One of the city's greatest artist-in-residence programs takes place in its grandest hotel.
When Ben Marcus bought the Pfister Hotel in 1962, he inherited a surprisingly large collection of 19th and early 20th century paintings that had hung in its ornately decorated, Romanesque rooms. “They found out after they bought it that the collection was worth more than the hotel,” Ben’s grandson Greg says, adding that he believes the property now boasts the largest hotel collection of Victorian art in the world.
So it was only fitting that the Marcuses would look for other ways to strengthen the hotel’s association with the arts. They began to invite jazz pianists to play in its lobby and bars. (Greg can often be found tickling the ivories at Blu on Tuesday nights.) And, 10 years ago this month, they launched their popular artist-in-residence program.
Each year, the Pfister invites artists to apply for the residency and assembles a committee of local creatives to select a winner. That person then sets up a temporary studio and gallery – from April 1 through March 31 – on the ground floor of the hotel, taking guests on tours of the hotel’s art collection and fielding questions about his or her work. In exchange, the artist receives a stipend and the kind of publicity that a popular local institution can bring.
“The exposure has been more than I could have hoped for,” fashion designer and 2018-19 resident Stephanie Schultz says.
Schultz, who hosted a runway show at the hotel last month to celebrate the end of her residency, says she’s seen a surge of interest in her work during her time at the Pfister. Most of the garments that Schultz designs pay homage to historical trends, and she’s just finished a piece inspired by a Victorian painting – of the famed French actress Sarah Bernhardt – that hangs in the hotel’s mezzanine. She’s eager to see the work installed permanently in the Pfister, where it will be displayed alongside other works commissioned from past artists-in-residence, from painter Reginald Baylor to wet-plate photographer Margaret Muza.
“It was probably the best year of my life,” Muza says, when asked about her 2017-18 residency. “I love history – I use a photographic method that dates back to the 1850s, to the Civil War era – so working out of such a historic hotel was a pleasure.”
And, while the hotel hadn’t yet announced its next resident as of press time, we can safely assume that the winner will look to the hotel’s past for inspiration, and use it to develop a body of work that will in turn inspire future generations of Milwaukee artists. In a city where working creatives have long struggled to support themselves, this sort of program is a welcome rarity.