As change comes to the Grand Avenue, a performance and artistic studio space called Studio G is moving out. What this means for the Downtown mall and what one artist says this means for Milwaukee and its artistic community.
On one side of the window is one of the busiest streets in Milwaukee’s Downtown. Cars cruise by, people stand at bus stops and tall buildings obscure the sight of the afternoon sun. Just inside, a six foot long puppet of a wolf with a moveable jaw is mounted upon a makeshift wall. Strewn about are relics of old theater sets, boxed-up costumes, and a seemingly endless number of hand-made puppets.
We’re in the Grand Avenue mall.
Michael Pettit, a 20-year veteran of Milwaukee’s more unconventional artistic community, is showing me around Studio G, a roughly 30,000-square-foot space in the Plankinton Building of Milwaukee’s beleaguered Downtown mall. At one point, the space was occupied by a Linens n Things, but for years it has been home to a host of arts groups, including the Milwaukee Public Theatre and Quasimondo Milwaukee Physical Theatre (see the full list of past and present occupants below). There are people painting and building sets, getting ready for Quasimondo’s next production, but there are also people packing. Soon, most of Studio G will have moved out.
“Their plan right now is to kick all the artists out and pull everything back,” says Pettit. “The idea is to do what they call a white box treatment — clear out everything that’s here and take it down to the bare posts and show the space as empty as possible so they can advertise its availability. Their way of attracting business is by showing the space is empty and not being used…open for business, as they say (laughs).”
Pettit, a puppetry artist and part of Quasimondo, is moving for the second time in the last 12 months. About one year ago, he was leaving The Fortress Building, a longtime Brewers Hill artists haven that last year gained millions in WEDC historic preservation tax credits to be converted into 176 apartments.
Though Pettit isn’t exactly enthused about another move, he conveys the sense that this hodgepodge artistic hideaway has existed on borrowed time. Several arts groups together were on the space’s lease and paid rent but it was not a long-term lease. And, since the mall — er, The Shops of Grand Avenue — never really got its act together, that borrowed time lasted several years.
That changed, however, when the Grand Avenue was sold to local buyers in late December. Change has been hard to avoid in Milwaukee’s Downtown as of late; something eventually happening at the mall was inevitable.
“From the time that the mall came under new ownership, we felt that the clock was ticking,” says Pettit. “The understanding from the start was that if there is a significant retail client that wants to lease this space then we’re all going to have to leave. It was always conditional. But it still doesn’t answer the question: “what happens to all of this?””
Some things will end up at Milwaukee Public Theatre’s outreach office at City Housing Authority’s Lapham Park Community Building, some will end up in storage or in people’s basements and garages, others will be thrown out.
Studio G will, however, have one last hurrah with a performance from Quasimondo. The theatre group, which last year gained national attention with a show at the New York International Fringe Festival, will put on the second show of its season — Kama Sutra — as originally planned.
“That’s the bright spot in this whole story,” says Pettit. “The mall has its own interests and wants to be as profitable as possible, but they’re not cold-hearted and cruel about it. They’re not discompassionate to our situation. When [Quasimondo director] Brian Rott pleaded his case [to finish the show] as advertised, they were willing to work with him and sign a contract to stay through the run of the show.”
Matt Kemple, founder and producer of Milwaukee Comedy, runs another performance space in the Grand Avenue — the Underground Collaborative. This space will not be closed down, but it’s in a basement, with no windows and not ideal to attract new tenants. The basement is also where Milwaukee Comedy, NEWaukee, Janus College Preparatory & Arts Academies (JCPAA) and True Skool have their offices, so it’s quite a bit different than the set-up at Studio G. And Kemple is already seeing a different energy around the mall.
“As much as it does disappoint me that Studio G is moving out,” he says, “it does mean the new owners have taken far more initiative to bring in bigger clients. I’ve been at the mall for four years and I’ve seen three different owners in that time. This is the first time I’ve seen any sort of progress.”
Chuck Biller is part of that new ownership group, and he says Studio G moving out is “no reflection on the current tenant.” But he sees “catalytic” potential in the space, and while bigger-picture plans are still being formulated, the new ownership group has been talking to prospective tenants.
“There is a fair amount of interest in that space,” he says. “A lot of people recognize its potential.”
In a best-case scenario, he says, “we’d like to open up the space in part to the street,” adding that there hasn’t been a way to access that space from Wisconsin Avenue for quite some time. And though it was formerly a retail space, Biller says, “we want to be open minded and creative about the uses we consider. We don’t want to box ourselves in.”
The players in this situation don’t harbor ill will toward each other. It’s not a scenario rife with animosity. But things are changing. And not unlike what happened at The Fortress, the march of Milwaukee’s development boom is forcing artists to adapt. And for Pettit, that speaks to a larger problem in the city.
“Milwaukee has a great reputation in the arts,” he says. “But the arts are more than just the symphony and the ballet and the conventional classical arts. You can have all of that in the world that you want and you’re still not going to have the original creative, homegrown work. When you lose that kind of thing in a city, that’s when a city begins to die. The original homegrown cultivated on-the-ground creative stuff that happens, that’s what shapes a city’s identity and uniqueness. Without a place for things like that to incubate and grow, what happens to the city? What happens to the whole city?”
It’s no secret that funding for the arts has declined over the years. But now it’s not just funding. Pettit says the number of places in the city that deliberately cater to artists and musicians are rapidly dwindling.
“The spaces that people can rent cheaply for this kind of thing to be done are starting to go away,” he says. “We lost the Sydney HIH building. Last year, (we lost) the Fortress. Now, we’re losing this space. Also, the Marian Center (for Nonprofits) in St. Francis is closing down.”
And add to that, The Borg Ward Collective in Walker’s Point last week announced it is closed after eight years of hosting all-ages hardcore and experimental shows.
Pettit says the lack of a viable incubating infrastructure for artists working in less conventional art forms is becoming more and more of a problem.
“Anybody who’s working their way up to a franchise-level career or an opportunity, there needs to be an incubating space that’s somewhere on the mid-level,” he says. “It just doesn’t exist in this city at all.”
It’s not just the offbeat or experimental performing arts world that he inhabits, either, he says. Musicians face the same problem.
“There are a lot of great beginning bands, but where are our mid-size venues for music?” he says. “There’s like, Shank Hall. That’s it.”
And after 20 years, he’s seen this lack of opportunity to grow as an artist cause people to leave the city to places with better artistic infrastructures over and over again.
“People with the most drive to leave here have been people like me, but don’t see the opportunities, and don’t see it facilitated by the environment of this city,” he says. “One by one, I watched them all leave.”
Could this be what’s happening now? Or is a new wave of artists seeing the city differently?
“There is a new generation that’s coming up now that wants to do this kind of work here in Milwaukee, and wants it to thrive here,” he says. “Is it just going to be the next generation of people who flee this city?”
Studio G Partners included Milwaukee Public Theatre, Milwaukee Mask and Puppet Theatre, Arcadia Productions, and Stuart Johnson (formerly of Modjeska Theater). Quasimondo Physical Theatre was the major sub-letting tenants. Other groups and individual artists who had studio and storage space there included: Ron Scott Fry (of Optimist Theatre), Emilio DeTorre (ACLU Youth Group), and puppetry artist Michael Pettit.
Quasimondo’s Kama Sutra premieres Friday, March 11, at Studio G in The Shops of Grand Avenue.