When you think of art, a convention center may not be top of mind. You might think of the city’s art museums or galleries peppered throughout the area, and you wouldn’t be remiss in thinking about the architectural marvels that make up Milwaukee’s skyline. But, inside the newly expanded Baird Center, you’ll find a priceless collection of art spanning the Cream City creative community, telling the story of Milwaukee.


On its face, the $456 million expansion is a stunning architectural addition to the downtown area, the futuristic-looking new North Building’s floor-to-ceiling glass design overlooking the Wisconsin Center District’s other two properties: the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and Miller High Life Theatre.

For all its external beauty, once inside, the walls, halls, ceilings and nearly every surface within Baird Center spotlight a unique collection of mostly Milwaukee artists. The pieces contained throughout this enormous gallery tell the story of Milwaukee through the eyes of its residents. They highlight the area’s geography, history and, most importantly, the people who have built Milwaukee into what it is today.


With Baird Center’s Public Open House coming up next week, on Saturday, May 18, from 1 to 5 p.m., we’re shining the spotlight on six pieces to look out for.

The Great Five

"The Great Five"

By Bluworld of Water

One of the most noticeable additions to the expanded Baird Center is a water installation entitled “The Great Five.” The piece is a loving tribute to Milwaukee’s place as the freshwater capital of the world, the city’s location along the shores of Lake Michigan and a nod to the beauty of the five Great Lakes. 


“The Great Lakes are such a vital resource for the upper Midwest way of life and the growing economy based on freshwater technology for the entire region, says Sean Drummond, CEO of Bluworld of Water. “We wanted to find a way to design a water feature that connected to that in some way.”


Visible to attendees from the Collaboration Stairs or as they pass along the intersection of West Kilbourn Avenue and Vel R. Phillips Avenue, the mesmerizing fixture features a cascading rush of water down five separate steel mesh panels, each representing one of the Great Lakes.


True to proportion, the panels vary relative to the volume of each lake, with Lake Superior being the largest, followed by Lake Michigan, the city’s native body of water, before Lakes Huron, Ontario and Erie, respectively.


“These variations represent the different characteristics of the Lakes. At times, you see their immense power and at other times their tranquil beauty.”

Rosie from Guest Services

"Rosie From Guest Services"

By Marc Sijan


Since 1998, Syl, the friendly security guard at the convention center’s south entrance, greeted Baird Center guests. Many have even stopped to ask him for directions or strike up a conversation about Milwaukee, only to realize one slight problem: he wasn’t real.


Created by world-renowned realist artist and Milwaukee native, “Syl the Public Safety Officer” is one of Baird Center’s most popular pieces. Now, Syl has a companion in the North Building: “Rosie from Guest Services.”


Standing next to "The Great Five," Rosie wears a vest emblazoned with the word “Baird Center” and a welcoming smile, ready to greet conference attendees from all over the country. She’s happy to help you find everything from your next session to a place to eat tonight. Rosie follows a common trend in Sijan's work—drawing inspiration from the hardworking, oft-overlooked people. Rosie's origins came from a server at a local restaurant.

 “I am inspired by the people who are never in the spotlight. I was eating lunch one day and noticed the woman who was busy cleaning up after customers. Most of the time, she is never even noticed or appreciated, but it is people like her that make other people’s experiences special.”


Moved by the spirit of hospitality found throughout Milwaukee, Sijan incorporated her into his sculpture at Baird Center as a guest services staffer. Why guest services? Sijan realized that guest services staff were the frontlines of hospitality and, often, the first point of contact for visitors to Milwaukee. They’re the people who ensure guests have a positive experience in the destination. 


“I want them to walk away and take that image with them for a long time. I am hoping Rosie and what she represents will be seared into their hearts.” 

Greater than and Less Than Diptych

"A Pattern of Families Divided by the Greater > Than"

By David Najib Kasir

"The work sort of changes as I keep moving through it," said David Najib Kasir, who is in the middle stages of creating his diptych works, now hanging in Baird Center. The Milwaukee-based painter is a graduate of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD). His art has been featured in Black Cat Alley, Uptown Chicago and other locations across the country. 

Kasir's work explores themes of representation in America, underscoring the importance of spotlighting people of all ethnicities and cultures. He draws on stories from his parents' journey to the U.S. and his own experiences as a second-generation immigrant.

"Well, my parents were foreigners," says Kasir. "I grew up very much over foreigner experiences as a child. I would see how we were perceived or, my father, who didn't really speak English, and my mother, who learned to, you know, so it's sort of my way to get back what I lost." 


Connection is also a major theme in his work, as evidenced by his painting of a local refugee family in an Arabic mosaic design. 


"I really want to give an understanding that there is no difference between me and you, and there's no difference between you and the people who are in different lands," Kasir says. "We all care for our families. We all build and work hard for the same opportunities and for our children. And that's when I want people to sort of see out of the work." 


"I want viewers to look at these figures and understand the journey from one environment to the other has it all, and the idea of keeping a family as a whole, through time, through distance,  there's a price paid in that."


Kasir also looks to shine a light on Milwaukee's robust Arabic community as well.


"When I first moved over here, you know, Milwaukee was very different 27 years ago," he says. 

"I thought I was the only Arab in Milwaukee, you know?"


