Brian Jacobson

The Road to Creativity

Despite carping from critics, the Creational Trails project seeks to artistically enliven 10 blocks of Wisconsin Avenue.

By - Oct 31st, 2013 01:00 pm
W. Wisconsin Ave. Photo from Creational Trails website.

W. Wisconsin Ave. Photo from Creational Trails website. Click to enlarge.

Three weeks ago the Greater Milwaukee Committee’s “Creational Trails” website was launched, which included pages of mellifluous words created by young professionals and project managers involved in the project. The project will devote $50,000 in arts grants aimed at beautifying and “activating the space” of the first 10 blocks of West Wisconsin Avenue, which hopefully inspires economic development and new conversations about the beleaguered downtown strip. But the details weren’t entirely clear, prompting media critics and internet commenters to voice their confusion and snarky, cynical doubts over the language and process of the installations before they could ever take place.

This occasional animosity towards the project began soon after the May 20 announcement by the Greater Milwaukee Committee that ArtPlace America had awarded the Milwaukee group a $350,000 grant to fund art “placemaking” and community events in two specific areas. (No, placemaking is not one of the made-up words this article will discuss, but an architectural term coined in the 1960s that has taken on new life in modern-day creative projects in major cities). This was a coup for the GMC, whose proposal won over 1,200 other applicants across the country.

ArtPlace America describes itself as a collaboration of 13 leading national and regional foundations including six of the nation’s largest banks, which is advised by agencies including the National Endowment for the Arts, the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Education, and Transportation, along with leadership from the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Domestic Policy Council. The GMC is a private sector organization formed here in the late 1940s to push for tangible civic improvement projects like building the (U.S. Cellular) Arena and new Milwaukee County Zoo and transforming the bankrupt Marquette medical school into the Medical College of Wisconsin. Since the 1980s, the GMC’s focus has shifted to softer “more complex social issues such as education and inner city development,” as the organization notes.

You might say the Creational Trails project falls somewhere in the middle, a blend of the tangible and conceptual. The “Creational Trails” website was created by folks from MiKE (Innovation in Milwaukee) and social networkers from Beintween and Newaukee (including its affiliate Art Milwaukee), who used the academic language of artists and media study graduates combined with some of the creative and invented words that an ad or marketing agency might use in describing the project.  The intended goal was to spur excitement and involve the public into participating in the efforts taking place over the next 15 months by giving a glimpse into the core concepts. Some of the event titles combine one word with another to make a new word.

The ARTery. Photo from Creational Trails website.

The ARTery. Photo from Creational Trails website. Click to enlarge

The first project, called The ARTery, was launched with straightforward fanfare and a press conference in the months following the initial announcement of the grant award. This project is led by the Beintween group as a social initiative to reclaim the industrial rail corridors in the Harambee neighborhood via community-based art projects.  In this case, the idea was conceived by architect Diébédo Francis Kéré and being directly advised in Milwaukee by Keith Hayes.  The linear park is set to incorporate acres of gardening landscapes, performance spaces and art pieces like the Hopcycle and maTIREal Trail.

The ARTery concept is stated as “becoming a socio-economic model by embracing cultural incongruency, establishing connectivity, and rejuvenating community to address the reality and repercussions of segregation, ultimately empowering its residents and lowering contrast in Milwaukee.” Despite this breathy language that confounded readers recently, the ARTery project had the advantage of a four month headstart in showing tangible results before the Creational Trails website launch—and the ARTery takes place in a Milwaukee space that is so desolate that no one batted an eye when someone wanted to do something there.  But by the time the creative placemaking for W. Wisconsin Avenue was formally announced and now given time for examination with a fine tooth comb, critics have sharpened their knives.

The first slash came at the pop-culture way the vetting process was described:  the concept behind the “Tournavation” (tournament + innovation) competition portion of the W. Wisconsin Avenue project can be compared to modern reality TV shows like The Voice or Shark Tank with the format of a TED talk.  The process includes an open call for submissions until Nov. 13, followed by the project team culling proposals down to 10 ideas.  The project management team, advised by such individuals as Sara Daleiden (founder of the MKE<->LAX and the Friends of Blue Dress Park projects), then work with those nominees to refine or clarify the ideas before coming to Tournavation.

That event has finalists literally facing an independent jury made up of former Milwaukee Mayor and current head of the Congress for the New Urbanism John Norquist; the Milwaukee Art Museum’s photography curator Lisa Sutcliffe; Regina Flanagan of Art-Landscape-Design City of St. Paul; Chipstone Arts Administrator Claudia Mooney; and director/producer Brad Pruitt.  Artists give a presentation of what their idea is about and how it will be implemented.  From there, approximately 2-4 winners will split the $50,000 to implement the winning selections.

The implementation itself takes place during a 48-hour weekend in June 2014 called “TENTs”.  Analogies by both Art Milwaukee Executive Director Angela Damiani on WMSE’s “The Disclaimer” show and President Jeremy Fojut at a recent listening session describe TENTs as a kind of Burning Man (without the drugs and burning) or Carnivale, where creative types and the public is invited for a camping project along the stretch of Wisconsin Avenue while they install and showcase the winning placemakers.  A better point of reference may be the annual Urban Island Beach Party that Newaukee/Art Milwaukee has hosted at Lakeshore State Park—only this time on a much grander scale, in a much more visible space, with an enduring impact on the mood and vision for the city.

The project, of course, has support from the mayor’s office as his team has explored ways to revitalize or reinvent the 10-block main street. It also has support from various property managers who have struggled to keep stores and restaurants open on the avenue. A vocal minority of the critics have claimed cronyism is at work or that a young organization like Newaukee has not yet shown a track record for doing more than under-40 networking and throwing parties. The belief is that no significant work of art can come from this project.

For their part, these smaller and active groups have at times acknowledged that everything is an experiment.  They acknowledge that their aim is not to assess the art as much as give working artists a spotlight. The purpose of the grant project is not so much to put a piece of public art or sculpture on the street, they say; instead the artwork needs to actively engage the viewer or have a physical purpose in being there.

As of late, the scramble for the leaders of Creational Trails (who wisely have now left the ‘ mark off the C) has been to be more transparent about everything and they are facing their accusers head-on. The site has added timelines, budgets, and further explanations.  A series of presentation-listening sessions have been rolled out, with one that took place at the Grand Avenue on Oct. 30 and another on Wednesday, Nov. 6. When it comes to public art and social initiatives in the more visible parts of Milwaukee, the road ahead is a tough one.


2 thoughts on “The Road to Creativity”

  1. David says:

    It would be interesting to see Wisconsin Ave. shut down once a week, instead of just 2 days a year. How would that transform the area?

    Also, bike lanes would be nice. Biking down, or up Wisconsin is a constant game of cat – and – mouse with buses.

  2. judith ann moriarty says:

    In the spirit of activating genuine cooperation, why not take all of the grant monies and set up a ten block long Soup Line on Wisconsin Avenue. Let the event be the “art.”
    Any and all walking that route next summer will be privileged to choose from various soups provided by “concerned” eateries. The monies would be directly re-routed into the local economy.

    Too many cooks with suspect agendas threaten to spoil the current stew. What’s needed here is a chef who rules with an iron fist.

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