also said it’s unclear if the organization would be able to take over ownership.

“In discussions with CAVT (Charles Allis and Villa Terrace Museums, Inc.), it’s unknown at this time if they would be willing, or able, to take over ownership of the museums,” Goblet said.

The Charles Allis mansion was recently appraised at $330,000, according to the report. The Last Will and Testament of Sarah E.B. Allis does say the building can be sold — but if it is, “the revenue from the sale of the home must go to providing another space to house the Charles Allis Collection.”

The Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum was recently appraised at $2 million, according to the report. 

The Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum is seen here on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Evan Casey/WPR

Taylor said he favored selling the two museums.

“If it was up to me, I would sell this. I’d sell both of these,” he said. 

But during the Committee on Parks and Culture meeting, Goblet said she would come back to the committee in July with more information. 

“It leaves us open to many creative solutions from nonprofits or from the private sector businesses,” she said. 

Milwaukee County Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman, the chair of the Committee on Parks and Culture, said figuring out a future for the museums is a “critical topic” for the community. 

“These two museums are facing a major threat — probably the most serious threat to their existence — because of our financial situation,” Wasserman said. 

Milwaukee County Supervisor Steven Shea asked the committee to “move cautiously” and involve the public in any future decision. 

“These properties are absolutely beloved, and not just from people on the East Side, but by people from all over Milwaukee County,” Shea said. “Selling these properties isn’t going to solve Milwaukee County’s money problems.” 

Around 30,000 people attended both museums in 2023, according to Jaymee Harvey Willms, the executive director of both museums. There’s also programming and events at both properties, and the space is rented out for weddings throughout the year. 

“It’s a moment where the world gets to come together through these historic doors and really start to understand, what is our history here in Milwaukee,” Willms said.