On March 27, I found myself in Milwaukee at the Pfister Hotel for “MarKEt/Forward,” a series of seven lectures by local community organizers and arts professionals. The programing was produced by Niki Johnson, an artist who created work within the hotel for a year as a part of the Pfister Artist-in-Residence program. Attracted by its proximity to Chicago and the possibilities that the discussions therein would bear upon specific issues in the arts faced by midwestern cities like ours, I’d hoped for more than confirmation from the day’s speakers that “a healthy art practice starts with a strong community.” The burgeoning non-profit MarKEt (MKE capitalized as a gesture to Milwaukee)—purveyor of events, art walks and symposia—organized the program aimed at “new opportunities, education and professional development for the self-made artist.”
The most successful and entertaining lectures reflected struggles, achievements and personalized details of how the artist developed their practice within the city. Jill Sebastian’s lecture “Public Art: Place and Community” focused on how to navigate an established community both financially and politically via public art. Johnson’s own lecture presented with curator Claudia Arzeno had some well-formulated examples of how she has created opportunities on her own regardless of a structured support. “Manufacturing Creativity,” by local artist Reggie Baylor, was a beautiful insight into his desire to create an audience in Milwaukee, reasoning that the city is still a blank canvas that he hopes to transform. Baylor encouraged Milwaukee-based artists to focus on their surrounding Midwesterners as an audience for their practice.
Unfortunately, much of the day’s content neither addressed the specificities of Milwaukee’s art scene in useful detail nor produced pragmatic strategies through which it might relate to national or international stages. Kat Murrell’s lecture “See+Say: Between Language and the Critical Gaze,” like many from the day, shied away from critical localized examples. Instead, a broad overview of the importance of writing and reading about art was explained, relying heavily on historical references and a couple of contemporary examples from national outlets (like Jessica Dawson’s recent controversial review of Kehinde Wiley’s Brooklyn Museum exhibition in the Village Voice and Hyperallergic’s subsequent analysis). I yearned for a discourse that had developed locally.
Paul Oemig’s “Shifting Silos: Creating Community” came down to, “None of us create in a vacuum. Engaging in a community small or large is essential.” He encouraged the audience to break apart to answer questions, most importantly: “What obstacles have you experienced in Milwaukee’s creative community,” which I would have rather spent the hour listening to than another attempt to abstractly embrace community growth and engagement.
After eight straight hours of MarKEt, I was still left wondering about the structure of Milwaukee’s art scene, information that was more accessible through one-on-one conversations with the energetic Johnson, whose idea for the symposium was both eager and admirable. I would have loved to hear a lecture from MKE <-> LAX founder Sara Daleiden who, although now based in Los Angeles, has fostered conversation and relationships between Milwaukee and LA. An admirable program, I could only think that Chicago should do the same, connecting in a more serious way with the city to create an exchange that doesn’t have to stretch cross-country. (Kate Sierzputowski)