Rephrasing an Old Parable
Casually scanning the feeds of social media outlets, we can find Milwaukee named in a diverse collection of articles containing attractive phrases like “bikeability,” “urban forestry,” “livable,” “local,” and “up-cycling.” Milwaukee has the honor of being one of Buzzfeed’s “14 Most Underrated Cities” and was declared by Salon.com to be the “New Portland.” It is difficult to discern what sources they are drawing from, but even if these click-generating works of cultural reportage are only serving to reflect reader’s opinions back at them, we can still discern a consensus: Milwaukee has been placed among the ranks of our nation’s pantheon of alternative, marginal, small-to-mid-sized cities.
The alternative is understood to refer to that which lies outside of the mainstream, potentially including everything from RC cola and Libertarianism to bringing your own reusable bags to the supermarket. However, history has informed our understanding of this term to indicate something more specific, and while difficult to pinpoint, the concept sits comfortably in our collective conscious. We can find it in the faces of our tattooed and pierced twenty-somethings, at our fair-trade coffee shops, and Whole Foods markets. It is in the hearts and minds of anyone who has ever purchased bulk quinoa or attended an art exhibition in their friend’s basement. The fact that readers are able to understand otherwise nonsensical utterances like “Milwaukee is the New Portland,” is a testament to the embeddedness of the concept in our society.
Nicholas Frank is one of the architects behind a specific narrative of Milwaukee alternativity. In the catalog essay for his 2013 exhibition Milwaukeeists: 1996 to 2006 he maps out a particular moment in the history of the city’s artistic production, creating one of the few existing historicizations of the local art culture. He succeeds in drawing a cohesive narrative between a number of key individuals and institutions, offering a sense of identity and heritage to those that have been influenced by this moment in time.
However, it is left up to the reader to find the limitations of Frank’s narrative. In the essay, he describes a Milwaukeeist as someone who takes a DIY approach to culture-making, initiating various types of exhibition platforms in an attempt to fill the many gaps that exist in a small Midwestern city, while also maintaining a commitment to attracting the attention and validation of larger, outside cultural centers. While this characterization is accurate, it fails to mention that Milwaukeeist producers were heavily based in the Riverwest neighborhood, a mostly white community known for its cooperative-run businesses, fair trade coffee, and low rent. It is Milwaukee’s Pilsen, or Brooklyn. While Frank never claims to represent the totality of Milwaukee’s artistic production during this period, applying the moniker Milwaukeeist is definitely misleading. He marginalizes a huge swath of Milwaukee makers working then and now. The core of Frank’s writing focuses on the more marginal and short-lived projects of the period, concluding by explaining, “’Milwaukeeists’ aims to recognize a moment when efforts coalesced, when—briefly—critical mass was achieved.”
It’s fine, I guess, that he is interested in identifying this movement as a catalytic force in Milwaukee’s art scene. And if he wants to claim that these efforts have influenced the production today, I certainly wouldn’t disagree with him. However, the fact that he chooses to write as a historian, rather than a critic, is perhaps indicative of the lack of connection he feels to the current scene. The institutions he lists in his historical purview are mostly obscure to the city’s newer generations of makers. The ones that are still around, INOVA, Milwaukee Art Museum, UWM Film Department, have a steady stream of funding as their commonality.
This is the point that becomes glossed over in Milwaukeeists and other narratives that serve to support the idea of the alternative city—that financial viability is synonymous with sustainability, and that both are indispensable to a cultural scene that aspires to be more than an art historical footnote. A can-do DIY approach to culture making is necessary in smaller, resource-poor art communities, but what this type of effort neglects is the investment that allows the vitality to carry into the future. In Frank’s model, it is each generation’s responsibility to conjure a vibrant culture out of their forbearer’s ashes, to create another temporary avant-garde. Luckily, from what I can see today, Milwaukee is home to a number of producers who earnestly want to contribute to a longer-term dialogue.
AYZHA Fine Arts, run by Cynthia Henry and Greg Stanford is an exhibition venue and boutique that inhabits the Grand Avenue Mall. Committed to investing value back into the city’s depressed downtown area, the critical and financial success of this space become one in the same. How AYZHA is able to succeed in a failing mall, both as a business and curatorial endeavor, may not be totally apparent on a first or second visit to the space. The venue walks a fine line between galley, boutique, and community center, and these functions sometimes feel as though they are competing. However if you’re lucky enough to frequent the neighborhood, you might have a chance to sample from the space’s broad range of programming, from live-streamed artist interviews, to meetings of local community groups, to play rehearsals, and featured exhibitions.
What AYZHA is not, is the traditional “clean space” of the contemporary art gallery. Works cover most of the wall, and the room is filled comfortable furniture, display easels, and jewelry cases. You will rarely be left alone to contemplate the work, as a casual visit will almost certainly earn you an in-depth tour with the gallerist, or a chance to speak with one of the represented artists. Curious soda-drinking mall-goers will pass through regularly, and the myriad smells of the food court will waft over from across the corridor. As the work covers a wide price range, all visitors to the space are automatically potential buyers, fundamentally altering one’s relationship to the work.
To speculate that this embroilment with the mall environment distracts from experiencing the work would be missing the point. What AYZHA teaches us is that these financial, social, and environmental factors are intricately tied to the production and consumption of art. By establishing a tangible connection to the mall environment, we are offered more than a collection of objects in a room, we get to experience a cultural ecosystem in the process of its own development.
COMB Gallery, run by Khine Hline, is a new venue located in the Walker’s Point neighborhood. Khine uses it as a curatorial platform, to showcase the work of a variety of different artists, as well as performative and installation-based work of her own. By blurring the line between artist and curator, she creates a space of pure production, where self-expression in the central concern. For Hline, the exhibition is a site of revelation for the artist, as well as the viewer, and showing work that might not otherwise get produced creates opportunity for growth, first and foremost. Khine is keenly aware that by breaching the boundaries that define the curatorial role, and self-platforming, she is committing an art-world faux-pas, and she’s fine with that. Her intention is to offer a space for artists to explore aspects of their personal and professional growth. Working beyond the framework of the exhibition, she offers mentorship, critical feedback, and network resources.
Hline and Henry each borrow from the Milwaukeeist tendency to blur lines between traditional modes of production, allowing us to see curators as primary producers, and utilize the exhibition site in more versatile ways. To some extent, these tendencies are part of participating in the culture of a small city, as the available resources and persistent community needs ask for more complex niches than “artist” or “curator,” but at some point there is a distinct difference between this type of cultural producer and a Milwaukeeist. Where the Riverwest makers that Frank discusses were more interested in producing a temporary avant-garde, these new Milwaukeeists have their sights set a number of practical goals. Occupying the space between community organizers, small business owners, and artists, they seek to develop persistent infrastructure that can serve as a stable resource for other community members.
These spaces don’t aspire to alternativity. They serve as primary cultural centers for specific groups of people. The difference may be subtle, but it is important to recognize that by labeling a space as ‘alternative’ we are cashing-in a cultural resource, relegating to the shadow of the mainstream, and sacrificing potential to meaningfully shift the status-quo. By concerning themselves with the politics of their immediate circumstances, and addressing the concerns of their local community, they embed themselves in a dialogue that extends beyond an opening reception, or historicizing framework.