The Fuel of Magnificence

29 Oct, 2011

by Stacie Williams

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Artist at work

“When I first decided to be a professional artist, I wanted that fishbowl experience, so I got a storefront studio,” Reggie says.

“It’s not intimidating to discover an artist in public space,” adds Caitlin.

A group of us are seated in the Lobby Lounge, discussing the two residency programs the Pfister has developed for art and writing.  As the current artist-in-residence, Shelby Keefe, is out of town, the inaugural AIR, Reginald Baylor, joins us instead – along with his business partner Heidi Witz.  One of the managers, Jessica, is also taking part in the conversation, at the head of which is Caitlin Strokosch, Executive Director of the Alliance of Artists Communities.  The goal of the Alliance is a clearinghouse of information for artists seeking residencies (places to cultivate their particular art) and for residency providers.  While these residencies are certainly there to help an artist create original works and become better at what they do, there is an important public component to them.  90% of the more than 1,000 programs worldwide have an engagement with their local communities.

This public engagement is hugely important.  A 2003 study by the Urban Institute found that while 96% of Americans valued the arts, a mere 27% valued the artists.   The study concluded that “Making a real difference in the creative life of artists will entail developing a new understanding and appreciation for who artists are and what they do, as well as financial resources from a variety of stakeholders. Achieving these changes involves a long-term commitment from artists themselves, as well as arts administrators, funders, governments at various levels, community developers and real estate moguls, not to mention the business and civic sectors.”

There’s a clear disconnect between the art we see and experience, and those creating it.  Caitlin explained, “a lot of residencies struggle with that aloneness of creating art, wondering how to you let the public into that process.”

The assistant front desk manager, Jessica, originally thought the artist-in-residence program at the Pfister was primarily for enriching the guest’s experience.  “What I noticed was a lot of people would come here – not just stay here – and consider the Pfister a part of that Milwaukee experience.  The community and city has gotten involved.  It was such a pleasant surprise.”

Seeing artists as “regular Joes” by seeing the backs of their paintings as opposed to the fronts that create a sense of idolization, that separation of the artist from the art viewer that results in the divergent numbers of people who appreciate art, but not art makers.

For-profit companies are one path to bringing the public into the artist’s process, bridging that gulf between art and artist in the eye of the public.  Businesses that see creativity as an asset, that invest in the new creative economy, find themselves nurturing a different craft or conversation product, one that’s not much different than the culinary arts of Mason Street Bar & Grill, the fashion arts of Roger Stevens or Boutique B’Lou, the music artistry from pianists in the lounge or in Blu, or the healing arts of WELL Spa.  Customers and guests then see each of their experiences has having artistic merit, which bolsters value of other arts.

The struggle between artists creating “to create” and artists creating for production and money is a historically constant one.  “It’s a conundrum,” Reggie says, “Professionals won’t do their work if they’re not getting paid.  Why should artists have to be any different?”  With the rise of local art shows like Made in Milwaukee, and online marketplaces like Etsy, artists are finding ways to create art, but also make, or supplement, a living with those creative gifts.

The Pfister’s unique approach to this investment into the creative economy has now stood for a few years as a shining example of how art and business and co-exist in a mutually beneficial partnership.

MPT production/gallery space

Just down Wisconsin Avenue, at the hollowed-out Grand Avenue Mall, a similar partnership has begun.  The new owners had an open house in June that featured a local design firm and Creative Alliance Milwaukee, showcasing how the mall plans to open up to more nonretail use.  Already, two arts organizations, ArtMilwaukee and Milwaukee Public Theatre, have moved into empty storefronts there, joining the same wing as the offices of online magazine ThirdCoastDigest.

Milwaukee’s creative economy is growing fast, and being a part of this sort of new, engaged partnership between business, art, and the public has certainly lit a fire under me to continue to remain engaged and supportive of these endeavors.  And, I see the next Pfister Narrator, Ed Makowski (stepping up to the proverbial desk on November 1st), taking this program to even greater heights within that growing community.

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About the author

Stacie Williams

With a love of stories and storytelling, Stacie Williams has worked at a local Milwaukee bookstore for six years, and has experience in travel writing and blogging. In 1998, she moved from California to study theater at University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, and stayed.

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