Art meets History at “Death of Industry”
To the north is the posh Third Ward. West, there are thriving residential neighborhoods and entertainment districts and artistic communities laying their roots. And then to east of my window is a small valley, filled with relics of the city’s manufacturing past — massive structures of steel and brick that were once symbols of a viable economy and bright future — now sit empty as a representation of loss, poverty and well, a different era.
Milwaukee was once among the most attractive cities along the Rust Belt, a hub for the wheat, brewing, tanning, steel and brick industries, respectively. Today, a drive along the harbor is like a haunting memorial to our city’s blue collar backbone.What’s left behind are empty lots and decrepit structures, which are either razed, or (much to the chagrin of some) developed into loft-style condominiums.
“Buildings that were once the foundations of people’s lives have become a representation of someone else’s wealth,” says Ken Tousignant.
Tousignant is one half of the Milwaukee Art Reform Syndicate (M.A.R.S.), a relatively new group which seeks to foster a spirit of collaboration among multidisciplinary artists, organizations and generally creative minds in the city. Since spring, they’ve hosted a handful of shows incorporating art, music, performance and food under a specific theme, in the hopes of creating a different kind of creative experience.
The artists and organizations participating in Saturday’s show will incorporate various elements that will comment not only on the history of post-industrial Milwaukee, but also explore where it’s going, and how a salt of the earth town like this has adapted to changing technologies and social responsibility.
Bree Rose of Project M will present a fashion line inspired by the textile industry. Paintings and photographs from local artists like Adam Nilson and David Schrimpf (among many others) will even be displayed on re-purposed building materials. For the history buff/nerd in all of us, HMI will present slideshows and guided tours, providing an historical narrative to the artistic interpretations of Milwaukee’s future.
Tousigant likens the concept to an age-old adage: “You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.”
He and business partner Aaron Hoenisch say that the inspiration came from a variety of factors — from personal stories of locals who spent most of their lives working in manufacturing to the recent statistics about poverty and segregation in Milwaukee.
They’ve spent the past few weeks flyering Walker’s Point with images of forgotten industry and the workforce behind it. One such flyer (seen above) is a photo of Hoenisch’s former father-in-law, who worked at the Grede Foundry on 1st and Greenfield for most of his life. That particular plant was consolidated years ago, and now the site sits empty.
While it is a dramatic subject, the men behind M.A.R.S. say the point of the show is to provoke thought and spark new conversation — not to just dwell on the past. He talks about the juxtaposition of old and new in the city. As we sit and chat at the Alterra Foundry on Pittsburgh St., we realize that we are at a strange intersection of old and new Milwaukee..
“Take a look at this building,” Ken says, referring to the foundry itself. “This used to be a factory of some sort, and probably a place where someone could make wages to support a family on.”
While we all agree that the renovation of the space is lovely, it is also undeniably apparent that one can’t support a family on barista wages. What the new use of the space does, however, is add an amount of culture to the area — something that is necessary to building good communities.
Even in places that are economically depressed, vibrant local culture adds capital.
“If you know how to experience life and if you have culture, you’ll never be poor,” says Hoenisch.
Death of Industry takes place on Saturday, October 23 beginning at 6 p.m. at the Pritzlaff Building, 143 Plankinton. There is a charge of $10 at the door, which goes to benefit Historic Milwaukee,Inc. For more information, click here.