A Calatrava Masterpiece: Milwaukee Art Museum

It rises up out of the lake, spreading its bright white wings ever so slowly in the sun. Crowds gather every day to see its majestic performance. It is not a bird or a creature of the lake; it is a museum building. The Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum is a work of art in itself and arguably one of the most stunning works of modern architecture in the world. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, it was completed in October 2001 and was designated Best Design of 2001 by Time magazine.

Calatrava wanted to “infuse the building with a certain sensitivity to the culture of the lake—the boats, the sails and the always changing landscape.” And that he has. When the wind blows hard, the building folds down its 217-foot wingspan like a sailor pulling in his sails. The 72 fins of varying lengths weigh 100 tons and are moved with hydraulic cylinders in a slow curling grace. The 90-foot-high glass-walled reception hall just inside the front doors takes its light from Lake Michigan and the floor gleams with white Carrera Italian marble. As you walk toward the main exhibits, down the hall and its curving white supports, the windows opening to the lake, you feel you might be on the set of a futuristic space movie. Even the displays at the gift shop follow the gentle curves of the surrounding structure. A person could spend quite a long time just taking in the atmosphere of the place and staring out at Lake Michigan.

But don’t let this remarkable building steal the show; the museum offers a fine collection of more than 20,000 works. There are pieces dating from antiquity, Egyptian and Greek art, as well as some from the Middle Ages. But the bulk of the works is from 19th and 20th century American and European artists.

Georgie O’Keeffe fans will be pleased to know that Milwaukee is home to the 4th largest collection of the Wisconsin-born artist. The twenty-two paintings are on permanent display in their own special gallery. You will also find pieces by other household-name artists, Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Andy Warhol, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Marc Chagall, but the collection goes far beyond the familiar.

American decorative arts are well represented and there is an impressive glass display. There are 90 paintings by Haitian artists from the twentieth century. There are photography exhibits for the camera enthusiast selected from a collection of over 2000 including works by Edward Weston, Cartier-Bresson, and Mapplethorpe. Folk and self-taught art exhibits reveal the importance and the overlooked value of outsider art. It gives space to all creativity and removes some of the snobbery that some might associate with the art world. All art is celebrated here.

There are also frequent temporary exhibits so it is worth checking out the web site periodically to see what’s being shown. The Quadracci Pavilion includes an auditorium for lectures and films, a gift shop, and a lakefront cafe. And during nice weather the outdoor terrace and the Cudahy Gardens with its two fountains are great places to take in the lake air and the wonderful view.

But be sure not to miss is one of the building’s daily performances. The “wings” open with the museum at 10 a.m., close and re-open at noon, and close for the day at 5 p.m. Prepare to be amazed.


The museum is located on the shore of Lake Michigan just north of the Summerfest grounds.

Admission is $14 adults, $12 seniors and students, twelve and under free. FREE the first Thursday of every month! Open daily 10-5, until 8 pm on Thursdays.

Milwaukee Art Museum
700 N. Art Museum Drive
Milwaukee, WI 53202
(414) 224-3220

For more information visit

More Photos of the Milwaukee Art Museum:

Kevin Revolinski

Author, travel writer/photographer, world traveler. Writes about travel, hiking, camping, paddling, and craft beer.

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