"I started to pay more attention to who's in the city. Milwaukee has a rich, Arab community that I've been a part of that's just brilliant. It's really amazing how hopeful they are for each other and others. I'm not exactly like other people in their community, but they really have embraced me and what my work means to them."




By Kevin Miyazaki

Outside of room N204A in Baird Center’s North Building, the piece “Acknowledgment” is a recognition that the convention center rests on land that was once the traditional home of the Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk and Menominee peoples. Created by long-time Milwaukee photojournalist-turned-artist Kevin Miyazaki, the 31 photos in the piece represent members of each tribe.

“My original idea was to photograph current students at the school. But while working with my school contacts, we realized that would tell an incomplete story. We decided to open the project to a wider range of people to show the strength of the larger school community. The portraits that make up the Acknowledgement installation represent current students, alumni, faculty, staff and family members. I think including portraits of multiple generations makes the piece more powerful, referencing the past, present and future.”

Attendees will be drawn in by the colorful contrasts of each portrait, with splashes of color popping off the wall.

“The colors behind each portrait are digital samples from the pictures I took on Indian Community School land. So, the land is actually a part of each portrait,” Says Miyazaki. “We may commonly think of photographs of Native Americans as being in black and white, and in historical terms. The color and contemporary look of these photographs was important in my approach. Tribal Nations and Native and Indigenous people are very much an important part of our community today.”

Beyond the striking visuals, Miyazaki hopes attendees take a moment to read the land and water acknowledgment and reflect and understand Milwaukee’s past and present. 

“In addition to viewing the portraits, I hope visitors read the land and water acknowledgment integrated into the installation. It was written by Indian Community School but also refers to the land that the Baird Center sits on and to the broader Milwaukee area. It’s my hope that it will push people to think about the true history of the land where they are standing and both the past and current existence of local Tribal Nations.” 

We acknowledge in Milwaukee that we are on traditional Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk and Menominee homeland along the southwest shores of Michigami, North America’s largest system of freshwater lakes, where the Milwaukee, Menominee and Kinnickinnic rivers meet and the people of Wisconsin’s sovereign Anishinaabe, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Oneida and Mohican nations remain present. Whether you’re a resident or a visitor, we encourage you to learn about and celebrate the history and culture of Milwaukee’s tribal communities here.



"Lady Paper Doll"

By Reginald Baylor

Artist, designer, truck driver, and visionary behind “Lady Paper Doll,” Reginald Baylor is a Milwaukeean of many talents. The colorful, backlit image of a woman playing an accordion boombox greeting attendees outside of room N107A on Baird Center’s first floor and her companion, “Mister Paper Doll,” is part of a 15+ year Paper Doll series.


“The Paper Doll series originated in 2008 with a Marilyn Monroe-inspired picture in which I wanted to do an African American version,” says Baylor, “So I turned her into a paper doll. From that point on, the paper dolls have gone into a total of eight characters.”

“Lady Paper Doll” represents the communities of Milwaukee and Wisconsin, inviting attendees to experience the destination with cleverly tucked away icons signifying things like Wisconsin’s state animal, the Badger, the Bronze Fonz’s signature thumbs up, and Milwaukee’s claim as the birthplace of the QWERTY keyboard.

“The icon part of Mister and Lady was probably the most fun part of the process,” says Baylor. Choosing the icons was really between myself and Melissa Courtney, who’s the creative director. It was, I think, an enjoyable project because we’re both from Milwaukee, and there are so many icons or iconography based on really just personal experiences, but also shared experiences that most people in Milwaukee can talk about.”

An important aspect for the Reginald Baylor Studios team was making locals and attendees feel welcome and free to enjoy themselves. “The city is an entertaining city. So, the entertainment aspect was the most important experience of it. The arts are a part of an experience inside a space, and that experience tells a story about why that space is there. It engages the community.”

Why a paper doll, you ask? Baylor says, “It’s a great way to continue to tell the story about race, culture, gender, socioeconomics—everything—by how you dress a doll.”

There’s “a special relationship of how inclusive and how diverse and how talented this city really is,” concludes Baylor, “So we hold that very near, and we try and put that out in the work.”



By Tommy Sweeney


For artist Tommy Sweeney, the installation of “Always” is a homecoming of sorts. Born in Milwaukee, Tommy Sweeney grew up in northern Minnesota. For the past 30+ years, Tommy and his wife Ann have lived 73 miles west in Madison. With art already in The Trade Hotel, a Marriott Autograph property, Sweeny has already made a mark on Milwaukee. Now, with the addition of “Always,” he continues to tell the story of the city and the state.


The stories-high mural along the Baird Center grand staircase spotlights the wonderful texture of Milwaukee and Wisconsin using thousands of images Tommy has taken over the past four decades. The mural mixes perspectives and timelines, featuring shades of the city’s history. 


“This allows me to show familiar elements in a new context and to address the past while looking forward. I’ll often capture a subject from the street or water level and from a helicopter, so the image looks up and down at the same time.”

The mural shifts perspectives between Milwaukee’s industrial ties, business and agricultural roots, civic engagement and educational institutions before arriving at the abstract concept: expansive joy.

“I’m a maximalist, so there’s a crazy amount of detail in there. I want repeat viewers to discover new things in the image for years to come.”