The Charles Allis Museum and Villa Terrace Decorative Art Museum are a pair of small art museums on Milwaukee’s east side. Constructed in the early 20th century as residences for prominent Milwaukeeans, the two museums today feature professionally-curated art exhibitions, arts education programming, and other special programs while also serving as a venue for wedding and event rentals. The two museums are owned by Milwaukee County but they are operated under a single board of directors by the nonprofit Charles Allis and Villa Terrace Museums, Inc. (CAVT).
CAVT has faced substantial financial challenges for several years. Those stem, in part, from reliance on the buildings’ owner – Milwaukee County – for substantial operating and capital support given the county’s own severe financial challenges. The museums also have had to adapt to a changing cultural and entertainment environment that may pose increasing difficulties for small house museums.
In late 2021, the Wisconsin Policy Forum was asked by CAVT leaders to conduct an assessment that would assist them in charting a financially sustainable path forward. Our charge was to analyze the museums’ revenue and attendance trends and challenges, how they determine their programming and exhibitions, their governance structure, and the comparative experience of a small set of similar museums nationally.
While we provide an overview of CAVT exhibits and programming, we do not delve into curatorial decision-making, as that is not an area of WPF expertise. In fact, it is critical for readers to understand that we are not experts on the inner workings of museums. Instead, we were approached to conduct this research based on our long history of analyzing the finances and overall health of Milwaukee County-owned arts and cultural institutions as well as our knowledge and body of work on metro Milwaukee’s nonprofits and their challenges.
In the pages that follow, we discuss the results of our analysis, including a series of insights regarding possible business model changes for CAVT and how the museums might better serve the Milwaukee community. Overall, we find the two museums hold great potential to grow their revenues and increase their value to area residents. Yet, that positive note is hedged by the critical need to re-examine board governance, develop a new sense of purpose, and resolve a set of formidable barriers that have contributed to the museums’ longstanding financial challenges.
Milwaukee County has a vibrant arts and culture scene that could be enriched by the long-term health and sustainability of the Charles Allis and Villa Terrace museums. We hope this report is useful to the CAVT board, staff, and Milwaukee County leaders as they consider an appropriate path forward.