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The Importance of Being Brenner
Hothead, hophead and founder of the defunct Hotcakes Gallery, Mike Brenner takes himself quite seriously. Why he might not be wrong.


Photos by Adam Ryan Morris

The self-described agitator, the man who’d raise about a couple million bucks to brew beer, is sitting on an overturned milk crate inside a mostly empty warehouse. A dilapidated, crumpled, musty rubber tarp covers a swath of the dirty concrete floor, while other sections support puddles of standing water. Artistic graffiti murals adorn the walls, and the closest thing to furniture is a cheap, plastic card table – his work desk – and its accompanying metal folding chair. When visitors come, he cedes the chair.

So often in Mike Brenner’s life, this Walker’s Point setting, just north of Fifth and National, might have passed for luxury. Now, sharing a neighborhood with the Milwaukee Ballet, ComedySportz, Milwaukee Brewing Co., Anodyne Coffee Roasters, and a slew of bars and restaurants, it’s the setting for his dream. In an adjoining building next door, he’ll set up artists’ studios and a small gallery, which is dubbed the Pitch Project. In here, shoved up against the graffiti murals, three huge, shiny, stainless steel kettles offer the first and only hints of what’s to come. And right now, in the summer of 2013, it’s a long way from being the Brenner Brewing Co. he envisions.

But he’s well aware of how so many people envision him. “When they meet me,” he begins in a calm, relaxed tone, “they say, ‘I thought you were gonna be an asshole.’ People say it to me on a regular basis. Like, ‘Wow, you’re not an asshole.’ And they’re kinda surprised.”

He knows why. He knows you know him for the crazy stuff. For shaving his head in front of the Milwaukee Art Museum to protest a Chinese exhibit. For threatening to poop in politicians’ yards when they threatened to derail a public art project. He knows you really know him for his vocal opposition to the Bronze Fonz, the seemingly innocent pop culture statue that he believed was far from innocent.

He’d struggled for years to secure funding for highbrow art, so he lashed out at the city’s rush to support something so lowbrow, promising that Milwaukee’s legacy was destined to revolve around the Green Bay Packers, Jeffrey Dahmer and “Happy Days.” “People hated me before that, but that’s when strangers started hating me,” he says. “People were threatening my life over that. Threatening to shiv me.”

To demonstrate, he plays a couple of disgruntled voice mails, disembodied voices that are five years old now, but live on at the website of his now-defunct Hotcakes Gallery, the very place he promised to close if Fonzie got the thumbs-up. “Hey, Mike Brenner. Gay boy. You ever link the Packers and the Fonz to Dahmer again, and you’re gonna end up like Dahmer,” a man’s voice says. “You don’t like Wisconsin, leave. We don’t need you around here. You’re gay.”

Brenner, who, incidentally, is not gay, laughs. “Here’s another good one,” he says, and cues up the message from a guy who says he was considering a visit from Canada when he came across Brenner’s Fonzie comments on the Internet. Now, with utmost Canadian politeness, the caller suggests Brenner yank “the stick out of your butt. I’m not sure I would want to visit your city now.”

This one gets Brenner chuckling, too. “It’s my fault,” he says of his tourism-repellent ways. “Like, really? This is my fault?” As if he can’t believe that he’s considered the crazy one.

The thing about every one of his crazy moves, however, is that there wasn’t an ounce of crazy behind them. They were the calculated actions of a man who’d once tried bettering the city’s arts scene by working within the system, only to become frustrated by it. They were purposely designed to get attention and generate a reaction, just like so much of the artwork he’d displayed at Hotcakes.

And, Brenner insists, they were the tactics of a man trying to elevate his city because he doesn’t want to leave it, even though he’d intimated he would should the Fonz be bronzed. “It’s such a small town, and nobody wants to say anything negative,” he says. “And it’s not like you can sit down with people and be like, ‘Let’s find a better way to do things.’”

So he resorted to bluster: “Unless you shame these people, and you scream and yell, they won’t listen.”

Often, Brenner says, he feeds people’s perceptions by embracing the roles they expect him to play. “People see you how they need to see you,” he explains, “and you become a cartoon character.” He’s even dressed up to reinforce the images, wearing a gnome hat and overalls when brewing beer, or the blue jeans and always-black T-shirt of a brooding artist. And in the Fonzie saga, he saw his role with clarity. “It was like an episode of ‘The Simpsons,’ and you’re just like, ‘Who’s gonna be the crazy cartoon character?’ I guess I’m the crazy clown that acts like an asshole in this episode.”

