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Phoenix Rising: Riepenhoff Rebuilds Green Gallery

Nov. 12, 2012
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Major fires come and go for those untouched by the flames, but they stick in the heads of those directly involved. The July 17 blaze that engulfed the Riverwest building housing Green Gallery West surely stuck in the heads of gallery proprietors John Riepenhoff and Jake Palmert. The event on Center Street would have bowled over most artists. After the fire, I visited their modernist Farwell Avenue Green Gallery East, which held carefully stacked “art orphans” damaged by smoke and water. Palmert was in New York City, so Riepenhoff spoke for the two of them. As cousins, they often think alike.


John, you and Jake had to decide the best way to move forward. Can we have an update?

Many of the artists in the Center Street building have found new studio spaces and are beginning to create new environments to replace the old. Some incarnations of those spaces are taking seed in Riverwest, Brewers Hill and Downtown.


And the “art orphans”?

The work that wasn’t destroyed is currently in a Third Ward arts building. Everything has been assessed, and work that was affected by the fire has been separated from work that survived unharmed. All of it has been carefully evaluated and cleaned.


Work that was lost can’t be replaced, but insurance coverage can help ease the transition to new spaces. Green Gallery has a solid reputation for treating artists with respect. How about the insurance angle?

We’re working on it, but it’s a long process.


Various other artists in the building, though not affiliated with Green Gallery West, also suffered setbacks. How did the event reshape your future?

We’ve mounted several exhibitions since the July fire and participated in Expo Chicago. We’re participating in fairs in Miami and Dallas and staging a show in New York, all in the next six months.


It was a long, hot summer in more ways than one. Eventually, though, everything cools down and the media goes away. Be honest, did you two have any really bad moments?

The worst was the initial shock of hearing the building was being consumed. After all, our friends were living there and had put in so much hard work. Happily, our inventory of over 40 artists was not entirely destroyed.


And out of the ashes?

Community groups, small businesses and institutions came together in a time of crisis. It reminded us that the scope of people who are affected by the art experiments we conduct is larger than what we immediately see. We didn’t realize the scope of who cared about the conceptual art scene in Milwaukee.


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