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Milwaukee Public Museum Won’t Say How Much Its Raised; Website Says It’s $112 million Short

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The Milwaukee Public Museum is refusing to tell the public how much money it has raised to build the new $240 million museum with groundbreaking set for December. Its website says the new museum project is still $112 million short.

We also asked the museum about a March 31, 2023, fiscal report that shows salaries and wages jumped for the seven months ending on 3/31/2023 from $3,239,318 (prior year YTD) to $3,890,139 (current YTD), for an increase of $650,822. The museum refused to explain who received the raises and how much they each got.

As of June 14, 2023, the museum’s website still says it has only raised $128 million of the $240 million needed for the new project. We wrote the museum to ask if that’s the accurate number raised.

“On March 1, 2023, it was announced that $128M had been raised toward the Future Museum project to date,” Rebecca Ehlers, VP of Marketing, Communications & Visitor Experience for the Milwaukee Public Museum, told Wisconsin Right Now.

Milwaukee public museum fundraising

She refused to say how much has been raised.

“Additional money has been raised since that time, but the website will not be updated until the Museum makes another fundraising announcement, which is slated for later this summer. The fundraising campaign is progressing on schedule, and we are humbled by the generosity and excitement from the donor community,” she said.

We asked her why the museum would not say how much it has raised since the March 1 announcement. Doesn’t the public have a right to know? we asked. “The public will be made aware of our fundraising progress when we make a formal announcement later this summer. These types of announcements are standard practice for large campaigns,” she said.

We’ve documented that $85 million of the money raised so far is taxpayer money, including $40 million from the state of Wisconsin and $45 million from Milwaukee County. The museum is expecting another $5 million from the federal government. That’s despite the fact that Milwaukee County currently says it’s so broke that it needs a new sales tax to pay massive unfunded pension liabilities.

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?

See our previous investigative reporting on the Milwaukee Public Museum project here. Members of the public have started petition drives to save the historic European Village and Streets of Old Milwaukee. The museum admits the latter will be reimagined in a new exhibit, and that it can’t move many of the historic artwork/murals in the current building.

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 fundraising

Asked about the increased money for salaries, she said, “There are several factors that contributed to the year-over-year increase in salaries and wages. As the pandemic waned, the museum resumed normal operations, necessitating more staff. In addition, employees throughout the organization received raises.”

We asked: “Specifically which new staff/positions were added and specifically who received raises and what % increase? Who sets/approves those raises?”

She did not respond.

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.

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