Best of Milwaukee 2021 | Arts & Culture

From ‘Beyond Van Gogh’ to Jrue Holiday, here are our favorite parts of arts and culture this year in MKE.


This story is part of our BEST OF MILWAUKEE feature. Get your copy of the issue, HERE

Illustration by Kervin Brisseaux

Editor Picks


Black Theatre Festival

This summer, a collection of local arts groups – including the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Black Arts MKE and the Bronzeville Arts Ensemble – came together to launch the first in-person iteration of the Milwaukee Black Theatre Festival. Here’s hoping the festival becomes a longstanding summertime staple!


Shari Urquhart

“Musn’t Touch,” a retrospective of the late Shari Urquhart’s work held jointly at Portrait Society Contemporary Art Gallery and The Warehouse was a joy to behold. Urquhart, who was from Racine but spent most of her career in New York City, created shag rug-like tapestries depicting scenes of a couple’s relationship as well as commentary on the canon of fine art. Her work resembles nothing this art-lover has ever seen before, and I felt it tugging at me to return for a second look, then a third. – CN

Kenosha artist Shari Urquhart’s work was on display posthumously at Portrait Society; Photo by Daniel McCullough


Nghi Vo

Photo by CJ Foeckler

When Nghi Vo moved to Milwaukee from her Illinois home in 2007, she was making a living on freelance writing contracts – commercial copywriting, ghost writing, etc. Fourteen years later, her novel The Chosen and the Beautiful is a bestseller and on recommended reading lists in Time, CNN, The Daily Beast and many more. The novel is a reimagining of The Great Gatsby, with a new main character, Daisy’s adopted Vietnamese cousin Jordan, plus a dose of magical realism. The Washington Post review of the novel was headlined, “Nghi Vo’s demonic adaption of The Great Gatsby might be – gasp – jazzier than the original.”

The decade-and-a-half journey from her first published story to that glowing reception wasn’t easy.

“It still feels very unreal,” Vo says. “There’s still part of me thinking, ‘OK, this all goes out, I can still wait tables, right?’”

Vo was still working as a freelance copywriter when she started writing The Chosen and The Beautiful in 2020 and she estimates that she was composing 8,000 words a day balancing the two jobs. After the book’s publication in June, she was able to quit freelancing and take on fiction full time. Her next novel, Siren Queen, is set to debut in 2022, and she is continuing to work from her new home in Milwaukee.

“I know that Milwaukee is a very good city for me,” she says. “Milwaukee is full of history, and it’s full of inspiration. – AP



Did you see the 22 gigantic birds that have taken over Lakeshore State Park? The five-feet-tall sculptures, by the collective Cracking Art, were commissioned by the Black Box Fund. – LAR


‘Nelson Mandela’

The Milwaukee Public Museum unveiled “Nelson Mandela: The Official Exhibition” this spring. A tribute to the late South African activist and statesman, the show spotlighted more than 150 historical artifacts, many of them on loan from the Mandela family. – LAR


Cesar Palace

Cesar Palace; Photo by Reince Photography

When is a cover band more than just a cover band? When the lead singer clings to a lounge-singer persona, infusing every show with hilariously cringe-worthy banter (“This one’s for the ladies!”), while donning skin-tight britches and ever-present shades. And when said person happens to possess a damn good voice, the result is an act that can leave audiences tingly. 

This is the story of Cesar Palace, aka Chris Tishler, who has hung up his fitted polyester shirt for the last time after fronting the 5 Card Studs for 25 years. 

Say it ain’t so, Cesar! 

Alas, it is. “It was just time,” Tishler says. 

Fans can breathe a sigh of relief: The Studs will continue with their new frontman, Tommy Hahn, whose Stud name is Rex Caliber. As for Tishler, he’ll continue as well, having released a solo album, Reach for the Sun, last summer. Asked to describe the sound, “It’s just me,” he says. “Overall, it sounds like me.” 

After 25 years singing as someone else, Tishler seems rather pleased about that. – CN


Emma Daisy

As if we needed another reason to love Emma Daisy Gertel, the local muralist recently teamed up with the owners of Tatay’s Food Truck (formerly Meat on the Street) to paint a gorgeous mural on the side of their truck that pays homage to their Filipino heritage. – LAR


The Rep 

Our theaters and stages were dark for most of the year. Which is why it was so cheering to see the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s triumphant return this spring, with First Lady of Song: Alexis J Roston Sings Ella Fitzgerald. Audiences were treated to a socially distanced evening of toe-tapping jazz standards like “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”

Photo by JPM Photography
Photo by Max Thomsen



This Is It and Trixie Mattel

Before the pandemic, I loved watching episodes of “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” at This Is It. The beloved East Side bar served 2-for-1 drinks on days episodes aired, and its patrons were just as entertaining as the show itself. They’d cheer on their favorite contestants and audibly gasp anytime one of them pulled off a particularly impressive dance move or death drop. 

