Having lived in Europe for ten years, one of the things that strikes me about how different things are there is that it makes just as much sense for an artist to thrive in Glasgow, Antwerp, or Turin as in London, Paris, or Berlin. Here in the States, that’s much harder. Outside a few cities like New York and Los Angeles, it becomes much harder to sustain an active, self-supporting, and above all non-provincial (in attitude) art scene. Even Chicago, which I’ve been visiting periodically since1989, has a hard time keeping it up. I always remember a conversation I had with a young artist there a while back, who told me, “Yeah, I’ve been living in Chicago for seven years and I’ve already seen three different art scenes come and go.” All the more surprising, then, for me to discover a thriving art scene in Milwaukee. I was interested, in a recent interview I did with Chicago-based artist and teacher Michelle Grabner, that she explicitly rated Milwaukee a more fertile place for art than the Windy City. “I… prefer the social and cultural landscape of Milwaukee,” she told me, because there, creative energy is not “wasted on promoting and reinforcing outdated cultural hierarchies or on criteria of success adapted from New York.”
The problem with a small scene, though, is that by definition its ecology has fewer support structures—meaning that each one is more crucial. The building at 631 E. Center Street was one of those crucial structures, housing sixteen art studios and five galleries including a branch of the Green Gallery, an important link between the city and the international art circuit. Also in the building with the Green Gallery’s storage space. In other words, the fire at this building has meant not only of the destruction of a great deal of art, and an immense disruption in the lives of many artists and gallerists, but a substantial hit to the infrastructure on which the whole art community of the city depends. The loss is incalculable. And if a way is not found to make good this loss and quickly—in other words, to enable the artists and galleries to get working again as soon as possible—one of the country’s most vital art scenes could be dispersed for a generation, maybe forever.
I own and run a commercial contemporary art gallery in Chicago – Western Exhibitions – and I come to Milwaukee often – at least once a month. When I visit, prime among my destinations (INOVA, The Green Gallery East, Milwaukee Art Museum, The Haggerty, Lakefront Brewery) is the 631 E. Center Building. I remember first going to this vibrant arts incubator back in the early 2000’s for a reading by Nicholas Frank at the Jody Monroe Gallery. In recent times, I go primarily to see what’s going on The Green Gallery’s more experimental location – The Green Gallery West – but have always been delighted by discoveries in the building. New galleries and experimental spaces were popping up every time I visited and several Milwaukee artists had studios there; the entire building was rife with artistic energy.
Last year when I was up to see Deb Sokolow’s show at The Green Gallery West, I visited John Riepenhoff’s studio and was blown away by his sculptures – one-‐to-‐one facsimiles of John’s legs, wearing his own jeans, underwear and shoes, with devices imbedded to hold large-‐scale paintings – human easels if you will. John had an critically and commercially successful show at my gallery in December of 2011 with these sculptures (holding his friends’ paintings, several Milwaukee and Milwaukee-‐affiliated artists: Nicholas Frank, Scott Reeder, Tyson Reeder, Michelle Grabner, Richard Galling, Peter Barrickman and Richard Galling) and we parlayed this success into showing this work in a solo-‐artist booth at the NADA NY art fair in the spring of 2012. John’s work was mentioned in the New York Times and Art Info’s coverage of the fair.
Thus my visit to the 631 E. Center directly led to several Milwaukee artists’ work to be discussed (and sold) in Chicago and New York. Spaces like 631 E. Center are integral to a vital art scene. Artists need flexible and affordable spaces to create. And artists need a community hub to discuss and disseminate ideas. 631 E. Center provided both these things and much, much more. Obviously, it’s tragic for the individual artists and spaces to lose their art works, their belongings and their studios/apartments. It’s also giant loss for the artistic community of Milwaukee. 631 E. Center was a destination for not just locals, but also for art world types (like me) coming to Milwaukee looking for interesting artists and ideas. This building will be greatly missed.
Scott Speh (Owner, director of Western Exhibitions, Chicago)
I’ve followed with great interest the program of The Green Gallery for quite some time. It’s as a patron of their gallery that I first visited the Center Street building that recently burned down. I was immediately struck by the vitality of the community housed within it, a microcosm of the impressive art community that Milwaukee has managed to cultivate. As a resident of Chicago, I was always a bit jealous. Achieving the kind of cohesion that a building like this engenders is a remarkable feat that we haven’t replicated here yet. Hopefully the destruction of the physical building isn’t allowed to do lasting harm to the important artistic community housed there.
