Barbara Brown Lee

“Holy kroly, it’s been fifty years!”

Chief Educator Barbara Brown Lee—affectionately known as BBL, Bobbi, Barb, or “A National Treasure”—is celebrating fifty years at the Museum. Lee, whose enthusiasm for the arts is positively contagious, has touched so many with her unique teaching style and creative witticisms. She recently sat down with Manager of Adult and Docent Programs Amy Kirschke to share a bit about the last half-century.

What brought you to the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1963?

I fell in love with art history in college. It was an epiphany for me; studying art history meant studying everything you need to know—history of people, culture, religion. It provided a global package to put everything into and I loved it!

After graduation, my father took me along on a two-month business trip to Europe. We went to London, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Florence, Siena, Venice, Zurich, Lucerne, Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin, Brussels, Spain, and Portugal. Every day I visited museums and later reported what I saw. It was my Grand Tour!

I traveled to New York when we returned, where I was offered two jobs: reshelving books at the Met or selling postcards at the Guggenheim. Tracy Atkinson, director of my hometown Milwaukee Art Museum [then the Milwaukee Art Center], had previously offered to hire me as a curatorial assistant. I called Tracy from New York and said I was ready to accept his invitation. We both knew that someday I would leave.

What has kept you here for fifty years?

I grew with the Museum, so there was no need to leave! When I started, the Museum had only twelve on staff and fifteen docents. [Today, the Museum has 256 employees and 188 docents.] I did everything: hang art, organize exhibitions, go on art-buying trips, deliver radio announcements, give lectures. I advanced to Curator of Collections and Exhibitions.

In 1967, I was asked to step in as acting director of adult education. Less than ten days later, I went back to Tracy and asked if I could stay in education. I really liked performing in the galleries for people and children. Tracy saw that I was a natural. From there, I took off. I’m still taking off!

What are your plans for retirement?

I’m not retiring—I don’t want to! Director Dan Keegan is letting me keep my office, and I will continue to give talks to docents and Members on occasion. Keep sharing stories. Why would I leave something I love so much?