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Why Doesn’t Riverwest Have an Arts Complex?

by Mark Lawson

Riverwest has always been home to artists and galleries. In an earlier column, I related the history of one of our neighborhood’s premier public events, Artwalk. One of the original motivations for staging this event was to establish a positive identity for the neighborhood as an arts district. This identity has stuck with Riverwest for the many years since the first Artwalk in 1979. However, the disappearance of most of the affordable studio space in the neighborhood due to economic development is threatening the neighborhood’s viability as a place where artists can afford to live and work. One possible answer to this ongoing problem would be the development of a large arts complex somewhere in the neighborhood. In the early ’90s, the Riverwest Artists Association (RAA) was involved with the Riverwest Community Development Corp. and developer John Bowles in an attempt to convert the Pulaski Building, which was located where Garden Park now exists on Locust and Bremen Streets, into a live-in studio complex with galleries and other retail shops. RAA was going to administer the day-to-day operations of the complex in exchange for gallery space on the first floor. The project failed, and an historic neighborhood building was lost. Perhaps the time was not right for a complex of that nature in Riverwest. There are several complexes in other Milwaukee neighborhoods that have recently opened their doors to artists. The Hyde House in Bayview and the Kunsselman Esser Lofts on Mitchell Street are two very different developments that have provided much needed residential (the Kunssleman complex), and studio (the Hide House) facilities for artists in Milwaukee. The history of “artist” developments in Milwaukee and in other cities has not been good. The Atlas Tannery here and countless developments in Soho and would-be Sohos across the country have used the hip image of artists to raise the value of their complexes before re-leasing to more upscale tenants. Hopefully, this is not the agenda for the recent developments here in Milwaukee. So why are there no such complexes on the agenda of Riverwest developers? RAA is currently looking for an opportunity similar to the Pulaski Building a decade ago. By developing such a complex in Riverwest, the future viability of the neighborhood for artists can be enhanced in the wake of gentrification. As a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the arts in Riverwest, RAA would not be susceptible to the economic enticements of a private developer. Resident artists and cooperatives (such as film or print making) could have representatives on the board which governs the complex. RAA’s non-profit status would enable the group to raise funds through tax deductible donations. All that’s missing from this very workable projection is the necessary upfront capital to start such an ambitious project. Where are the developers with John Bowles’ courage now? Who among the current major landlords and developers in the neighborhood would have the vision to see how such a development could be profitable, while at the same time enhancing the quality of life in the neighborhood for decades to come? Time will tell. If you would like to be part of such a project in Riverwest, please leave a message for Mark Lawson at the Riverwest Currents office, 265-7278. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 2 – February 2003
by Mark Lawson