So when I heard that the show’s season three “All Stars” winner, Trixie Mattel (aka Brian Firkus), became a part-owner of the bar earlier this year, I was thrilled. 

The partnership made a lot of sense. Mattel is originally from Milwaukee, and she got her start in the drag scene performing at local bars like This Is It and Hamburger Mary’s. 

But more than that, Mattel’s buy-in was a welcome reminder that, when times get tough, Milwaukeans take care of one another. While still regularly visiting Milwaukee, Mattel now lives mainly in Los Angeles. But she clearly hasn’t forgotten where she came from, or the fact that people here have been rooting for her for years. And so, when she heard that This Is It was struggling, she pulled on a pair of rhinestone cowboy boots and stepped up to help. 

Personally, I can’t wait to start watching the show at the bar again when season 14 premieres. And will I be looking around each time I go, hoping to maybe catch a glimpse of Mattel behind the bar? You betcha. – LAR


Brett Newski 

Singer-songwriter. Globe-trotter. Podcaster. Brett Newski – who’s toured alongside the Pixies, the Violent Femmes and Courtney Barnett – didn’t really need to add another job title to his resume, but he went and did it anyway. Earlier this year, he released a graphic memoir that he wrote and illustrated himself. The book is called It’s Hard to Be a Person: Defeating Anxiety, Surviving the World and Having More Fun. Interestingly, it focuses more on mental health than music.

Photo courtesy of Brett Newski


‘The Circle’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most relatable shows of 2020-21 has been “The Circle,” a Netflix reality show about a group of likable randos who live in the same apartment building but are forbidden from seeing each other in person; all of their interactions take place on social media. And what makes the show even more relatable, at least to Milwaukeeans? It prominently features overhead footage of many local landmarks, including the Coakley Brothers water tower, in its cut scenes. 


The Art Preserve

The Art Preserve officially opened in June of this year, but it already feels like a permanent fixture of the Milwaukee area’s cultural landscape. And we can’t wait to see how the unique cultural space – which was built to house the ever-growing collection of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center – continues to develop in the years to come.

Photo by Durston Saylor, courtesy of John Michael Kohler Arts Center


The Milwaukee Youth Poet Laureate Program 

Dasha Kelly Hamilton might just be having her best year yet. Not only was the Milwaukeean named Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate, she was also awarded – in tandem with Riverwest’s Woodland Pattern Book Center – a $50,000 grant from The Academy of American Poets. Hamilton and Woodland Pattern will use the money to create a Milwaukee Youth Poet Laureate program. Local high school students will be able to compete for the honor, and the winner will earn either a scholarship for college or seed money to start up a business.

Photo by Pat A. Robinson


Washington Park Wheels

We’ve always loved Washington Park Wednesdays, but the organizers of the outdoor concert series deserve special praise this year for finding an innovative way to bring music to the masses without creating large crowds. How? By staging a series of smaller, mobile concerts. Each week in July, bands played in a different area along the park’s perimeter, and nearby residents were treated to free music.

Photo courtesy of Washington Park Neighbors
Photo by Visit Milwaukee



The Deer District

When Fiserv Forum was built in 2016, its boosters foretold major revitalization west of the river, a whole new destination hot spot well beyond just the gleaming new arena. The Bucks called it the Deer District.  

At the time, I rolled my eyes; my first Bucks game was in 2008, when my five friends and I were about 75% of the crowd. I exaggerate, but dear God it was sad. This poor woman came out to pump up the crowd at halftime, yelling into her mic, “Hey, Bucks fans! Who’s having fun tonight?” I’ve heard more enthusiastic responses at mandatory corporate leadership seminars. That night the Bucks lost to the equally lowly Minnesota Timberwolves.

I’m glad to report that I look like a complete idiot now. Even with lots of development still to come, the Deer District has delivered on its promise – and then some. Thousands of fans flooded the area around the arena throughout the playoffs, culminating in the 65,000-some crowd for the championship-clinching Game 6. The scene was electric: massive crowds united around the hometown team, overflowing the neighborhood day after day, packing bars and restaurants.  

