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Off the Beaten Path

Milwaukee’s small galleries

Jul. 23, 2008
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   When Mike Brenner threatened last winter to close Hotcakes Gallery and leave town if funds were raised to erect a bronze statue of The Fonz, a lot of people accused him of being whiny, or worse. But at the heart of his complaint was the fact that, despite easily raising $85,000 for the Bronze Fonz, people just aren’t walking into local galleries and purchasing art, which makes it hard for those galleries to stay in business.

  Milwaukee loves art, though, right? Gallery Night is heavily attended, so much so that it’s sometimes hard to actually enjoy the art on the walls through the cheese-nibbling crowds. But galleries, particularly those showing emerging artists, come and go. Gene Evans, who runs Luckystar Studio along with his wife, Bridget Griffith Evans, estimates that more than 30 galleries have opened and closed in Milwaukee since 2001.

  Evans lists a variety of reasons for this, but puts most of it down to business failure. “Brooks [Barrow] was here right before he shut down, and I don’t think he sold five paintings,” Evans says. “It’s hard to keep going when you’re not making any money.”

  It’s also hard to attract artists to Milwaukee when they can’t sell any work. “A lot of those artists we used to show won’t show here anymore,” Evans says. “I think nationally it’s just known that this isn’t a buying town.”

A Labor of Love

  That reputation is a problem for Milwaukee; without buyers or charitable funding to maintain a wealth of emerging, exciting artists, the city risks some degree of isolation and cultural poverty. Emerging artists don’t typically find wall space in the established Third Ward galleries or the MilwaukeeArt Museum; they show up in the smaller galleries, off the beaten path. Without those spaces, we lose out.

  It’s not necessarily all doom and gloom, though. There are always new people willing to give it a go. The Armoury Gallery in Brewers Hill is one such place. Owners Cassandra Smith and Jessica Steeber are functioning artists who both work full-time day jobs and run the gallery on the side. Thanks to their smarts and organization, their published schedule of local and national artists is full into next year. But it’s a labor of love; they don’t really expect to make money.

  “I think we’ve been successful at getting people excited about what we’re doing,” Smith says. “Our opening was huge; we had a ton of people here. But we didn’t sell anything. At this point we have to decide what’s more important: making money or getting people excited. For us, it’s getting people excited.”

  Faythe Levine and Kim Kisiolek, co-owners of Paper Boat Gallery & Boutique in Bay View, also supplement their business. “We still both work full-time jobs outside of Paper Boat, but have managed to delicately balance our work schedules while building our reputation and clientele to fulfill our commitment to ourselves and the local art community,” Levine says.

  Paper Boat has another source of revenue, too: the boutique. “The retail side of Paper Boat is what literally keeps it afloat,” Levine says. “However, we do tend to always sell work from each art show. My hope is that Milwaukee starts to realize we are showing some of the most influential emerging artists from around the country and they have an opportunity to see the work firsthand and possibly make a reasonably priced purchase.”

  Part of that hope lies in the efforts these galleries are making to bring attention to their spaces and artists. Starting with the July Gallery Night, a handful of these galleries have banded together to create awareness and offer an alternative map, hoping to direct people off the beaten path to their spaces. Called the Milwaukee Independent Gallery Association (MIGA), the effort is spearheaded by Smith and Steeber, and includes nine galleries at present: Armoury Gallery, Borg Ward, Fasten Collective, Green Gallery, JW Lawson Fine Art, White Whale Collective, Spackle Gallery, the Portrait Society, and Paper Boat.

Not Just Milwaukee

  It’s easy to blame Milwaukee for the struggles these bright and edgy galleries face. In reality, though, Milwaukee’s not alone.

  “Every other gallery about the same size that we’ve talked to in any other city, it’s the same thing,” Evans says.

  Brenner agrees: “There are certainly a handful of cities where an art gallery has a better chance of surviving, but nationwide it seems that art galleries are either a tax write-off, an expensive hobby or run by the independently wealthy.”

  With that in mind, maybe there’s hope for Milwaukee. After all, a fresh crop of people keep bringing emerging artists to town and putting their all into these galleries. But we do risk losing them if we can’t figure out how to support these spaces.

  “It would be fun to give Milwaukee a chance,” Smith says. “I think it deserves it. I don’t want to be just another person who was doing really awesome things and then left Milwaukee.”

  As for Brenner, he says he’ll never open another gallery. “Even if some rich uncle I didn't know about died and left me a huge pot of money, I couldn't take anymore of the heartbreak of sitting in my gallery day after day waiting for people to show up,” he says.

Check out the MIGA Gallery Night map and events at migaonline.com.


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