by Judith Ann Moriarty
Does Riverwest really need yet another bar? How about one with a view of a magnificent church? One where you can dine delicious a few doors east at the West Bank Cafe? One featuring plenty of parking? A snuggery high on artful attitude and low on pickled pigs’ feet? New on the block at 722 East Burleigh St. is the Art Bar. I dropped in on a Monday night with art snipe Jimmy Von Milwaukee to see if the pre grand-opening hype (April 4 is the biggie) was, well, just the usual din of spin. Bartender Billy Harlow, a smiling neighborhood resident, poured us 4 to 7 p.m. two-fers to help us settle in at the generous bar where we elbow-rested on a surface of recycled sea glass embedded in epoxy. Industrial chic? Lots of it. Recycled luxe, definitely. And everywhere — art. In the near distance, a snug lounge with a paint-by-number installation. Come see Jesus meditating near galloping horses, swirling seascapes, and rosy ballerinas. Walls hung with figurative works by painter Emma Boyle. A funky German Expressionist painting, perhaps inspired by Max Beckman. Glistening lug nut/paper clip centerpieces on cozy tables illuminated by original lighting from the ’40s and ’50s. Nothing matches here in an ambience best described as the opposite of Martha Stewart’s bling bling. Only a mad interior designer could have pulled this one off. Well, actually, in another life, owner Don Krause reigned as an interior designer for Ethan Allen furniture. He bought the building on Burleigh two years ago, re-thought the space, and brought it to be with sweat and talent. A 15-year Riverwest resident, these days the 43-year-old has retired from the designer life. Well, almost. “Doing this is liberating, scary — every kind of emotion imaginable,” Krause says as he orders something with a twist of lemon. Something refreshing, like the background music which allows us to have an actual conversation without the aid of a Miracle Ear. The bar’s 2,000 square feet is divided into four quadrants: rectangular bar, intimate lounge, a welcoming section at the entry with seating for 24 near Krause’s Barbie Doll collection, plus an area for live entertainment in the window bay. Adjacent to that, the pool room/smoking section is punctuated with sculptured animal masks by the master of mache, a Wolfe named Jeremy. Most of the art is for sale (Krause takes only a 10% cut), and believe it or not, they’ve already sold a few. Tabletops are fashioned from yard sticks, airport carpeting cut and positioned in random patterns, columns studded with vintage soda bottle caps copped from e-bay. The paint-by-number paintings, Krause says, came from The Paint-By-Number Society. They’re glued to the wall and beg the question, “what is art?” I ask him, well, what is it? Without exactly answering the query, he tells me that “artists see the world around them and try to bring it to light — that’s what I’m trying to do here.” That aside, he adds that most of the artists he exhibits “never got a break,” so consequently he’s high on artists of the starving kind. This ‘hood has plenty of those, but he’s also accepting art from all over Wisconsin. The conversation moves to the possibility of Riverwest sponsoring its own gallery night, because, frankly, they want to be more than a dot and an arrow on a Third Ward map. Art Bar already has a clutch of yellow flags flapping out front. Could they be the catalyst for more? “When we had the neighborhood meeting about this place,” Krause recalls, “I made it clear to neighborhood folks that they need to support us in order to make it work.” He certainly doesn’t want to be the latest in the list of ten businesses that have folded at 722 over the years. In the meantime Krause, a non-smoker, is waiting for a ’40s “Corvette” cigarette machine to arrive so patrons seeking fun can layer their buzzes in style in the pool-room. Bringing “soul back to the street” come summer is also in the works. Imagine being seated on the south facing sidewalk under a Riverwest moon illuminating the church across the way. The April 4 grand opening salvo will benefit the Riverwest Artists Association, so find a fiver and be there. Monday night is the local scene with micro beer and hanging out. Tuesdays, live music ($2 cover). Wednesdays? Womyn’s night, but not the kind where ladies get juiced and then the guys arrive. Thursdays get Gay (Boys Will Be Boys) with ‘tini specials; Fridays feature resident DJ John Allen. Saturdays rachet the action up a notch with guest DJs. Save Sundays for Bloody Marys, wine, and open-canvas night. Go ahead and check it out. They’re open for biz every night of the week; closing time is mid-night Sunday through Thursday, and 2:30 weekends. Find out more at www.artbar-riverwest.com. See you in the flesh on April 4.