The Bronze Fonz Debacle

By - Dec 4th, 2007 02:52 pm
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Mike Brenner, owner of Hotcakes Gallery and big-time mover and shaker in Milwaukee’s art community, sends a seething, vitriolic letter to every major media outlet and art informer in Southeastern Wisconsin vowing to shut Hotcakes’ doors and leave the city for good should a life-size statue of the Fonz be erected in our fair downtown. It registered like Old Testament prophecy, with Brenner’s foot-stomping, foaming-at-the-mouth, head-turning-360-degrees registering somewhere on a scale between “Shut up” and “What a creep.” You know, the kind of crazed clarion that always comes to devastating fruition in the end.

The project bears very little exposition here: Visit Milwaukee, formerly the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, is quite close to its goal of raising $85,000 in private funds to put a statue of Henry Winkler as Arthur Fonzarelli of Happy Days somewhere along the Riverwalk. In the old days, people used to construct monuments of people of influence or historical importance — leaders, war heroes, city founders, martyrs, saints, and every once in a while the visage of a crazed dictator longing for a gigantic, oxidizing, bird-shat-upon place in history (many of those statues, appropriately, have since been torn down). On a southward stroll down Prospect Avenue, you will come upon three of these statues in a row, first of Scottish bard Robert Burns, then of viking Leif Erickson, and finally of fur-trader and Milwaukee father Solomon Juneau, his musket poised. On the back of my ankle I have a tattoo of an iconic Detroit image, the 1950s Marshall Fredericks’ statue The Spirit of Detroit, a big shirtless bronze man, seated, holding aloft a small family in one hand and a bright golden sun in another, emanating the impervious, ineffable rays of God.

But the canned responses that Dave Fantle of Visit Milwaukee’s PR team has CC’d to everyone from Mike Brenner to the intelligent, considered team of experts at Susceptible to Images to Milwaukee Art Museum CEO David Gordon, arguably the heaviest weight in Milwaukee’s rather little art world, makes it clear that the Bronze Fonz isn’t like those “other” statues. Yes, we hear you, Visit Milwaukee. We know all about Chicago’s Bob Newhart, Minneapolis’ Mary Tyler Moore, Manhattan’s Ralph Kramden (all of which were pitched and placed in a promotional project by the TV Land network). You have only reminded us that they exist every SINGLE time someone wonders why on EARTH we would put a Bronze Fonz on the Riverwalk. We know that you are casting the statue locally and employing a “local” artist (he’s from Lake Mills — a full 55 miles from Milwaukee — not such a great distance, but a stretch when it is considered just how many hundreds of artists live in the city of Milwaukee, proper, or even in the county, or the next county over). You keep trying to tell us that this is “pop” art, not “high” art, the art equivalent of burgers and custard.

The hidden message here is that this is not an art project, but a marketing project (as most tourism, at its heart, constitutes marketing), and it’s marketing targeted at people who don’t live here. The Fonz is not here to edify us, give us pause, or present us with something beautiful; he is here to sell us to people in other cities who are thinking about spending the weekend here, bringing their convention here, stopping in Milwaukee on their way to the Dells or Door County. He is here so that Visit Milwaukee can put him on the cover of the brochures they send out all over the region and give to professional tour planners as a way to say, “See? Milwaukee is fun! Milwaukee is just like you think it is!”

And here’s the thing: it’s not even a good marketing project. It’s uninspired and unimaginative. There are so many more amazing things about Milwaukee than goddamn Happy Days. If we’re going for “contrived cultural significance,” why not build a statue of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is a real person with real accomplishments, is a lot taller and more statuesque than Henry Winkler, and although he is not from here, nor does he live here any longer, actually had something to do with the city as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, and was also in Airplane, which was written by three uproarious guys from Milwaukee? Why not bronze a 5’7” can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, which is the coolest thing that people in Portland, Oregon think Milwaukee has going for it? I have this crazy vision of a giant, ten-times-larger-than-life typewriter (invented in Milwaukee), a big piece of interactive art that kids can climb all over, as recognizable as the cherry on the spoon in the Walker Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis (which is way, way, way, more recognizable than the Mary Tyler Moore statue). I would love to take my future family to see a statue of James Cameron, lynching survivor and founder of America’s Black Holocaust Museum, but we’re going for fun photo-op here, not depressing, unattractive, brochure-inappropriate civil rights history. Then again, Washington DC has a humongous Einstein statue that is wonderful to cuddle up to for the camera; he’s a delight, a very positive and charming piece of art, and of obvious human significance. I love the Einstein statue.

And then there’s the question of permanence: I didn’t watch very much Happy Days growing up; the impression I get from most other people my age is that they didn’t either, and that most of us couldn’t give a lick of care about the Fonz. By the time we have kids, they will be emotionally uninvolved not only with Arthur Fonzarelli as a character but with the whole bucolic-1950s, greaser-cool, life-before-the-hippies-and-the-blacks dream of Happy Days. It’s confounding. Why would we choose to pay permanent tribute to something with such a questionable shelf-life?

But Visit Milwaukee has spoken: they are putting up a Bronze Fonz, whether you like it or not, and they do not care what members of the Milwaukee arts community think about it. Save your genius public art ideas for another group of private investors and another private piece of land. It’s tempting to think that this is just not a big deal, that we are just in a fluff about this because there’s nothing else to argue about in these cold weeks, and maybe that will prove to be the case. I don’t think the fires of hell will rain down when the Fonz goes up, but I am concerned about the weight that is given to the opinions of our arts leaders, the face we are putting on our city, and just how smart (or dumb) we think the “everyday people” of our city really are. Visit Milwaukee was “surprised” that anyone would have a problem with this? And Mike Brenner is just a cranky art snob with an overpriced education who can’t lighten up and appreciate the simpler things in life? Come on. We’re better than that.

For Mike’s own response to the reaction his initial letter inspired, check out his comment on Mary Louise Schumacher’s “Art City” blog. And for a good sense of how badly Visit Milwaukee needs a kick in the pants, visit their website, which makes a trip to Milwaukee look about as appealing as a nap. No wonder Mike Brenner is bitter — Hotcakes, an excruciatingly hip little gem of an art gallery, is nowhere to be found.

Categories: VITAL

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