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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Inspiring and Educating

Meet the Milwaukee Art Museum’s new director

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On day two of his new job, Daniel Keegan is juggling the usual problems of a transcontinental move. First there is his car, shipped to Milwaukee from San Jose, Calif., and damaged on arrival. With wind chills hovering near zero, it’s not the greatest day to wait at the bus stop, but one senses that Keegan is warmed by the anticipation of his work.

Keegan is the new director of the Milwaukee Art Museum. He’s excited about his job. Although he came here from California, Keegan has more than nodding familiarity with Wisconsin winters. He’s a native of Green Bay, where his mother and siblings still live.

“I’m the only one who left Green Bay,” says Keegan, who enjoyed two decades in academia, including chairing the art department at West Virginia Wesleyan College, before becoming director of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City and the San Jose Museum of Art. “They think I’m crazy for coming back because of the weather.”

While winter weather will never be a selling point for Milwaukee, the institution Keegan presides over has become one of the city’s greatest assets. The addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum could have been another drab box, another cement U-boat pen like the one tacked on to the original building’s rear in the 1970s. What rose instead was Santiago Calatrava’s soaring dream palace, the Quadracci Pavilion, a one-of-a-kind structure that has become the symbol of a renewed Milwaukee.

The word on Keegan, already circulating among the city’s power brokers before his bags were unpacked, concerns his disarming Midwest modesty. His manner is in contrast with his predecessor, the waggish former publisher of Britain’s Economist magazine, David Gordon. Although some found him prickly, Gordon pushed forward the campaign to pay for the museum’s new wing and oversaw several fascinating exhibitions on Art Nouveau, German Expressionism and the legacy of Biedermeier design .

Keegan may have an easier task than Gordon. He inherits an internationally regarded architectural landmark that has given Milwaukee newfound pride of place.

“There’s no question: Milwaukee has changed a lot. It’s much more urban. Much more hip,” Keegan says. “What the Calatrava did was set the bar at a high level. By having destination-caliber architecture, Milwaukee has put itself on a bigger map. Those benefits are shared by the entire community through increased tourism, retaining quality workers and attracting new business to a place where workers will want to live. It behooves us to use the Calatrava as a catalyst. It’s pretty exciting!”

What About Art?

But without a concern for the art displayed in the museum, Milwaukee’s new symbol loses much of its potency. It loses its point for existing. Almost no one expects Keegan to have a plan in place on day two of his new job. After all, Gordon left behind an exhibition schedule more or less mapped out for the next three years. On day two, Keegan is studying the map. He seems a little in awe of the ship he’s piloting into the future.

“The building itself is successful as an art form. Is it a building or is it sculpture? It is a beautiful experience in itself,” he insists with evident pleasure. “This will always be a marvel and a wonder for generations to come. In some respects the experience around the art is what I’m interested in. I want to create memorable or transformational experiences for visitors.”

At a time when arts education has given way in many public schools to teaching students how to perform on standardized tests, the Milwaukee Art Museum opened its doors to 60,000 primary, secondary and college students on field trips in 2006-2007 and has served 80,000 students in educational programs at the museum and off-site. The educational outreach extends beyond the bus-loads of students to the general public. The museum must inspire greater Milwaukee with a sense that art isn’t merely a grant-funded hobbyhorse or a sandbox on the fringe, but a meaningful dimension of the human experience.

More than ever, art and commerce must be harmonized. “It used to be that curators would become museum directors,” Keegan says, musing about his rapidly changing profession. “Then many museums hired directors who had nothing to do with art—people who came from business or different areas in the nonprofit world.

That isn’t the answer!” With an MFA in ceramics and a background teaching art and art history, Keegan brings cultural knowledge together with administrative experience. “I want to build a robust online component,” Keegan says. “To engage visitors in a remote setting by displaying the museum’s holdings, most of which is seldom if ever on display. I think the Web can help increase interest in the museum and attendance because you can’t replicate the experience of seeing a painting up close online. The representation of the work is not the work.”

Keegan disclaims any plans to radically alter the museum. “I’m interested in new technology, but I don’t see any major shifts. The museum is immensely successful. It is on a strong and stable financial footing. It has a staff that’s smart and passionate. I want to do more of the same, only bigger and better.”