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Milwaukee Public Museum looks for Indigenous artists for new building

It's part of a bigger effort to build relationships with Wisconsin's tribes

A new building for the Milwaukee Public Museum is being constructed two blocks north of Fiserv Forum. The space will include a 200,000 square-foot building complete with four floors of exhibits and a green space. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum is seeking proposals from Indigenous artists to design an outdoor installation honoring Wisconsin’s First Nations at the facility’s new location.

The installation is open to the artist’s interpretation but should be based on traditional dwellings of the tribal nations in the Great Lakes region.

James Flores, manager of tribal relations at the museum and member of the Oneida Nation, said many exhibits in museums in general are focused on Native Americans in a historical context. His team is looking for a design with a “modern twist.”

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“We want to make sure we are conveying to the public that Native American culture is a living culture and that we’re still here today,” Flores said. 

The interactive installation will have a “prominent location” within the new museum’s green space, which will have other artwork and native plants. The space will be used for outdoor learning and programming.

“It is meant to convey to visitors that this is a sense of welcome,” Flores said.

‘More than bows and arrows’

Melanie Sainz, an Indigenous artist and member of Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, said the project is a great opportunity for Native art and artists.  

“To have major museums, like the Milwaukee Public Museum, acknowledge the opportunity and ability to provide a platform for Native artists to share their creativity is just a win. That’s just wonderful,” Sainz said.

Flores said the museum is continuing to build relationships with Wisconsin’s tribes.

“It’s a great opportunity to highlight this partnership that we’ve worked so hard on, worked with different tribal communities, making sure that we incorporate their voice in our exhibit design,” Flores said.

In January, museums across Wisconsin were responding to new federal rules governing how museums should handle objects sacred to Native Americans.

Sainz’s parents owned and operated the Winnebago Public Indian Museum in Wisconsin Dells for almost 50 years. She said legislation, including the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, is an important part of maintaining authenticity around Native voices.  

“I think it is just a really wonderful way of showing a sense of respect and dignity for first Indigenous Americans,” Sainz said.

In proposals for the art installation at the Milwaukee museum, artists can incorporate different floral patterns, tribal seals, languages or imagery that represents different clans.

“We want to make sure that we are highlighting the Native people of this land and seeing that collectively, we’re working together to tell their stories to share our stories with one another,” Flores said. 

Sainz said she hopes museum visitors will walk away from the future installation with a more complete understanding of Native people in a modern context.

“We are more than bows and arrows,” Sainz said. “We’re (making art) in a way to still kind of embrace all the wonderful teachings of our ancestors, but to present it visually, in a very contemporary way.”

New museum campus set to open in 2027

The public museum is replacing its existing building, which is in such poor structural condition that its accreditation was in danger.

The $240 million project is scheduled to open in 2027 two blocks north of Fiserv Forum. It includes a 200,000 square-foot building complete with a four floors of exhibits, a planetarium and a butterfly garden.  The design is inspired by rock formations at Mill Bluff State Park and the confluence of Milwaukee’s three rivers.

The Milwaukee Public Museum will relocate to a new building in downtown Milwaukee. It is expected to open in early 2027. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Public Museum.

Public and private funding efforts for the new location are ongoing. In 2022, the Milwaukee County Board approved $45 million in borrowing for the project.

A subcommittee of the Museum’s Native American Advisory Committee, which includes tribal members from various Wisconsin tribes, will select the artist to design the installation.

The total budget for the installation is $150,000. Proposals are due April 15.