In 1915, nine members of the Green Bay Art Club held a one-week exhibit of rare and historically significant objects from the Green Bay and De Pere area. The exhibit, held in the basement of the local library, was so popular that the Club decided a permanent museum was what the community needed. In December 1915, the Art Club incorporated as the Board of the new Green Bay Public Museum, which had been granted use of the Assembly Room in the Library. The museum thrived, soon filling several rooms. With the mission of “bringing the world” (defined as art, history and science) to Green Bay, the collections consisted not only of significant local artifacts, but also of the strange and eclectic from around the world.
By 1923, the Library had run out of available space and informed the museum that it was time to relocate to their own building. In November 1925, Mr. and Mrs. George Mason of New York City offered a donation of $60,000 to build a museum building providing that: 1) the City of Green Bay give sufficient means for the museum’s proper maintenance, and 2) the name be changed to the Neville Public Museum as “a memorial to Mr. and Mrs. Neville’s work towards civic betterment in Green Bay…” (Mrs. Mason was Mrs. Neville’s daughter). The City agreed, accepted the gift, and the new Neville Public Museum opened to the public on July 23, 1927.
Neville Public Museum Foundation
The non-profit 501c(3) organization, now known as the Neville Public Museum Foundation (formerly called the Neville Public Museum Corporation), owned the collection and managed the museum, with one city councilman sitting on the Museum Board. The City paid all operating expenses, including salaries, so the employees were all city employees. The museum’s open collections policy was not officially changed until a new museum mission statement was adopted in 1986, which then narrowed the Neville’s focus to the region of Northeast Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
In 1962, the City approached Brown County with a request that the County assume half of the financial responsibility of the museum, based on the reasoning that half of the visitors were County residents living outside of the City. The County agreed. At that point, the City and the County were both providing operating costs and each had one representative on the Foundation Board. Now, the Foundation owned the collections and managed the museum; the employees were city employees; the City owned the building and paid half of its support; and the County paid the remaining half of the expenses.
Although expansion plans were originally drawn up in the 1950s, it was not until the 1970s—when collection storage and other space requirements became critical—that serious efforts were made toward expansion. Feasibility studies were conducted, the Board was strengthened by adding influential members, membership was opened to everyone (prior to this time, membership was by invitation), and a campaign was conducted to convince taxpayers that a new museum building was needed.
In 1980, a County-wide referendum was passed with a 66% plurality in favor of building a new museum. Paid for by the City, the County and the Foundation, it opened to the public on April 9, 1983. With the new building came new management arrangements. The County took over fiscal and operational responsibility, as well as ownership of the building and collections. The City bowed out entirely, and the Foundation agreed to continue to raise funds for future exhibits and programs. The strong public/private partnership between the County and the NPM Foundation continues to date. Each year the Foundation directly contributes to the museum’s budget approximately $100,000 in support of the exhibits and programs, sometimes considerably more depending on the make-up of the exhibit schedule for a given year.
A newly formed Governing Board, which reports to the County Board Supervisors’ Education and Recreation Committee, was established in 1986 to ensure that the museum is well managed and appropriately funded.
In 2004, for the first time in the museum’s 89 year history, the museum began to charge admission fees in order to ensure the continued financial stability of the institution. The museum expanded its hours, installed a new sign, and added more sculptures to the property. It created new program spaces, called the "Discovery Room" and "Studio 210: Working Regional Artists."
The museum continues to explore and develop new programming, such as the International Film Series, Natural History Lecture Series, and Explorer Saturdays.