But five years have passed since the Fonz claimed his pedestal. And in many ways, Brenner sounds like a man who’s grown weary of screaming and yelling, weary of fighting pitched battles against the system, even weary of being known for what he’s so well-known for.

“I’ve been waiting so long for somebody else to come along and be the asshole,” he says. “You grow tired of having people hate you. But if everybody likes you, you know you’re doing it wrong.

“I just would like people to hate me less loudly.”

It’s against this backdrop that he’s opened up a new front in the battle. He’s going to brew beer and use both the product and the profits to support the arts. He’ll put original artwork on the bottles. He’ll promote local musicians on the packaging. He’ll try to be more of a businessman and less of a loudmouth.

It could be quite the transformation. The main reason Brenner could be so flamboyant with his opinions and antics was simple: He didn’t have much to lose. But he just turned 40 in February, and now, things have changed. Now, his family’s name will be on his business, and he has investors to please and bills to pay.

“It’s much smarter for me to not have opinions at this point,” he says, then pauses before a self-assessment. “I’m getting better at it.”

The scene is seared into Brenner’s mind. He is 18 years old. And just outside of his adolescent Shorewood home, he’s climbing into a rusted-out van. The vehicle, should it survive the midwinter trip, will deliver Brenner and his John the Conqueroo bandmates to New Orleans, where all of their star-struck musical fantasies are sure to come true, one street-corner gig at a time.

It certainly beats hanging around in his hometown. Like many of his Shorewood High School friends, the artistically inclined Brenner’s opinion of early-1990s Milwaukee is unequivocal: “This town is a death trap. There’s no creativity. Why would anybody stay here?” And though he’d taken a few University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin classes, he disdained the prospect of more school.

So he’s gung-ho about the next two months in the Big Easy, with its promise of living “like kings” on “50 bucks a day apiece.” He loads his gear and takes one final look back at the front porch. There’s his mother, Annette, holding his sister and clutching his little brother’s hand. “She’s bawling her eyes out,” Brenner says, and he imagines the thoughts running through his mom’s mind. “‘Oh my God, it’s all over. This one’s headed for ruin.’”

It had been a fine enough childhood, and Brenner knew he had things better than most. Although his parents divorced when he was young, the familial bonds remained strong with both his mother and father, and with younger sister Britten and with his grandparents, too. When Annette’s second marriage to Jim Volberding produced two more children, the family ties only tightened. So, no, Brenner wasn’t leaving to get away from home, just from the stagnant city where his home happened to be.

Annette, who had framed toddler Mike’s first finger painting, had never wanted to stand in the way of his creativity. “I just kind of wanted him to be a free spirit,” she says. “I was brought up very strict with a lot of limitations and a lot of fears, and I didn’t want that for my children.”

Still, there was genuine concern behind Annette’s tears on the front porch. She knew some of the band members were heavy drinkers, knew what kind of town New Orleans was, and she worried what this combination might do to her son. But she and husband Jim, the stepfather who’d loved and helped raised her son since Mike was 11, tried to find solace in the other side of the risky proposition.

Their reasoning? “Let’s let him do this and find out how hard it really is,” Annette says. “And hopefully, he’ll hate it.”

The verdict? “It was brutal,” Brenner says.

The van made it to New Orleans, but the Conqueroo didn’t quite conquer. And there was not a thing fantastical about their living conditions.

“Five guys sleeping on the floor in a one-bedroom, roach-infested shithole,” Brenner says. “And no furniture. That’s a weird thing when you realize you haven’t sat in a chair in a month. We used to joke that if we could’ve afforded knives, we would’ve slashed our wrists.”

So maybe more schooling wouldn’t be so bad after all. And even though he’d play guitar and accordion in the band a couple more years, and even though he still had plenty of fun doing Summerfest gigs and some touring, he eventually came to be bored with it.

After New Orleans, his next higher education try was another brief, unproductive stint, this time at Colorado State University. His first successful run through college finally started in 1996, the result of Annette and Jim bribing him. If he’d study graphic design at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, they’d pay his tuition. If he insisted on studying fine arts at MIAD, he was on his own.

Brenner played along, planning to really focus his efforts on photography while using the design degree as cover. But it turned out he enjoyed wielding the power and control of a designer, using his skills to dictate the path a viewer’s eye should travel. There was only one problem after he graduated in 2000: He despised the job that his degree had landed. It was an advertising gig, but he found no great cause in crafting ads that shilled products.

