Meet Four Power Players in Milwaukee’s Cultural Scene

It’s the rebirth of culture! Here are some of the leaders at the forefront in Milwaukee.

Profile: John Riepenhoff 

This artist and curator wants to put Milwaukee on the map

BY BRIAN ROSENZWEIG

Photo by Myrica Von Haselberg

“I think it was just an answer to not seeing support for art that I valued,” Milwaukee-based artist and curator John Riepenhoff says of his decision to open The Green Gallery – a contemporary art space on the East Side that has become a destination gallery for artists worldwide – in 2003. 

Riepenhoff felt then, as he does now, that conventional galleries were too interested in following trends, in concerning themselves with what’s attractive to audiences, rather than with meeting the artists where they are. 

And Riepenhoff sometimes takes the phrase “meeting them where they are” literally. He travels widely to view art and encourages artists from around the world to visit Milwaukee, too.  

“When people come here from Zürich or Tokyo, everyone’s surprised at how robust our arts scene is,” Riepenhoff says of Milwaukee. “And Wisconsinites are quite modest, so I think a lot of our great traits are undervalued.” 

One of the ideals Riepenhoff is most passionate about is that “art can be found anywhere,” and Milwaukee is no exception. It’s the reason he seeks out budding Milwaukee artists and showcases their work. It’s the reason he created the Beer Endowment in 2014 (a line of beers, like the Green Gallery IPA or the Riverwest Radio Red, inspired by and in support of arts projects. It’s all to assert the notion that Milwaukee is a special place for the arts, and that it’s worth celebrating. 

 

 

One such celebration: in 2015, Riepenhoff worked with Bob Wills of Clock Shadow Creamery to create Double Cream Colby, a new, bold flavor inspired by Wisconsin’s first original cheese, Colby. “It was kind of a cultural critique,” he says. “Oftentimes, people think all the best cheeses from Wisconsin are cultural appropriations of French cheeses, and I wanted to reframe that and say, ‘We have original cheese ideas, too.’ And now it’s like a top-shelf cheese.” 

If you hadn’t previously thought that cheese could be a medium for artistic critique and cultural assertion, well, that’s just Riepenhoff’s point: Some things could only come from a Milwaukeean.


Profile: Leosha Stones 

The up-and-coming local musician reflects on where she’s come from, and where she’s going.  

BY BRIAN ROSENZWEIG

Photo courtesy of The Oshi

Leosha Stones first embraced the nickname “Oshi” when she was 15, long before she began performing and producing music professionally. Yet when she began using it as a stage moniker two years ago, a friend recommended a small, but significant change that would become central to her craft: “He was like, ‘No, you need to be THE Oshi. You’re THE one,” Stones says. 

Since then, that assertion of singularity, self and drive has led The Oshi to pave her own path in the local and national music scene. A Milwaukee native who writes, produces and performs all her own music, she blends styles – hip hop and club-ready electronic dance – and flows that are at once razor-sharp and effortlessly cool. In doing so, she’s created a sound like no other. 

Others are taking note: From a write-up in Billboard, to becoming a new fixture of the recovering festival circuit, Stones’ career is gaining momentum. 

Perhaps her biggest industry accolade thus far is being chosen as one of four burgeoning local artists in 88Nine Radio Milwaukee’s inaugural Amplifier program (a reboot of the organization’s popular Backline talent development program). Over the course of the eight months, the artists are learning the ropes of the music industry, working with critically acclaimed national mentors like Justin Vernon, Butch Vig and Marcella Araica, who has engineered for the likes of Britney Spears and Madonna.

Stones says the connections she’s made through the program have been invaluable. And she cites the conversations she’s had with Araica about finding her footing as a woman in the industry, as especially meaningful. 

“To have that connection with something I see myself doing in the future, that’s priceless,” Stones says. “Those things mean a lot more to me than the grants or anything like that.” 

While Stones has big aspirations for the remainder of the program (which runs through November) and the year to come, she says she’s not driven by any one concrete milestone or achievement. 

“My inspiration is growth. Seeing where I came from, seeing where I’m going; I’m kind of in love with that process.” 


