Months away from its anticipated groundbreaking, the new Milwaukee Public Museum project is about $107 million short in the private donations that officials have said they need, Wisconsin Right Now has learned.
So far, 66% of the money raised for the new museum has come from taxpayers, according to the museum’s own numbers. That’s even though museum officials are stripping the word “public” out of the museum, which will be a privately owned non-profit, despite the fact it maintains the county’s collections.
Milwaukee Public Museum officials went to state lawmakers with their hands out in 2021, successfully asking for $40 million in taxpayer money; a short time later they received $45 million more from Milwaukee County taxpayers. They are seeking an additional $5 million from the federal government.
Milwaukee Public Museum Donations
Museum officials say the rest – $150 million of the $240 million museum project – is supposed to come from private donors. “Only private philanthropy will drive this project over the finish line,” the museum admits on its website.
But that private philanthropy is lagging badly, with a December 2023 groundbreaking planned.
We have asked museum officials and their public relations firm Mueller Communications repeatedly to give us an exact dollar amount of private donations they have raised so far. They have refused to provide it, continuing a troubling pattern of non-transparency. They have also refused to explain which exhibits the museum is changing and have refused to grant us a sit-down interview with museum CEO Ellen Censky, along with not answering most of our questions and public record document requests. They have also refused our request for a backstage tour to observe their claimed maintenance problems.
On the museum’s website, however, officials state that they have only raised $128 million toward the $240 million cost in total. Of that, $85 million is public funding from the state and county with a hoped-for but not yet secured $5 million from federal taxpayers.
That means the museum has only raised $43 million in private donations, leaving them $107 million short in the donations needed for their $240 million project cost estimate, presuming they get the federal money.
“To make this bold vision for our children, our communities, and our future a reality, we are seeking to raise $150 million in private philanthropic support, which will complement $90 million in anticipated government funding, the museum’s website says.
As with pretty much every number in this project that we have scrutinized, it’s easy to find completely different numbers. On January 27, 2023, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the museum had raised only $32 million in private donations.
Yet less than three weeks later, the number has jumped on the museum’s website by $11 million, perhaps conveniently pushing the museum past the $85 million in non-state funding needed to secure the state taxpayer dollars, which were approved with that condition.
In July 2022, the museum had raised $25 million from 72 donors, according to Milwaukee Magazine.
In a county committee meeting where they made their case for public funding, museum officials were asked what they planned to do if they fell short in private donations. Their solution? Borrowing.
It all adds up to a troubling list of questions about the museum project’s fiscal health. How would a new museum pay back a loan that size? Were the museum’s estimates for philanthropic potential overstated?
We previously reported on a county supervisor’s concerns that the museum funding vote was rushed through with minimal public comment and awareness. We’ve investigated why the museum’s estimates for staying in the current building and building a new one have ballooned dramatically in recent years (a museum official told county supervisors that $80-90 million of the former cost is for racial and equity updates the museum refuses to explain).
We’ve reported on the museum’s vague comments about the future fate of popular exhibits like the Streets of Old Milwaukee and the European Village. We have also reported that the museum gave shifting numbers for deferred maintenance that actually appear to be projections 20 years into the future. And they told county officials that they would lose traveling exhibits without accreditation, as a justification for needing a new museum, when that is not true. See all of our reporting here.
Wisconsin Right Now, with a project-specific grant from No Better Friend Corp., Kevin Nicholson’s non-profit organization, is investigating the Milwaukee County Museum’s rhetoric, cost estimates, and plans for a new museum.