First, Brian King was a seventh– and eighth-grade social studies teacher at Milwaukee Jewish Day School in Whitefish Bay. Then he was head of school. Now he’s executive director of Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, 929 E. Wisconsin Ave.
His journey is woven thoroughly with children’s education and Jewish community. Now he’s arrived at a “catastrophe,” he said, in the form of a children’s museum that can’t open during a pandemic.
But he said he’s also finding tremendous opportunity in the moment for the museum. He’s gearing up for a big move, away from the lake. Meanwhile, his deep ties to Milwaukee Jewish Day School remain unsevered and he sees Jewish background in the origin of Betty Brinn.
Add King to the list of active Jewish Wisconsinites, doing what they see as tikkun olam for the people of the whole state and beyond.
“The Betty Brinn Children’s Museum in many ways has a Jewish soul,” King said. “Two of its founders were members of the Milwaukee Jewish community, at least one of whom had children at MJDS.”
Martin F. Stein (z”l), the renowned Milwaukee Jewish philanthropist, was instrumental in getting Betty Brinn off the ground in the 1990s, King added.
“We have kind of Jewish bones at the museum,” he said.
We can also count King among those Jewish connections. His son Noah is currently enrolled at Milwaukee Jewish Day School, and his son Ethan is a graduate. His wife, Sarah Schott, is president of the board at Milwaukee Jewish Day School. “We have had an unbroken attachment and participation at the school since 2003,” King said.
Leading the museum
“We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has shut us down,” King said. “That’s a disaster. It’s a catastrophe.”
The physical museum has been shut down since March 14, 2020, and has a target reopening this summer, even as other public institutions have already slowly and tentatively reopened. Betty Brinn hosts children with very tactile experiences, so physical reopening can’t come quite so quickly, King said.
There’s a parallel story to the “catastrophe,” a good news story, he said. The museum has pivoted to the creation of a virtual learning program that’s sophisticated enough to have legs beyond the pandemic, he said. People are signing up from well beyond Milwaukee. And he’s working on something for the post-pandemic era – the tentative title is the Betty Brinn Road Show. It will likely be a bus or panel truck that houses mobile experiences, making visits to schools, festivals and community centers.
Betty Brinn and the Milwaukee Public Museum are together planning a move to the northeast corner of Sixth and McKinley streets in downtown Milwaukee. The spot is a block from the Fiserv Forum.
Currently, Betty Brinn Children’s Museum sits near the bend in Wisconsin Avenue almost on the shores of Lake Michigan. The museum – perched amid of some of the city’s most iconic buildings – has a beautiful east-window view of the lake.
He said there are two pieces to the decision to leave.
“On a supremely practical level, our lease with the art museum, who is our landlord … ends in 2028,” King said, adding that he understands there may be other plans for the current spot. “That’s one piece. So, we might have to go anyway.
“The second piece, and honestly maybe more importantly, is that the facility has never been a great physical structure for a children’s museum,” he said. “Our space is limited.”
Pre-pandemic attendance numbers hit as high as about 200,000, and King said he wants to “serve more people in a less crowded way with a larger facility.” With the move, King said floor space is expected to nearly double.
Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed budget includes $40 million for the Sixth and McKinley project, which would help with an effort that expected to cost much more. Early 2026 is the earliest King thinks the museum would operate in the new facility.
King said he sees Jewish values in his work.
“Core to the museum’s mission is the ‘all’ in its mission – ‘inspire all children to wonder and explore their world’,” King said.
King sees tikkun olam – the Jewish idea to repair the world – reflected in the museum’s work, though “we don’t necessarily use that term to describe it.”
“We have had a deep dedication to making our museum experience accessible to every child with a focus on making sure that kids who come from underserved communities can come regardless of what it costs,” he said. This has meant free memberships and discounts on field trips for some in underserved communities.
Judaism is rooted in a focus on education and the book, he said.
“That’s also what we do at the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum. It’s not formal education like a school, but it’s still important and it can still be transformative for kids.”