Goes at Bucketworks
A clubhouse for Milwaukee artists
By Nik Kovac
In last week’s
issue, we noted that artist “clubhouses” are sprouting
across the nation. Ann Markusen, author of The Artistic
Dividend: The Arts’ Hidden Contribution to Regional
Development, explored the possibility that a vibrant
art scene could determine a city’s economic health.
About a dozen genre-specific clubhouses help infuse
life into Minneapolis’ progressive art movement, and
now Milwaukee is developing a clubhouse scene of its
Unlike its clubhouse counterparts in other cities, Milwaukee’s
Bucketworks (1319 N. Martin Luther King Drive) doesn’t
play to just one genre. “It’s about creativity in any
human endeavor,” explained executive director James
Carlson, 29, dropped out of Port Washington High School
more than a decade ago before moving on to a successful
career in the ’90s booming high-tech industry. Despite
traveling to both coasts, however, he returned to Milwaukee
and tried to discover his own creative side. Now he’s
hoping to help the whole town do the same thing.
The anecdotal evidence so far indicates that his non-profit
artists’ group is starting to achieve its goals. Mike
Hanlon from Alamo Basement, an improv theater group,
describes Bucketworks as “our entrance to Milwaukee.”
They came from Sheboygan and have been using the former
paper warehouse as their main performance space ever
“Since working at Bucketworks, I’ve seen more groups
popping up,” he observed. “I can actually feel a scene
growing now.” Hanlon is eager to work with all of these
newfound collaborators, but does acknowledge one inconvenient
scheduling change at the clubhouse: “Their event calendar
fills up a lot quicker now.”
Alicia Boll, a photography student at UW-Milwaukee,
helps Bucketworks by taking documentary photos at their
expanding roster of events. She also calls the cavernous
first floor of the old Mandel building “a sort of refuge
from the rest of my life.” That refuge has been increasingly
crowded lately. She described the place as “a networking
dream,” broadening her perspective “of what constitutes
art and creativity and those who produce it.”
That kind of talk is exactly what Carlson hopes to hear.
“If people do the art,” he explained, “then they’ll
understand more of what the professionals are doing.”
Contrasting his space’s approach with other kinds of
artistic venues currently spreading across neighborhoods
such as Riverwest and the Third Ward, he observed, “A
gallery is not as inviting to production.”
Carlson doesn’t just want artists to network with each
other. He wants them to network with everybody else
through art. Looking around at the art supplies, the
stages and the high-speed Internet connections, he described
it all as “general infrastructure for creative entrepreneurs.”
Ideally, art students like Boll will drop by for inspiration,
along with, say, “a field employee for a multinational
with no local office.”
The clubhouse’s obvious passion for the artist in all
of us—as opposed to just the artists amongst us—has
already attracted some unusual collaborators, and the
redone interior should lengthen that list.
Tina Owen, a teacher at Washington High School, will
start an MPS charter school in the fall. If she can
secure the rehabilitation funding, Owen will move the
Alliance School directly above Bucketworks. The building’s
landlord, New Land Enterprises, has promised to match
up to $500,000 in donations for the school, which will
have about 100 students who have been bullied at other
MPS schools—everyone from punk to Goth to gay.
“Bucketworks has brought a lot out of me,” Owen said.
“It has taught me to try new things, and to be free
with it.” She hopes its proximity will have a similar
positive impact on her new students.
To this unique mix of computer experts, performers,
artists and schoolteachers, add a lawyer. Larraine McNamara-McGraw,
a former city alderwoman, recently moved her legal office
the Right-Brain Drain
Bucketworks is not the only artistic group hoping to
increase creativity within the city. The Milwaukee Artist
Resource Network (MARN) has been hosting online groups
and organizing events since early 2001. “The main goal
was to keep people here,” said Executive Director Melissa
MARN President Mike Brenner had personal goals in mind
as well. “I wanted to get all my friends back,” he recalled.
Indeed, the facilitated networking MARN provided did
convince several of his musician buddies to move back,
including his roommate.
Given Milwaukee’s industrial past and its current below-average
artistic percentages, it might seem that Bucketworks
and MARN are swimming upstream. But Markusen counsels
optimism. “Just because you have lots of blue collars
left, doesn’t mean you’re less artistic,” she said.
And that artistic side could be key to Milwaukee’s future.
The city’s industrial base hasn’t completely disappeared,
but the ongoing trends of factory automation and outsourcing
seem to ensure its continued erosion. In the years ahead
it will probably take more than a strong back to stay
employed. Whether or not Milwaukee creates new businesses
and new jobs may well depend on the success of our artists.
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