“I would drive my new Audi A-4 home, and at least once a week, I would be bawling my eyes out while driving. Why am I doing the devil’s work?” Brenner recalls. “Every time I got paid, I’d be like, I’m not coming back tomorrow. And I came back for six months, and that’s all I could take.” So much for the corporate path.


David Kevil figures his
friendship with Mike Brenner goes back to seventh grade. It continued through high school, picked up speed after graduation and remains close today.

Some of their fondest memories stem from living as roommates in the back of Hotcakes Gallery in Riverwest. Brenner opened it in 2004, just before his 30th birthday. Since quitting his advertising job, he’d gotten by with gigs that were largely temporary or freelance in nature. But he intended for Hotcakes to be permanent, his way of injecting new life into the city’s art scene.

Furnishings in the back-room apartment were spartan at best. “When I bought a used dresser from an antique shop, I felt grown up,” Brenner says. “I had something that I would be disappointed if somebody stole it.” Years later, long after Kevil had gotten married and moved out, Brenner simply slept on an air mattress, and he rarely strayed from his public outfit of his black T-shirt, black shoes and blue jeans. “I saw it as like a cartoon character,” he says. “I had uniforms.”

Brenner and Kevil transformed one of the apartment closets into a karaoke room, spray-painted it pink, and put in a disco ball and smoke machine. “Just to see Mike channel his creativity into these amazing projects,” Kevil says, “you’re just like, ‘How did he do that?’” Combine the fun stuff with the mix of approachable, affordable and cutting-edge art for sale – from Peter Carlson’s narrative oil paintings to Shinji Komiya’s water-dripping Plexiglas boxes, which were augmented by lights that projected ever-changing silhouettes on the walls – and Hotcakes turned into one of the most popular stops on Gallery Nights.

That Brenner was at the center of Milwaukee’s non-mainstream art scene helped the gallery’s image. For years, he’d been the driving force behind the nonprofit Milwaukee Artist Resource Network (MARN), a role he’d held since not long after graduating from MIAD. It was a bootstraps-style endeavor, one that supported local artists and tried to increase their exposure.

“It just felt like my place,” Brenner says. “Like this was my first chance to really do something.”

It’s also when Brenner’s frustration with Milwaukee began to slowly boil over. Although the organization touched the lives of hundreds of artists, fundraising was a constant bugaboo. Brenner believed in his cause enough to put his own resources into it, but he was by no means a deep-pockets donor. And though Hotcakes was hot with crowds (and though Brenner says it was self-sustaining), it wasn’t making the kinds of sales to rake in huge surplus profits. So MARN soldiered on in its own, bare-bones manner, and still does today.

The combination of MARN and Hotcakes boosted Brenner’s status in the arts community to the point that he was asked to serve on the Milwaukee Arts Board and lead its public arts subcommittee. Initially reluctant, he finally agreed, promising to “work my ass off.”

He worked it off, but only briefly: “I had three meetings with my committee, and then, I just resigned.”

His explanation starts out as a simmer. “There’s nothing to be accomplished. There’s no control. The Third Ward does whatever they want. The East Side does whatever they want. I had to go before the City Council to get my vinyl lettering that said ‘Hotcakes’ approved on the front of my business, but the Third Ward can put up a fucking statue wherever they want. Like, it’s just stupid shit.”

Then, in 2008, came what he saw as the stupidest.

He’d believed eight years worth of MARN’s efforts, along with the vibe created by Hotcakes and other galleries, were having an impact on Milwaukee’s art scene. And he thought it was far different than that of the Milwaukee Art Museum, which Brenner considers just a staid stop for tourists. “I don’t even have a membership anymore,” he says with borderline pride. “By the end of the Hotcakes days, people were like, ‘I heard about this amazing underground gallery scene, and you guys were written up in Spin magazine for this amazing underground music scene.’ Nobody mentioned the Calatrava.”

And then the city approved the proposal to install the Bronze Fonz. It was a kick in the gut to Brenner, and to his belief that the city’s art sense had been evolving.And now, this is what we want to be known for,” he grouses. “Lowest common denominator shit.”

Fonzie went up for some $90,000. Brenner resigned as MARN’s director and closed down Hotcakes. Today, the gallery lives on only in memories and through a cul-de-sac site on the Internet.

HotcakesGallery.com is mainly a hot pink virtual gravestone. Splashed beneath the gallery’s logo are the words “Hotcakes Gallery. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Feb 2004-May 2008.” Under that is a complimentary blurb: In the A.V. section of their July 18, 2007 issue, the Onion said, “Mike Brenner of Hotcakes Gallery just might save this town.”