Forrest Nash (Chicago)
This letter to express our support for and appreciation of The Green Gallery West and, more generally, the art complex once located at 631 E, Center Street in Milwaukee. Our gallery collaborated with The Green Gallery on a project in the Winter of 2012; this project was once of the most rewarding of our nearly 20 year history of cultural exchange between Japan and artists and institutions from abroad. The genuine enthusiasm expressed by all associated with The Green Gallery as well as the audience which was comprised of both art professionals and more general members – created an environment which fostered communication between the local community, visiting Japanese artists and, via coverage in the media after-the-fact, an international community. The loss of the 631 E. Center Street space is felt by us all; I hope that there may be some form of financial support provided for the rebuilding of this vital building.
Ian Rosen (Director, Taka lshii Gallery, Tokyo)
I had heard about the Green Gallery in 2009 and then had the opportunity to visit a year later. To my great surprise, the gallery and the surrounding community far exceeded my expectations. During my first short visit, I was treated to a whirlwind experience that extended outside of the traditional social exchanges associated with gallery exhibitions and reinvigorated my love of American regionalism. I knew, after I left, that what was occurring in Milwaukee could only happen in Milwaukee. I was so thoroughly impressed by the amount of positive supportive energy, that I came back for a second visit. 631 E. Center Street was the hub and after repeat visits to this building, the importance of the building became clear not only to me but also the the rotating cast of international heavy weight artists who excitedly signed on to participate. The loss of this space is a huge blow to this vibrant community and I can't express how important it is to the city of Milwaukee to support its revitalization.
Margaret Lee (artist/47 Canal, NY)
As someone whose exhibition in the Green Gallery West was suddenly terminated by the fire on July 17th I was devastated to hear that such a vital gallery, work place and networking center for the arts and artists in Milwaukee was no more. The Green Gallery curators have worked hard for a number of years to nourish the arts in Milwaukee and although buildings come and go what was lost with this fire was something much more intangible. The outpouring of support from the community indicates to me the pivotal role that this place played within the larger art and cultural scene in Milwaukee. Lets hope something even more enduring can be built from the ashes of Green Gallery West.
Stephen Perkins, PhD
(Senior Academic Curator of Art, Lawton Gallery
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay)
The Green Gallery and the creative community at 631 E. Center Street in Milwaukee is an extraordinary and unique cultural phenomenon. I have rarely encountered such a concentration of so many talented, independent and spirited minds working together to foster artistic progression as well as effectively contributing to the local economy. The community there has intelligently functioned through intuitive inclusion as a model for building an unequivocal dialogue that ripples not only locally but internationally as well. They have developed a unique Milwaukee voice for the global artistic community that has been heard and needs to continue. As an artist based in New York, I can attest to the influence that The Green Gallery and their acolytes have had on the cultural centers of artistic production. As an exhibiting artist who has worked directly with The Green Gallery and their peers in Milwaukee, I can say emphatically that I regard this community with utter respect and optimism, unparalleled by other experiences. I can only hope that they are allowed to continue the invaluable work they are doing to the benefit of all near and far.
Anicka Yi (artist, NY)
Milwaukee experienced an enormous tragedy on July 17 with the Center Street building fire. The building was an epicenter of creativity in the region and housed many talented Milwaukee artists and culturally important exhibition spaces. Most of the artists were recent college graduates who chose to stay in Milwaukee to pursue their emerging art practices. These artists and art venues were transforming the Riverwest neighborhood with the do-it-yourself approach to art making and proactively engaging the larger Milwaukee community. I am completely saddened by the loss and am prepared to help in anyway to revive this important creative community.
Jason S. Yi (Milwaukee)
I am writing to express how much of a loss the shared art’s space at 631 E. Center Street in Milwaukee is to our community and the reverberations this space has had as an arts hub and cultural incubator in our city. The recent fire there has consequences that will impact hundreds of people’s lives and provide a large void in our community.
After moving to Milwaukee I had an artists’ studio there for two and half years. At the time the space already housed Jody Monroe Gallery and studio spaces for several artists. Over the following decade it would host space for several galleries and studios. The work exhibited and artists studios found there would prove have an incredibly far-reaching influence not only in Milwaukee but also around the country.
Ultimately the galleries there, among them The Green Gallery, American Fantasy Classics, CENTER, and host of smaller spaces would exhibit work from not only local artists, but exhibitions, performances, fund raisers, and a variety of events for national and international artists. These events would have hundreds of people in attendance and over the years lead to creating a nexus of talent and cultural production that will certainly be acknowledged as part of the cultural life and history of Milwaukee.
Certainly it is an irreplaceable loss, but thankfully many people have already been coming together to provide material and financial support for this vibrant group of artists and galleries which will be much needed in these coming months.
Santiago Cucullu (artist, Milwaukee)