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Free Day + Celebration Commemorates Hometown Hero Vel Phillips

Posted on January 25th, 2024


The Milwaukee Art Museum partners with the Vel Phillips Legacy Initiative to kickstart the Year of Vel Phillips, a statewide commemoration in the trailblazer’s honor.

MILWAUKEE, WI—January 23, 2024—The Milwaukee Art Museum commemorates hometown hero Vel Phillips’s 100th birthday on Sunday, February 18, 2024, with a new program called Free Day + Celebration. These quarterly campus-wide events highlight accessibility and community building and create a celebratory atmosphere and sense of play and wonder. Vel Phillips’s 100th Birthday includes free Museum admission, art making, live music, and tours honoring Phillips’s commitment to social justice.

Milwaukee-born Velvalea “Vel” Phillips (1924–2018) was an advocate and community organizer for civil rights, and her legacy of firsts continues to shape artists, advocates, and community members throughout her hometown. In recognition of Phillips and all she did to advance the city of Milwaukee and state of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Art Museum invites the community to participate in its Free Day + Celebration: Vel Phillips’s 100th Birthday.

Festivities include:

  • 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Explore the Museum’s collection and exhibition galleries
  • 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Art making in the Kohl’s Art Studio and with guest facilitators BrushBox in the Quadracci Suite
  • 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Bingo—with prizes such as items from Black women-owned businesses and Museum memberships
  • 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Community engagement fair with Milwaukee organizations championing housing rights, law, and civic engagement
  • 10:30–11:30 a.m. Story Time in the Galleries led by Ashley Valentine from Rooted MKE
  • 11 a.m.–1 p.m., 2:30–4:30 p.m. Live music led by DJ Lolo
  • 11 a.m.–noon, 3–4 p.m. Screening of the PBS Wisconsin documentary “Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams”
  • Noon–1 p.m., 3–4 p.m. Social Concerns + Social Justice gallery tours* led by docents
  • Noon–3 p.m. Sound Healing led by Melissa Blue Muhammed in the Haitian Art gallery
  • 1–2:30 p.m. Panel conversation* led by Nakeysha Roberts Washington from Genre: Urban Arts featuring Black women civic leaders
  • 3–4 p.m. Tour* of On Site: Derrick Adams: Our Time Together led by Clayborn Benson, Executive Director of Wisconsin Black Historical Society and the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Public Historian-in-Residence

*with ASL interpreters

The Museum’s Free Day + Celebration is among the first events in the Year of Vel Phillips, a year-long commemoration organized by the Vel Phillips Legacy Initiative—a dedicated task force of Wisconsin civic and cultural leaders. In addition to the Museum’s program, a consortium of organizations across the state have coordinated tributes in 2024.

“Vel Phillips was an extraordinary person who led a remarkable career advancing civil rights in our city and state,” said Kantara Souffrant, PhD, Curator of Community Dialogue at the Milwaukee Art Museum. “The Museum is thrilled to commemorate her achievements on her birthday with the Milwaukee community, and we look forward to the Legacy Initiative’s robust celebrations planned for the year ahead.”

Free Day + Celebration will activate the Museum’s campus, including select festivities in the East End where Phillips can be seen in On Site: Derrick Adams: Our Time Together. The monumental mural includes references to Milwaukee havens Gee’s Clippers, Coffee Makes You Black, and the Wisconsin Black Historical Society (WBHS), as well as photographs—including two of Phillips—from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Since early 2023, Clayborn Benson—Executive Director of WBHS and the Museum’s Public Historian-in-Residence—has researched the stories and interviewed the people represented in Our Time Together, chronicling the history depicted in the mural and amplifying community voices in the Museum. Activating the East End on Phillips’s birthday, the Museum will debut audio components—an on-site soundscape of excerpts from interviews the Museum conducted with four individuals featured in the mural, including Benson, and an audio guide in which Adams speaks about the mural.

The Milwaukee Art Museum is a space where all can engage with art and one another in a welcoming environment. Vel Phillips’s 100th Birthday activities will be accessible to people who use mobility devices, as well as people who communicate with American Sign Language.

Following the first program in February, the Museum will host two more Free Day + Celebrations in 2024.

About the Milwaukee Art Museum

The Milwaukee Art Museum is an essential destination for art and architecture and a vital cultural resource that connects visitors to dynamic art experiences and one another. Housed in iconic buildings by Santiago Calatrava, Eero Saarinen, and David Kahler on a 24-acre lakefront campus, the Museum is Wisconsin’s largest art institution and home to both broad and deep collections, with exceptional holdings in American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; conceptual and minimalist art; prints and drawings; European art from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century; photography and new media; modern and contemporary design; folk and self-taught art; and twentieth-century Haitian art. A bold symbol of Milwaukee’s ambition and forward-thinking vision, the Museum is a place for community building, education, and celebration, that fosters creativity and critical discourse for audiences of all ages and backgrounds. For more information, visit mam.org.

About Vel Phillips

A Milwaukee-born trailblazer, Velvalea Hortense Rodgers “Vel” Phillips (1924–2018) was raised in the Bronzeville neighborhood, graduating from North Division High School before attending Howard University in Washington, D.C. Returning to her home state, Phillips became the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1951. Five years later, at the age of 32, Phillips became the first Black person and first woman to be elected to the Milwaukee Common Council, where she served for fifteen years. In 1971, she was appointed by Governor Patrick Lucey to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, becoming the first woman judge in Milwaukee and the first Black judge in Wisconsin. Renowned as a leader, she later became the first person of color to be elected to the office of the Secretary of State in 1978. Throughout her career, Phillips was an advocate and community organizer for civil rights in Milwaukee, and her legacy continues to shape artists, advocates, and community members across our city.

About the Vel Phillips Legacy Initiative

The Vel Phillips Legacy Initiative is a groundbreaking effort that emerged in response to the protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol in 2020. In collaboration with Governor Evers, a dedicated task force was formed to address the underrepresentation of the Black community’s contributions to Wisconsin. Backed by bipartisan support, the Wisconsin State Capitol and Executive Residence Board unanimously voted in favor of the historic designation for a sculpture honoring Vel Phillips. The Vel Phillips Legacy Initiative, which is sponsored by The Boys and Girls Clubs of Dane County, stands as a testament to the power of collective action and the enduring impact of Vel Phillips’s legacy on Wisconsin’s cultural and historical landscape. For more information, visit bgcdc.org/velphillips.

Media Contact

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Media Contact

For more information or to request images, please contact:

Cortney Heimerl / Lindsey Wurz
Milwaukee Art Museum
communications@mam.org
414-940-0490 / 414-224-3865