I moved to Milwaukee couple months ago. Having always lived in Suburbia, U.S.A., where houses look the same and the “artsy” people work at art galleries in the mall, I didn’t know where to go when I was assigned to report on the Milwaukee art scene. After all, I had just figured out when the dining halls opened and closed, what streets were “bad news” at night and I didn’t even know how to use my U-PASS.
Faced with this predicament, I did what any other freshmen would have in my situation: I looked for upperclassmen who looked like they knew a thing or two about the city and asked, “Where can I find some decent art here in the city of Milwaukee?”
I would love to say that the answers shocked me, but that would be a lie. “The Milwaukee Art Museum.” “The Haggerty Museum of Art.” “The Eisner Museum of Advertising and Design.”
It’s not that these weren’t great answers, but I could have just flipped open my very handy “Passport to Milwaukee” and been directed down the exact same path. But I figured if the upperclassmen said this was where to find art in Milwaukee, then it must be so. As I ventured toward the Haggerty Museum of Art, I had a run-in with some sculpture – almost an entire collection of Ernest Shaw works, including sculptures made of stone and metal. The stone tables and benches in the side courtyard of Haggerty were also designed by Shaw, and this was just outside the museum.
What I found inside was fairly intriguing. The exhibit on the first floor was “Biographical Landscape: The Photography of Stephen Shore,” a collection of both color and black-and-white photos that illustrated North American life in the 1970s. Some photos looked as though they came from family photo albums, while others looked like they were taken right out of old ‘70s magazines. Displayed on the second floor of the Haggerty Museum was a collection of paintings and an exhibit called “Turn the Pages Slowly: Rare Books and Manuscripts from the Haggerty Collection.” Astonished by the quality of preservation of these documents, I left the museum with a new appreciation of what art could be.
But was that it? Was that the extent of the artistic presence in Milwaukee? Deciding to use the rest of my leads to answer this question, I hopped on the #14 bus route and headed toward the lakefront. Getting off the bus, I was met by a unique sight – tall poles just outside Discovery World, topped with shimmering semicircles that rotated in the wind. Surrounding these were xylophone benches. Yes, they are just what they sound like. Also in an adjacent area were bike racks. These were not just ordinary bike racks, but instead were shaped like actual bikes. Feeling rather amused, I decided that I should probably be making my way to the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Though it was fairly close to Discovery World, I never made it in. I saw the steel structure in O’Donnell Park next to the museum, but then got carried away with other pieces of art the city presented to me.
Of course, there were the forms of art that attracted tourists, such as the stone pillars of the Milwaukee Veterans’ Memorial. But unnoticed across the street were the carefully carved wooden pillars stood on the porches of old lakefront homes. A little further inland I found statues erected in the memories of historical figures, such as poet Robert Burns. Near the curb, I discovered makeshift roadside memorials tearfully created in the memory of lives that did not have the chance to find their places in history.
I saw a beautiful sculpture of the world, embellished with copper-looking metal, mosaic tiles and blown glass, situated on one of thousands of sidewalks. I saw murals painted on the sides of buildings, such as the Lincoln Center of the Arts, and also on the sides of dumpsters. I found graffiti, a type of art that screams for attention. Other pieces speak for themselves, such as the beds of flowers in the tiny, fenced-in yards of houses. And of course, “Heyyyy” goes without saying when passing the “Bronze Fonz” of “Happy Days.”
Art was everywhere – on the tops and sides of buildings, in archways, bushes, courtyards, lakeside and riverside. I could not escape it.
When I started this assignment, I only knew the campus sculptures: the Jacques Marquette statue outside St. Joan of Arc Chapel, the Christ Arisen statue outside the Alumni Memorial Union and the war memorials outside of Straz Tower. Then I opened my eyes.
I’m sad for those who have lived here for so long and have not been able to see the city the way I recently have. Every single part of the Milwaukee has been created with a vision, and, as a whole, it reflects the culture and substance of those who have lived and live here now. And each piece of art means something different to each person. This was my experience with the art in Milwaukee. What will be yours?