Profile: Patrick Rath

UPAF’s new head honcho wasn’t intimidated by the pandemic – it was why he took the job.  

BY LAUREN WARNECKE

Photo courtesy of UPAF

United Performing Arts Fund President and CEO Patrick Rath fell in love with the arts at age 10. A double bassist, Rath played in Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra and attended Northwestern University on a music scholarship. His music training acted as a springboard for a career in development and nonprofit leadership, but he never really left the arts. 

 Prior to re-joining UPAF, where he was chief development officer from 2004-06, Rath was executive development officer and system vice president at Advocate Aurora Health Foundation and held positions with Columbia St. Mary’s Foundation, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Milwaukee Art Museum. 

Rath says the pandemic was a motivating factor in his decision to take the top job at UPAF, in October 2020. “I saw an opportunity to look at the value and importance that we place on the performing arts for the long term, and how essential they are to the quality of life that we’ve all come to enjoy and expect in our community,” he says. 

UPAF raises funds on behalf of its 14 member groups, a consortium of Southeast Wisconsin’s largest arts institutions – like the Milwaukee Ballet , Skylight Music Theatre, the Florentine Opera Company and Black Arts MKE. (Non-member groups can apply annually for unrestricted grants through an affiliate program.)  

UPAF estimates its member groups lost about $23 million in ticket sales during the pandemic. “There was such a threat to the long-term sustainability of the performing arts. That threat is still there,” Rath says. “We’re proud to say all of our arts organizations are coming back in 2021, which is not true across the country.” 

Rath succeeds Deanna Tillisch, who retired after 10 years. During her tenure, Tillisch developed grant programs earmarked for arts accessibility, which will continue. Additionally, Rath is working with a task force aimed at diversity and inclusion. One goal is to make it easier for smaller arts groups to participate (membership currently requires board approval and a minimum annual budget of $400K) and amplify members’ community engagement initiatives. “Many times, the performing arts are viewed as elite,” Rath says. “We want to make sure the arts are truly accessible to all.”


Profile: Julia Gray

Danceworks forges ahead by building on the past.

BY LAUREN WARNECKE

Photo by Tom Davenport

For Julia Gray, becoming executive director of Danceworks is a kind of full-circle moment. Gray took dance as a child and started teaching dance fitness at the Central Branch YMCA near Marquette University’s campus while a student there. She went on to earn a master’s degree in management from Cardinal Stritch University. Her past nonprofit roles include director of member services at Museum of Wisconsin Art and various positions at the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee – but movement has been a mainstay. 

“In some ways, it was a very natural segue,” Gray says. She wasn’t looking for a job, happening upon the opening at the height of the pandemic. “On paper, none of it made sense, but I really thought about what I could bring to the table.”  

Gray entered at the tail end of a string of high-profile departures at Danceworks, one of Milwaukee’s marquee dance studios and professional troupes. In August 2020, executive director Deborah Farris resigned after 18 years. Artistic director Dani Kuepper, whose ties to the organization stretch back to 1998, stepped down prior to Gray’s arrival amid a dispute with the board of directors.  

But Gray says it didn’t feel like she’d been handed a blank slate. “There’s a strong team of people who kept Danceworks going,” she says. When shutdowns closed the studios in March 2020, Danceworks was quick to provide free online classes. As COVID restrictions loosened, they moved live classes to the Riverwalk and pioneered a safe return to the studio. Danceworks Performance MKE pre-recorded and streamed performances online. “That team did everything they could to keep the doors open and keep delivering the mission,” says Gray. “They needed someone to tell them to take a breath so we can move forward together.” 

Danceworks veteran Christal Wagner stepped in as artistic director, while Gray is focused on bouncing back from steep financial losses in 2020. There are signs of life. Outreach programs like Mad Hot Rhythm and Danceworks Generations, shuttered by the pandemic, will return this fall. “Our first order of business is to restore the foundation of Danceworks to what it was pre-pandemic,” says Gray. “It’s going to look different, but we want to build on what was there.”


 

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

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