 

You could, were you so inclined, watch Mike Brenner fall asleep in his UW-Milwaukee microeconomics class. He recorded the nap and posted it to YouTube, making it available for all the world to see. As the professor professes about monopolies, Brenner reclines in his chair, hands interlaced behind his head, sleeves of his white dress shirt – the latest cartoon uniform – rolled up. His eyelids droop, then flicker open, then drift downward again.

Not pictured is the pink mohawk Brenner paired with a black sport coat that he sported for opening day of MBA classes in 2008, his first concrete step toward becoming a professional brewer. Nor the creative bingo cards he distributed to fellow students in another class, the foundation for a clandestine game played while the professor taught. Nearly a decade out of college still hadn’t turned Brenner into a model student, or even one who liked school, but the antics served a purpose: “It was the only way to tolerate it.” Ditto for the ADHD meds he used while going through the MBA program.

But this time around, nobody had to bribe him to go to college. He had finally discovered a compelling reason to be there. After years of serving his homebrew at art events, he’d hit upon a simple idea. “People buy beer,” Brenner says. “They don’t buy art.” But the beer could be a doorway to art. He could use the beer and the brewery to expose people to art. He could use the beer’s profits to support art. And he figured it was easier to find investors for a profitable business idea than for nonprofit artistic ones.

Thing was, investors weren’t going to give money to a homebrewer whose main business experience consisted of running a nonprofit organization and a now-closed art gallery. If he wanted to make his business work, he had to learn how to make it work well. That meant school, for both brewing and business.

During his time in UWM’s MBA program, when not making YouTube recordings, he crafted his initial business plan. This would become the framework for what he’d shop around to potential brewery investors after graduating in 2010.

For the beer education, he attended Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology, which boasts the oldest brewing school in the nation and is augmented by classes abroad at Doemens Academy in Munich, Germany. Brenner earned his master brewer’s diploma in 2011.

Relevant credentials in hand, he started networking and looking for money. He laid out his vision in a Kickstarter initiative that asked for $10,000 to purchase brewing equipment and supplies. It raised $25,987 from 614 backers. But he’d need a lot more money than that.

Brenner had spent about $1,000 to open Hotcakes. His Brenner Brewing Co. business plan called for $1.2 million, which would fund the brewery, a tasting room and space for the artists’ studios and gallery. Brenner would always own 51 percent; investors would get the remaining shares. He had until May 1, 2013, to raise $750,000, or the money would be returned, and until the end of 2013 to get the rest.

He started approaching individual investors toward the end of summer 2012 and got mixed responses. Some praised him for being the rare wannabe brewer with a solid business plan. Others wanted to co-opt his idea, to own all the equipment and make Brenner just a figurehead. “They just wanted to control me,” he says.

But his networking, and his MBA, began to pay off. The first big check came from Paul Hepp, a longtime teacher and boys’ basketball coach at Nicolet High School. “Even though we’re known for beer, Milwaukee is kind of undersaturated when it comes to microbrewing,” says Hepp, who teaches history and economics. They sealed the deal at the World of Beer bar on Brady Street, where Hepp handed over $10,000. They celebrated with a couple of Brenner’s homemade IPAs smuggled in by the master brewer.

“At that point,” Brenner says, “you’re still thinking, ‘This is nothing.’ So many things can go wrong. I’m still living at my parents’ house. In a year, people will either think, ‘That was a genius idea,’ or, ‘God, that was sad that that lunatic jumped off the Hoan Bridge.’ Or, ‘That pathetic 40-year-old lives with his parents and he’s a loser.’”

But other checks started to roll in. He got two for $150,000 each within a couple of weeks of Hepp’s investment. In early 2013, Joe Tylicki, a homebrewer who also happens to be the chief financial officer at Stark Investments, was impressed enough with Brenner’s vision to become, in Tylicki’s words, a modest investor. “Mike was so far ahead of things,” says Tylicki, who makes it clear he invested as an individual, not as a Stark representative. And he sees Brenner’s life experience and personality not as drawbacks, but as assets and evidence of an extraordinary commitment to his passions.

“I knew he was an outspoken figure in the community and he liked to do a lot of outlandish things to bring attention to the [art] industry, which he feels is underserved in the community. And it is,” Tylicki says. “But the fact is, he’s a passionate guy, and he’s an intelligent guy who really thought it through.”

