Sunday, August 16, 2009

Art walk (and walk . . . and walk . . .)

Things have been so crazy I've had no time to post about the recent Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival. This is like one of those belated birthday presents that arrives so late you might as well call it a Christmas present. So Merry Christmas one and all, because the fest still seems worth a reflection or two.

By all reports, and despite a few crotchety critiques (my sympathies for drivers' frustrations in getting around a blocked street evaporated a long time ago: it's summer, and a perfect time for hoofing), this was a splendid event. It had a pretty interesting evolution to boot. Its seeds were the Taste of Logan Square, a strange, glorified carnival run for several years under the watch of our previous ('machine') alderman, and a place that featured very little food from Logan Square and more than occasional outbursts of violence. Our current alderman's brother was actually killed there one year, so it's no surprise that when he unseated his predecessor, his fair would change both its venue and orientation.

Cue up the Palmer Square Arts Festival, a kinder, gentler summer fair. But it was almost too kind and too gentle. The music never strayed from various folk traditions. The art had no internal conflict whatsoever. And the attendance was pretty lukewarm from year to year. Still, with actual local restaurants featured and a productive use of one of our neighborhood's few patches of green space, it was a tilt in the right direction. A shame, then, when the alderman lost favor with the folks living on the perimeter of Palmer Square by supporting the construction of a playlot in one corner of the park's greenway. Scroll ahead a year: the Milwaukee Arts Festival was born.

Stillborn, you might say.

Its first year or two was an earnest but pretty anemic, taking up an awkward corner at the confluence of three busy car arterials. There were a handful of artists featured--most of them pretty darn talented, if you could actually make your way to their exhibits--and some live music in the parking lot of the liquor store across the street. But it'd be tough to call this progress.

Which is why it was such a surprise to see this year's festival come to life. Is there such a thing as two steps back, 1000 steps forward? Because that might be a fair description. More than three miles of exhibit space up and down Milwaukee Avenue, 2+ full days of activity, live music of every stripe on the Square, an open-air gallery where you could look at art but also get a heaping bbq pork sandwich and a decent local beer. And my favorite part: installations creatively intersecting with the built environment: not only in existing exhibit space, but throughout an entire collection of empty storefronts decimated by the current economy.

The former PUSH 'nutrition supplement' store (a front, no doubt) housed the artists' marketplace, filled with felted scarves, dioramas in jars, and handmade jewelry I've regretted not buying ever since. A one-time medical office featured the results of art in the park, where amateur artists of all ages got together on a few consecutive weekends to paint whatever inspired them at the moment. And a recently closed hip-hop clothing store showcased what was for me the most controversial exhibit (and one that probably deserves its own entry): a personal collection of street art 'appropriated' (stolen?) from its public context that I have to admit was amazing to see. More on that to come.

But overall, it was great to see all our neighborhood assets, from green space to a stalled retail corridor to an abundance of locally created art, put to such productive use. Some of the owners of those empty storefronts have actually asked to keep the exhibits hanging for a while--a nice way to 'stage' the space for would-be business owners. If it works, the alderman (and all the rest of us) owe those hard-working artist/organizers an even greater debt than we realize.


leslie said...

Wow—sounds like a huge endeavor pulled off beautifully. And are those fine art mosquito pinatas?

Christy said...

Mosquito pinatas they are. That was probably the best exhibit of the show. Better yet, the host space (a somewhat cavernous arts facility for underserved youth) just got federal stimulus money for a major interior renovation. It's run by the nicest people you'd ever want to meet, so it's great to see that money being put to good purpose.

Lynn Stevens said...

Great news! I just learned that some of the empty storefronts are getting some calls of interest as a result of folks seeing their potential from the converted galleries exhibits. Many businesses were obviously delighted in the increased foot traffic and uptick in sales.