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Layton School of Art, Riverwest, and the Changing Face of Milwaukee

Mark Lawson

For many years Riverwest has had the reputation of being a neighborhood where many artists live and work. Why, out of all the many neighborhoods in the city, has Riverwest held an attraction for artists? How did such a large number of artists come to live and work in Riverwest? In the 1960’s both of the art schools in Milwaukee were on the East Side. The Layton School of Art was on Prospect and Ogden in a beautiful Bauhaus styled building cantilevered out over the bluff over looking Lake Michigan. The University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee was growing very quickly, expanding beyond the old Downer College campus boundaries. Many students, instructors, and graduates of the two schools lived on the East Side where the housing was inexpensive and the counter culture was in full bloom with shops, coffee houses, and other amenities along Brady and other commercial strips. In 1969, the Layton School of Art’s building on Prospect was demolished for a freeway that was opposed by the vast majority of residents and never built. The school relocated to a building on Port Washington Road in Glendale, where it folded in 1974. MIAD was founded in the Third Ward that same year by faculty from the Layton School of Art. The art community that had lived on the lower East Side began to disappear. Over the years, the East Side has become a much more expensive place to live. Both residential and commercial space became more difficult for artists to afford. During the 1960’s, Riverwest was a working class neighborhood, with a large Polish population, as well as many other ethnic groups. The factories of Milwaukee, including American Motors right up on Capitol and Holton, were going full tilt. This was the most prosperous time in American history. But the economic industrial base that brought prosperity to the original residents of Riverwest for so long began to falter in the early 70’s. Many of the small businesses, which were on nearly every corner of Riverwest, closed during this period. These small storefronts were ideal locations for artist studios and galleries, many of which relocated from the more expensive East Side. The gentrification of the East Side occurred over a very long period, with the fortunes of specific business districts such as Downer Avenue and Brady Street adding complexity to the process. Riverwest is in many respects a very different neighborhood, but the possibility that artists will once again be priced out is a real possibility. How will the changes now occurring affect artists in the future? How are these new changes any different than some of the challenges of the last twenty years? These are some of the issues that will be addressed in future “Where Art Lives” columns. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 6 – July 2002