But donations slowed, and as Brenner approached his May 1 deadline, one of his would-be six-figure investors had backed out. “It was really down to the wire, and I was totally short,” he says. “And all of sudden, things started happening. And somebody ended up investing a whole bunch of money and getting me there.”

He won’t say who that somebody is, but sums up his investors like this: “I found cool people who get it, who think I’m not an asshole.” Twenty-two, to be exact.

All around Mike Brenner in Cathedral Square Park, people are celebrating beer, or at least consuming it in large quantities, at the 2013 edition of the Milwaukee Firkin Craft Beer Festival. Some 50 brewers from around Wisconsin and beyond offer their wares in compact, carnival-style booths with
simple counters and name-bearing banners overhead. The concoctions, some quite unusual and rare, are quaffed by tasters with discerning palates, and by others who are merely drunk.

The park is swarming with an eclectic horde. Mixed among the jeans and shorts crowd, one woman has donned a formal black dress adorned with beer-related bumper stickers. Savvy patrons wear lanyards that are outfitted with hoops designed to hold a pint glass. Showier folks go for necklaces strung through beer cans. Hungrier ones accessorize with necklaces made out of pretzels.

The previous year, this very festival was where many people started taking Brenner seriously as a local brewer. His amateur beermaking reputation was sound, but this was the next level, putting his stuff directly up against professionals. He brought batches of his
homebrew to the 2012 fest, still unsure whether he’d raise enough money to open his brewery. And even though it was his first time entering a craft beer event, he walked away with laurels. His Bacon Bomb Rauchbier with black pepper, a dark and smoky mixture that lived up to and beyond its name, won the Big Firkin Award, making it the people’s choice for best beer.

“The idea was that only die-hard beer geeks would like it and everybody else would hate it. That was kind of my goal,” he says. “I was actually pleasantly surprised that Milwaukee’s palate had elevated. I did a tasting in Horicon, and people were looking in my eyes and dumping it on the ground.”

And now, at the 2013 festival, many patrons seem well aware of Brenner’s brewery plans. They’ve heard how he’s raised all that cash to make his dream a reality.

One after another, patrons fire questions at Brenner. They want to know where the brewery will be, when it will be opening, what kinds of beer he’ll be making, where it will be served, how the music and art component will be incorporated. But a select few are asking him other things, too, and these folks have put him on edge.

“You meet some amazing people,” Brenner says. “And then you also meet people who are trying to sell me crap. You’re making 10 people wait in line while trying to get me to buy a web app.

“I think I’m gonna put a sign up that says, ‘No Soliciting.’”

He’s not joking. A minute later, he grabs a black marker and walks out to the front of his booth, where a printed sign overhead announces the presence of “Brenner Brewing Co, Milwaukee, WI.” Right below this, he writes in block letters, “NO SOLICITING PLEASE.”

Satisfied, he goes back into his booth. For the rest of the festival, he hears not a single sales pitch, but gets plenty of compliments on the beer. Six of them are on tap, including a Chocolate Strawberry Stout. But he’s not entirely happy with it. With the self-critical eye of a perfectionist artist, he laments how the strawberries were added late, how other brewery-related, 12-hours-a-day duties sapped time from his beer craftsmanship.

This year, there is no surprise. None of Brenner’s beers win Firkin Fest accolades. He has to settle for mere adulation from the public.

“Last year, people were like, ‘Who the hell are you?’” he says. “This year, people say they’ve seen my stuff on Twitter. One woman said she drunk-liked Brenner Brewing on Facebook.”

The spacious family home in Mequon has the cozy feel of a bed-and-breakfast. Brenner moved back here after the demise of Hotcakes – becoming roomies with Jim, Annette, and Mike’s 94-year-old grandmother, Anne – and has been here ever since.

Anne grew up in Germany and moved to the U.S. with her husband after World War II, where they built a successful life around their three daughters. Now, seated at the dining room table with Mike and Annette, she’s reminiscing on days with a much younger Brenner. The divorce of Mike’s parents sent Annette back to school while still holding down a job, so the kids spent a lot of time with her parents in Hartford, where Anne would impart grandmotherly wisdom.

“All that I ask him,” Anne says through a heavy German accent, “is to be honest in life. Be honest, whatever you do.”

Grandma clearly had Mike’s ear. And Mike has clearly epitomized his 100 percent Germanic roots.

