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Bold Milwaukee

Find cutting-edge art on the perfect day trip.

Can’t make it to northern Spain this weekend? Escape to the next best thing: Milwaukee. It might be a little colder than Bilbao, the home of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim, but in addition to its own iconic museum, Milwaukee boasts a thriving gallery scene; plus it’s only 90 minutes away and you don’t need a car (or a passport) to get there: Amtrak (800-USA-RAIL, amtrak.com) and Megabus (877-GO-2-MEGA, megabus.com) both offer frequent daily service to the Cream City.

Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect designing the Chicago Spire, completed the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2001. The soaring, sunlit space deserves its stellar reputation, but the MAM is worth a visit for its permanent collection alone, which is particularly strong in 20th-century, contemporary, folk and outsider art. The special exhibition “Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918–1945,” which runs through May 4, offers an exciting overview of avant-garde photography by artists including László Moholy-Nagy and Hannah Höch.

You could spend all day poring over the 20,000 works in the MAM collection. Don’t. From the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts on the city’s south side to the hip galleries of north side nabe Riverwest, Milwaukee is crammed with art venues that Chicagoans overlook. (For info about local shows and reviews, read Debra Brehmer and Katherine Murrell’s online mag susceptibletoimages.com.) From MAM, take a 25-minute walk northeast along pleasant Prospect Avenue (or use the 30 Sherman-Wisconsin bus, $2) to Inova, the network of galleries associated with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts. An installation by Chicago artist Deb Sokolow is on view at Inova/Kenilworth (2155 N Prospect Ave, 414-229-5070, www4.uwm.edu/psoa/about/inova.html) along with “Flight of Fake Tears,” a four-person show that includes haunting photographs by SAIC prof Claire Pentecost. (Both are on view through March 14.) Inova’s curator, Nicholas Frank, acknowledges that the galleries often feature Chicago artists, but he’s proud of Milwaukee’s homegrown talent. “Things really started to get interesting ten or 15 years ago, when Chris Smith and Sarah Price, the producers of American Movie, started their own production company here,” he explains, noting that the business attracted many artists. “The people who choose to stay here find Milwaukee cheap, charming, available and responsive to what they’re doing.”

By 2006, there was so much buzz about the city that Frank, gallerists Kiki Anderson and John Riepenhoff, and the art collective the General Store (Tyson Reeder, Scott Reeder and Elysia Borowy-Reeder) were able to stage the Milwaukee International Art Fair(milwaukeeinternational.tk) at the Falcon Bowl, a Polish beer hall/bowling alley. (The fair returns this year May 15 to 17.)

Mike Brenner, the founder of Milwaukee’s edgy four-year-old gallery Hotcakes(3379 N Pierce St, 414-961-7714, hotcakesgallery.com), believes the MAM’s expansion also strengthened the local art community. Back in 2000, the excitement generated by Calatrava’s building—now the city’s logo—helped Brenner found the nonprofit Milwaukee Artist Resource Network (MARN). He considers Milwaukee an ideal place to make art: “The cost of living is so affordable that people can get huge studios. I know someone who is paying $750 a month for a 2,900-square-foot loft space five blocks from what you would consider ‘downtown.’ ” But he admits, “You don’t create art in Milwaukee thinking that being in Milwaukee is going to make your career.” A graduate of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, Brenner founded Hotcakes “with the idea of showing affordable, accessible art” precisely because he saw “a lack of young collectors in the city.”

Sadly, though Brenner sees “more and more infrastructure” to support artists, he plans to close Hotcakes in July, partly because he is frustrated by the city’s decision to spend $85,000 on a bronze sculpture of…the Fonz. But Brenner says he’s sticking around to focus on the MARN—because despite its challenges, Milwaukee’s art scene is a long way from jumping the shark.

If you go
More places to see…

  • The Anthony Petullo Collection of Self-Taught and Outsider Art, 219 N Milwaukee Street, 3rd Floor (414-272-2525, petulloartcollection.org). By appointment only.
  • Brooks Stevens Gallery, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, 273 E Erie St (414-847-3200, miad.edu)
  • The Eisner: American Museum of Advertising and Design, 208 N Water St (414-847-3290, eisnermuseum.org)
  • Gallery 326, 326 N Water St (414-273-7152)
  • Green Gallery, 631 E Center St, #3B (no phone, thegreengallery.tk)
  • Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University, 13th and Clybourn Sts (414-288-1669, mu.edu/haggerty)
  • Luckystar Studio, 5407 W Vliet St (414-257-4640, luckystarstudio.com)
  • Tory Folliard Gallery, 233 N Milwaukee St (414-273-7311, toryfolliard.com)
  • Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, 911 W National Ave (414-672-2787, wpca-milwaukee.org)
  • Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 E Locust St (414-263-5001, woodlandpattern.org)

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