Before da show
Polish Falcons Beer Hall
801 E. Clarke Street, Riverwest
Friday May 16 (5-9pm)
Saturday May 17 (Noon-9pm)
It’s Thursday, 1 pm, May 15. Tomorrow at 5 pm, the doors open to reveal the Milwaukee International art fair. I’m standing in the middle of the chaos at the Polish Falcons Beer Hall at 801 E. Clarke Street, deep in the soul of Riverwest, here to give you a taste of what it takes to ready 28 art spaces for exhibitors from as far flung as San Juan (Puerto Rico, not Capistrano), Tokyo, Glasgow, and yes, even M’waukee. Bowling will rumble from the Falcon Bowl in the building’s bowels. It’s the fourth oldest bowling alley in America; Liberace would love it.
A distinct air of beer wafts through the hall on the first floor. Groups of volunteers hump booth walls to and fro, a few sporting white hoodies emblazoned with the art fair’s logo. You can purchase a hoodie or a tee for $24 and/or $10 respectively, and they come in really big or really small sizes. A visiting artist from Glasgow made them.
“Somebody from Ralph Lauren called me to ask if they could buy some,” says Tyson Reeder, who operates The General Store art venue. “I’m not kidding,” he adds. A huge tray of food arrives from their neighbor across the way (The Riverwest Co-op). It’s almost time to chow down and take a break.
Last year the walls were donated for no charge. This year, there may be a slight charge if the fair turns a profit. Booths for non-profit venues rent for $200; for-profits pay $400. All things considered, it’s a deal. So far the group has taken in $4,000 for this year’s extravaganza. Last year they took in $2,000. But they’ll be lucky to clear a grand, and if they do, it rolls over into their next project. No one is getting rich. Everyone is getting happy.
From the editor: The walls were paid for, NOT donated, as the organizers of Milwaukee International have made clear in the comment posted below. The generous sponsorship of Thomas Blackman Associates in Chicago assists with the walls, but the are paid for, and nearly all of the booth rental fees charged by MKE INTL go toward wall rental and lighting fees. We regret the error. VS
The volunteers and those who donate supplies seem to take pride in being “emotionally invested” in the Fair. Green Gallery proprietor John Riepenhoff lectures at UW-Milwaukee. His subject? How to start an art gallery. He should know.
Nick Frank dashes by in a red hoodie. He’s sporting a “new” and rather elaborate growth of facial hair. I remark that he looks like a fugitive from a Goya painting. We move to a corner near the long dark bar where a guy from Cuba show his art. “We almost got a fellow (first name “Valentino”), a taxidermist, but he changed his mind,” said Frank. I asked him about the accusation that local galleries who wanted to participate were left with their inquiries unanswered. “That isn’t true,” the organizers chime in. “It isn’t true. We tried our best to accommodate as many venues as possible.”
Will this exhibition score major strikes or gutter some balls? Perhaps both, but how can you lose when Vern & The Originals will keep you polka-ing in the aisles? And if the polka is too blue-collar for you, a Mad Planet dance party will close out the festivities on Saturday night. Did I mention that the King of Old Things, legend Paul Finger, will lead bus tours of area treasures during the fair?
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel arts critic Mary Louise Schumacher has posted her concerns that three of the five Milwaukee galleries represented are associated with the organizers of the event. She asks if it is “insular.” Mike Brenner, soon to be former proprietor of Hotcakes Gallery, has offered his opinion in her “comments.” Read it and weep.
The event doesn’t begin for another 28 hours – plenty of time, never mind that the Milwaukee International team (Elysia Borowy-Reeder, Nicholas Frank, Scott Reeder, Tyson Reeder and John Riepenhoff) are expecting most of the artists to arrive this evening after I’m long gone. Who cares? I’m here to enjoy the sweat and grunt session in order to give you an idea that these events don’t happen magically, even with three Reeders, one Riepenhoff, a Frank, and a cadre of dedicated volunteers.
Amy Elliott, managing editor of Vital Source, has promised she’ll post this early on Friday, attend the event and then post her opinions about the art, provided she survives two days of revelry. I’m way too beat to polka. The last time I did that was 55 years ago when I danced with a German guy (from M’waukee) at the Roseland Ballroom in Kansas City. His name was Warren Becker and he was a fool for the polka.
I leave them to their considerable efforts. Outside the Falcon a big Fed-X truck is unloading crates of art. Groups of folks are eating outside at small tables set up in front of the Riverwest Co-op. Things are looking good. VS