“He’s way too honest,” Annette says. “But that’s all right. I mean, that’s part of your integrity. And integrity is pretty much all you have in life. Your reputation and your integrity.” So she supported her son through his attention-getting stunts, even as she feared for his safety in the aftermath of them. And she’s surprised to learn that, in the midst of his new endeavor, he still gets Fonz-related hate mail.

“People change,” Annette says. “You’re not the same person you were at age 20 or 30.” Or 12. She’s produced a handwritten card that Brenner wrote to her at that age: Dear Mom, You are very special to me. Mom you are the best. You are better than all the rest. I love and I know that you love me too. You are always sharing. You make great meatloaf. Your always cleaning. You don’t loaf.

“What? That’s terrible,” an indignant Brenner says, his voice rising an octave as he takes off his Brenner Brewing Co. ballcap.

But the reading continues. You are so neat, you dance like you have magic feet. Mom I love you you’re spiffy. Love, Michael.

“Isn’t that sweet?” Annette proclaims.

“Spiffy?” Brenner protests, unwilling to believe that he’s the human responsible for such words. “Spiffy…”

It is a small, mid-January reception for the guests of honor, Cuban artists Yaima Carrazana and Glenda León, whose work is being shown at MIAD. Some 15 people have gathered in one of the Pitch Project’s second-floor common areas, a mix of students, MIAD employees and local artists. Many have locally made craft beers in hand, though none bear Brenner labels – his brewery won’t be operational until spring, at the earliest.

Brenner, sporting one of his familiar black T-shirts, is telling people about his days at MARN and Hotcakes, how he wants to show international artists at this new gallery, and how he hopes they’ll network with artists who rent studios here. He explains the origin of the Pitch Project name and its double meaning. Artists, of course, pitch ideas. And adding yeast during the brewing process is called pitching yeast. “It’s the act of pitching yeast,” he says, “that makes the idea of beer bloom into what everybody wants.”

He takes the group on a tour through the building’s labyrinthine hallways, past some of the 23 artists’ studios, 19 of which are already occupied by such artists as Jason Yi, Will Pergl and Sonja Thomsen, who act as Pitch Project co-directors. Thomsen is on the eve of a show opening at Dean Jensen Gallery, and a good chunk of the work was done inside her studio here.

Brenner leads the tour past a ground-floor storage area, stocked with orange buckets of caramel and huge jugs of brown beer, yeast bubbling from their tops. He takes them into the once-empty, now-crowded warehouse – its white walls surrounding kettles, kegs and a delivery truck. Its rebirth as a brewery and tasting bar is nigh.

There’s a reason doorways connect the brewery to the studios. “People will think they’re just here for beer, but then we’ll also get them to look at very contemporary art, and that will hopefully expand their mind,” Brenner says, then smiles. “And maybe if they’re drunk enough, they’ll buy some art.”

Back upstairs the guests go for more mingling. Thomsen reflects on all the work needed to get to this point. “But Mike is always just cool as a cucumber,” she says. “Every hiccup, he’s like, ‘We’ll get through this, we’ll problem-solve, we’ll work around it.’”

Tour guide duties done, Brenner sits at a table and grabs some munchies. “It’s pretty real,” he says, eyeing the other creative minds in the room. “It got scary there for awhile.”

He’s weathered huge delays, which made his original goal of opening by November 2013 obsolete, and struggled with construction cost overruns, which made his original $1.2 million budget obsolete. “That’s my ignorance,” he admits, “me being a fool.” To manage the outlay, he was forced to seek an additional $500,000 in business loans, plus $70,000 for the delivery truck, plus a $100,000 line of safety-net credit, putting him on the hook for some $1.9 million. “I feel like I need another million,” he says in a high-pitched, incredulous giggle.

It’s hard to imagine the younger Brenner with such worries. He’s so far removed from the meager Hotcakes days, a time when he could easily afford to be so free and flippant, because the only person put at any real risk was himself. Now, he’s in an entirely different league. “It’s so big now,” he says. “It’s just bigger and bigger and bigger. More people are dependent on it.”

As the reception winds down, Lynn Tomaszewski, a MIAD professor and co-curator of the Cuban art exhibition, comes over and thanks Brenner for hosting everything. “I’m in awe of your commitment to the city,” she says, and then pauses. “Don’t make me regret this statement. I’m not in awe of all that is Mike Brenner.”

As she leaves, he ponders her remark, somewhat bothered by the caveat. But only for a minute. He has more pressing matters at hand and has to leave soon. He’s due at a tap-dancing class.
This article appears in the March 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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