A&E Feature


Everything 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 own.
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.

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.

“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.”

Arts Incubator
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 into Bucketworks.

Reversing 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 Dorn Richards.

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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