It felt like all of Milwaukee came out to the Deer District. People from every corner of the city were right in the heart of the action without needing to drop hundreds of dollars on a playoff ticket. There was joy, togetherness and an unmistakable sense of pride in the city (especially when we finally took home that trophy). And the whole time, Milwaukee was on national display, our fan-flooded streets rivaling those of any other city in the country. It was a showcase worthy of a city as great as ours. – AP


Wisconsin-Grown Big Leaguers  

Milwaukee-area baseballers are having a moment. Waukesha native Jarred Kelenic graduated from top prospect to Seattle Mariner in May, sporting fly Nike cleats emblazoned with the burbs’ 262 area code in his debut. And in July, the Brewers made dreams come true by drafting Oak Creek’s Alex Binelas, a standout infielder at Louisville, in the third round.  – CD 


Brewers Starting Studs: Freddy  Peralta, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff

What team in baseball wants to face this trio of bat-breaking starting pitchers in a playoff series? None. Add in an electric bullpen, and I’m sorry if I’m saving some vacation days for October this year. – CD

Freddy Peralta; Illustration by Mary Ellen Ritter
Corbin Burnes; Illustration by Mary Ellen Ritter
Brandon Woodruff; Illustration by Mary Ellen Ritter
Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Bucks


2020-21 Milwaukee Bucks 

It’s a play that will be etched in the brains of generations of Milwaukee sports fans. Jrue Holiday simply takes the ball like a bully on a grade school playground. As the fast break begins and the camera follows it, we see two reactions: A wide-eyed Giannis Antetokounmpo sprinting toward the action, and Khris Middleton grinning. He knows what’s to come: a perfect alley-oop, a spectacular dunk and a Giannis mean mug to end all mean mugs.   

All that remained was a historic performance by Giannis back in Milwaukee, bringing the city its first major pro sports title in 50 years and fulfilling a prophecy chanted as one all summer: Bucks in Six.  

And Milwaukee, a city often noted for being apart, reveled in this championship – and the lovable cast of characters who won it – together. We celebrated in throngs in the Deer District as history was being made, and afterward in the jubilant parade Downtown. Bigger problems remain, of course, but at least the demons of a 50-year championship drought have been exorcised. Brewers, you’re up next. – CD



Join Milwaukee Magazine and Quad for the third-annual Unity Awards Event on March 8 from 6:30-9 p.m. at GATHER in the Deer District.

Illustration by Kervin Brisseaux

Readers’ Choice


5 Points ArtGallery + Studios 

Since its opening in 2018, 5 Points Art Gallery + Studios has become a mainstay of its neighborhood, and one of the most consistently interesting art galleries in the city.


‘Beyond Van Gogh’

If you haven’t seen “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” at the Wisconsin Center yet, you really should. It’s bright and colorful and a great entry point into the late Post-Impressionist’s life and work.

Photo courtesy of Beyond Van Gogh


Sherman Park Rising

A year after the unrest in Sherman Park, city officials commissioned local artist Tia Richardson to paint a mural, Sherman Park Rising, in the neighborhood. Its message of hope is just as relevant now.

Photo by Chelsea Mamerow


‘Hell’s Kitchen’

We didn’t need Gordon Ramsay to tell us that Adam Pawlak is a great chef. The smashing success of his Egg & Flour restaurant franchise is proof enough of that. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t appreciate his time on “Hell’s Kitchen,” or the way he made his hometown proud.

Photo courtesy of Fox Entertainment


Food + Drink Milwaukee

They say that you eat with your eyes first. And that makes sense, because Food + Drink Milwaukee’s expertly curated Instagram feed – full of photos taken at new bars and restaurants, as well as old standbys – looks absolutely delicious. @foodplusdrinkmilwaukee

Photo courtesy of Food + Drink Milwaukee


Anna Grace

She didn’t make it all the way to the finals on “The Voice.” But Milwaukee singer Anna Grace certainly found a place in our hearts. And we’re still pretty proud of the fact that she was one of only four contestants to receive a rare four-chair turn from the judges during the show’s blind audition period. 


Summer/Fall 2020

The band Large Print released a new song every week during the pandemic. Their newest album Summer/Fall 2020 represents some of the best of what they created while in isolation. 


The Docksiders

We didn’t even know Milwaukee needed a yacht rock tribute band until we heard The Docksiders play. Now we can’t imagine the city without them!


Jazz in the Park

You know it. And you love it. Jazz in the Park was canceled again this year, but that just means that Milwaukeeans will be even more excited to start attending shows at the Cathedral Square music series when they return next summer.

Photo by Melissa Miller


Jrue Holiday

We loved this veteran point guard’s court awareness and lockdown defense throughout the season, but let’s not forget the 27- and 25-point games he put up against the Hawks after Giannis’ knee injury. 


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s September issue.

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