War Memorial Center, Milwaukee Art Museum management talks deadlock
Negotiations over a management agreement on operating the iconic War Memorial Center on the lakefront have hit a standstill, according to Milwaukee Art Museum officials.
In their view, negotiators for the Memorial Center have tried to add unacceptable terms on who controls a north parking lot, who pays for building security and how long the museum has to raise the $15 million it’s promised toward a sparkling $25 million renovation and addition.
The lead negotiator for the Memorial Center said he was surprised by the museum’s declaration of an impasse and suggested that might be a ploy by the museum leaders to stall for more time to raise the $15 million for renovating galleries and adding to the east side of the building.
“Maybe they’re having second thoughts,” said David Kurtz, the Memorial Center negotiator. “Maybe they’re not as confident they can raise the $15 million.” Kurtz said a deal was 99% completed when the art museum called a halt on talks.
Art museum officials want Milwaukee County to take an active role in settling the dispute. The county owns the Memorial Center building and land it sits on and subsidizes the operation of the center, as well as the museum.
County Executive Chris Abele said if the dispute continues, at some point the county will step in. When asked about a dispute over who controls the north side of the building and its parking revenue, he emphasized that the county owns the land around the Memorial Center.
“My frustration is these are all public institutions that serve the public,” Abele said. “If they were watching the turf battle now, they might say we are missing the point.”
Abele raised another possible point of controversy by suggesting the county’s $1.5 million annual subsidy to the Memorial Center could be cut, with savings going to the county’s Veterans Service Office.
The County Board in May requested that representatives of the War Memorial Corp. and the museum negotiate a deal after the art museum agreed to pay 60% of the $25 million renovation and said it wanted full management control of the structure. The county has agreed to pay $10 million toward the project.
Under terms of its 96-year lease, the Memorial Center serves as landlord for the Eero Saarinen-designed building and Kahler addition, and the art museum is its tenant. It’s a situation the art museum wanted to change as part of its plans to make long-deferred repairs of leaks that threaten the museum’s art collection.
Water rushed into the museum during the December rainstorm, dousing a painting and flooding an office, said museum director Dan Keegan. He declined to name the artwork but said a conservator was able to save the painting. He said the ongoing leaks put the museum at risk of losing its accreditation.
The two sides reached agreement on most major issues, including having the memorial and museum separately control the space each now occupies, Keegan and Kurtz said in separate interviews.
But new eleventh-hour terms the veterans groups now are seeking, such as the museum relinquishing control over land on the north side of the building, have put an overall deal in jeopardy, Keegan and Kenneth Krei, president of the art museum’s board of trustees, said Wednesday in an interview with Journal Sentinel reporters and editors.
“The negotiations have stalled on some key points,” Keegan said. “It doesn’t seem to be a productive process, and therefore we need to move forward with seeking support and help from the county to resolve the outstanding issues.”
The last negotiation session was in late December, but new objections were raised since then from a new veterans group calling itself the Veterans Community Relations Team. That “shadow group” involvement and additional points of disagreement have brought the talks to a standstill, Keegan said.
In a letter to Abele, Kurtz said, “Many veterans believe that (the museum) has been orchestrating a two-year takeover plot of the War Memorial.”