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New Money for Milwaukee Visual Artists

Big funding changes have infused the city with vitality

Dec. 11, 2013
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The visual arts in Milwaukee are changing dramatically. In 2012, the Milwaukee Art Museum was the juggernaut. With 400,000 annual visitors, total assets of $129 million and operating expenses of more than $15 million, every other entity was puny in comparison. Public art was on the decline, with both the Wisconsin Arts Board and Milwaukee County Public Art Committee defunding their percent for art programs—programs that allocated between .5 and 2% of construction costs for certain government projects to art. Galleries were limping along. The sole source for individual artist fellowships was the Mary L. Nohl Fund, annually awarding three established artists $15,000 and four emerging artists $5,000.

Looking toward 2014, the picture is very different. The Milwaukee Art Museum remains a vital force with an international reputation, but major funding is now coming into Milwaukee from national sources for “placemaking,” partially due to leadership from the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC). Local funders are following suit. 

What is placemaking? The term originated in the 1960s when public spaces were destroyed to build freeways and malls. It has been resurrected in response to the foreclosure crisis and typically encompasses multiple partners using art to transform a neglected site. 

ART Milwaukee is the placemaking organizer for “TypeFace.” Described by local artists Reginald Baylor and Adam Carr as temporary public installations “driven by community conversation,” “TypeFace” was mounted in November at four locations in Milwaukee. A $50,000 national Joyce Award grew to $115,000 with additional support from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the Helen Bader Foundation, the Zilber Family Foundation, the Wisconsin Arts Board and the City of Milwaukee Neighborhood Improvement Development Corporation.

The GMC helped ART Milwaukee secure a $350,000 ArtPlace America grant for 2014 placemaking projects at West Wisconsin Avenue and Harambee neighborhood, titled “Creational Trails.”

The Milwaukee RiverWalk District is advancing a huge public art initiative that could cost upwards of a million dollars with the theme of water. Mary Miss, the internationally recognized artist who developed the Third Ward RiverWalk concept, is onboard as lead designer. The RiverWalk, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and City of Milwaukee Department of Public Works have all committed funds for the $60,000 planning phase. Other Business Improvement Districts are developing less ambitious projects.

Multiple city departments are not only providing money for art in public spaces, they are developing their own projects. The city allocates $25,000 to the Milwaukee Arts Board Subcommittee on Public Art every year. $15,000 is set aside for new work and $10,000 to conserve public art. These matching funds accomplish a lot with very little.

Will all this activity inspire the county and state to resuscitate their percent for art programs? One positive sign is that the Milwaukee County Federated Library System is paying local artists for public art when it replaces buildings. Art was installed inside Villard Square Library and is in process for East Library.

Collaboration, a mainstay for public art and placemaking, is budding between the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network (MARN) and Creative Alliance Milwaukee (CAM), two organizations that promote visual artists. Under new leadership, both relocated to the Third Ward Marshall Building in 2013 to save money. In 2014 CAM will reach out to the business community to identify art opportunities and MARN will secure artists to fill them. “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them,’” says CAM Executive Director Maggie Kuhn Jacobus. “Only an attitude of ‘we’ will yield the results we want.”

The Nohl Fellowships are no longer the only local option. MARN started a Micro-Fellowship Program this year and distributed $25,000 to member artists. President Pamela Anderson anticipates this amount will steadily increase.

A rising star is the Lynden Sculpture Garden. Under Executive Director Polly Morris, around $50,000 is budgeted every year for solo and small group exhibits, temporary installations and artist residencies.

Galleries have stabilized since the economy crashed in 2008 and might be starting to thrive. Brenner Brewing Company will open a 25,000-square-foot arts incubator in Walker’s Point in 2014 with studios for 20 artists and a gallery. This fall, local artists Bradley Biancardi, Keith Nelson and Shane Walsh converted a Bay View garage into Usable Space gallery for exhibitions and projects.

The Portrait Society Gallery in the Third Ward expanded. In August, East Town’s David Barnett Gallery took advantage of people buying art sitting at their computers and became one of the first 150 galleries at AmazonFineArt.com. 

Portrait Society’s Debra Brehmer says, “The times are changing. It seems like the larger structural change is a move from individuals doing things to collective, shared endeavors. It follows the more open-ended, connected Internet model.”


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