Brian Jacobson
Gallery Night, Summer 2010

A personal photo essay

By - Jul 26th, 2010 04:00 am
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Anyone who is a veteran of Gallery Night in Milwaukee knows that the most interesting stuff may lie at the furthest boundaries of “the map,” a sort of guide printed up that showcases what’s going on that night. To get in the pamphlet, you play nice with The Historic Third Ward Association.

You can still hold your event or art opening, but you better have a lot of Facebook friends or have the ability to print up some flyers. One of the constants in Milwaukee’s 20 year history of holding Gallery Night (which has grown from once a year to four times a year, and now adds “and Day” for anyone willing to show up Saturday morning) is that the central hub of the party is the Third Ward.

Ah, the warehouse district turned sumptuous upper-class Third Ward. It was once a swamp until we drained it, and watched as Irish immigrants moved in. Then there was the great fire of 1892, and Italians immigrants moved in too. Then Milwaukee built a big freeway in the 1950s that effectively separated Third Ward from downtown. They tore down a cute chapel, and the Italians took their spaghetti and wine-making factories elsewhere. And so on and so forth goes the history of rise and fall.

In the 1980s, enterprising gays re-decorated and put up antique stores and salons. Bloodthirsty businessmen got jealous of their success and jacked up rent everywhere. If you could afford to stay, you had to be a high-end, good-looking, one hand in the past and one hand on the pulse of the present business. The new tenants of the old spaces have very little connection with what came before, even if they both touched the same hardwood floors.

These same floorboards now creaked under my feet as I descended steep, short stairs to the basement of the Marshall Building. Like some sort of movie, I had tried a few times to escape the place in the past hour. But then I would step outside and run into someone I knew, and would get dragged back inside. It was very unlike me.

Gallery Night is usually an obstacle course across the city that takes me as far north as Cardinal Stritch and as far south as Hide House in Bay View during a four-hour stretch. The shows at the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Haggerty are usually tops, and the underdog shows at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts are pretty fine. I have a checklist of folks I plan to see, even if it means running the dreaded gambit of downtown parking to visit Dean Jensen and Digital Edge.

But on this night, I found parking on the roof level of one of two open parking structures that are free during the event. I picked up a print of my own at Soups On! and ambled down to the corner splendor that is the Marshall Building. What ensued was bliss and chaos.

My basement wanderings led to encounters including Bridget Griffith and Gene Evans, some Pabst memorabilia from the team at Best Place, a fledgling show called Spill, and other known art associates and miscreants. My first floor adventure met with a crowded Irish band, a conversation in Grava Gallery about anatomically correct lion sculptures, and a foray into social matters at Reginald Baylor’s new space.

I thought I was done, but after a conversation with Tom Crawford on the sidewalk outside, I felt compelled to re-enter once again.

Now came the elevator ride. As a rule, I never use this thing but tonight I wanted to reach the fifth floor and the Shimon & Lindemann photographic survey show at The Portrait Society Gallery. It was an adventure taken with fellow (but more luminous) photographer Francis Ford that rivaled the trip taken by Charlie and his grandfather with Willie Wonka.

On the fifth floor — and every floor for that matter — there is an open window with a spectacular view of the city during “the magic hour.” On the inside hall, there is much talk surrounding Mike Brenner’s small first batch of his own microbrew finalized during the July storm that rocked all of our little worlds. Everyone scours the photograph project for people they know or in some cases, themselves. There is much marching up and down stairs here.

I take a final journey down to the second floor, where no less than four more galleries exist and three more encounters with art world friends happen. I am somehow enamored again with the whole idea; perhaps I’ve reached a point where my own name value and recognition in this arena makes me happy. But it’s also intoxicating to camp out at one site and take in all the art without the bum rush. I even contemplate the rarest of Gallery Night feats — buying a piece of art from one of the shows.

I could make arguments for both practices on Gallery Night in Milwaukee. Planning your night and hitting specific spots can be a good thing and a fair way to expose yourself to new ideas. But for the purely social angle, nothing has yet topped hanging out in one place and getting a feel for what you are seeing, all the while running into friends and entering into new conversations about art in the city.

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