Will the Arts Building in Walker’s Point remain true to its name?
By Matt Czarnik
Standing quietly, nestled among the rusted and busted, soot-stained leftovers from Milwaukee’s industrious history, and on the outer edge of the city’s lower Southside redevelopment projects just off 2nd St. in Historic Walker’s Point, is 133 W. Pittsburgh. In its early years it was a candy factory, then Bostrom, a seat cover manufacturer whose mosaic-formed name the front of the building still bears. But it wasn’t until 24 years ago, when this urban landmark was rented by artists devoted to their calling and living on their creativity did #10 Walker’s Point acquire its awakening.
Embedded amidst the clamorous clang and eerily audible traffic hum emanating from Interstate 94 just blocks away, and the remaining machine shops and manufacturing plants still in the area, the building was, until recently, owned by Joan Julien. Her deep ties to Milwaukee and embracing attitude toward the local artists who rented the studios have, for over two decades, helped nurture the space from its industrial beginnings into what is likely to be a central attraction for the incoming group of people hungry for the city.
Welcome to Milwaukee’s Chelsea Hotel.
For leatherworker Ilze Heider, whose studio houses both her workshop and showcase of original designs, the interior was just open space without walls when she arrived 18 years ago. With its industrial-sized stairways and squeaky wooden antique freight elevator, large washrooms and utility sinks, the historical significance and link to the past makes the building almost legendary; an idea of Bohemia not unlike the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York. Housing artists, who live for their work and are usually struggling to live off their work while craving the sounds, sights and smells of city life, has defined the soul of 133 W. Pittsburgh. For many of those present, however, the future is increasingly unclear.
For most of the occupants, this is where they spend time creating and conducting business, giving private lessons or showing work to clients. In all, 25 professional artists have studio space in the five-floor building, creating everything from paintings to ceramics to blown glass. The artistic diversity of it makes it a popular attraction for people embarking on the city-wide gallery walks held frequently throughout the year around downtown, the Third Ward and Walker’s Point. One of the building’s most unique, regular occurrences is the seasonal Studio Art Crawl. It’s a three-day, one building extravaganza where tenants, friends and customers get together to visit, see new work and buy original artwork.
An uncertain future?
But as fashion photographer Tom MacDonald, who has a studio in the building, describes it, the rent is the hot issue most artists here would rather not discuss too much. The hush-hush is that the recent sale of the site to Olson Development, and the building’s long waiting list of prospective tenants, have caused the people here, especially the ones who are dug in and couldn’t imagine moving, to worry about their livelihoods. Even Heider, who realized that Julien did what she had to do selling it (her property taxes are rumored to have increased prohibitively in the city’s latest assessment), still holds doubts about whether the new owner will keep the artist’s studios affordable. Heider said that after her letters went unreturned, and with the rumors becoming more rampant about a remake of the building into condos like the Fifth Ward Lofts, just down the block, some, like her, are feeling a little in limbo. Some tenants have been talking with local politicians, including Mayor John Norquist, about special zoning or a tax abatement for the property so that it’s skyrocketing assessment will not price them out.
“The whole point is we want it to stay a building for artists,” remarked painter and private instructor Pat Hidson, who rents studio #301 of 133 W. Pittsburgh. Hidson, whose playful and brightly colored paintings are included in various galleries around Milwaukee and in the new Racine Art Museum, is a vivacious supporter of the building’s artists and an enthusiastic occupant who, like many fellow tenants, believe that for far too long Milwaukee has ignored its unique and talented artisans.
“Art is work; it’s hard work that doesn’t receive the price it deserves,” said Hidson. She echoes the thoughts of most interviewed, that this inequality is especially true for Milwaukee artists.
What MacDonald sees happening is an unfortunate irony of redeveloping a neighborhood like Historic Walker’s Point: while people coming in see living in an artsy part of town exciting and appealing, they may be inadvertently pricing out the very people they are attracted to living near. And with the Historic Third Ward receiving a heavy dose of high-priced luxury condo developments, the artists at 133 W. Pittsburgh fear their building is next.
Shortly after the purchase, in a letter addressed to all occupants, Olson Development property manager Sini Skodras expressed a seemingly genuine belief that #10 Walker’s Point would remain a place for artists, which has since been renamed The Arts Building. Of course the developer did reserve the right to negotiate the leases at the end of October, which those who commented for this story believed would be the time at which their rents will be raised.
According to Heider, during the 2003 Spring Art Crawl, held last April, some customers lamented the loss of the old owner and the possibility that such a special space might, after over two decades, be lost. But for one tenant, whose knowledge and experience in Milwaukee’s art scene spans almost four decades, the future is laden with change, and all you can do is keep moving.
After spending 24 years on Pittsburgh St. in the same studio, one would think her nostalgia for the past would cause her to worry the most; but this isn’t the case. Celeste Spransy, whose late husband, the painter and portraiture artist Alan Gass, did illustrations for the Milwaukee Journal and was inducted into their Hall of Fame, is a woman embedded within the art community of Milwaukee. Her spark has woven through this building and strengthened its walls from within. To her, this building and the artists who work within it make the neighborhood what it is, and she’s confidant that the new owners will not mess with a good thing. For her, this is a place where there isn’t one person she doesn’t like, and upon visiting it’s easy to believe that the feeling is mutual for everyone.
“They’re not going to do that to this building; they said they wouldn’t. And they like it they way it is and they’re right, I think,” Spransy said, with the certainty that comes from seeing and living through it all.