Framing the conversation | Milwaukee’s gallery owners build an art community

Kat Minerath, Contributing writer

“Everyone has to do their own bit. Not sit back and wait for other people to do it. Get up off your ass and do it yourself, you’re an artist for f**k’s sake. Get creative.” 

So says Clive Promhows, owner of Milwaukee’s Live Artists Studio, one of several galleries in the city’s artist community. It’s advice that illuminates the energy of that community, unified by tenacity and passion. 

The Milwaukee art scene is rich with a diverse array of galleries and art venues, but there are distinct changes afoot. The closing of the DeLind Gallery of Fine Art after 46 years, and the forthcoming shuttering of Elaine Erickson Gallery this June will create voids in the wake of their long-established presences. Yet, there are new locations for exhibitions that suggest transformation in the way art intersects with a public audience, and other established galleries are changing too.

But regardless of change, one thing remains the same: Each gallery has its own distinct feel, an individual expression of its owners’ vision.

The Gallery Tradition

Most conventional, in Milwaukee, are the Tory Folliard Gallery and Dean Jensen Gallery. These two mainstays developed in the Third Ward in the late 1980s, growing as the neighborhood did.

Folliard’s interest in art was nurtured by her work as a docent, and she started to take her work home with her — her earliest shows, featuring the work of Guido Brink, took place in her own house. When things got to the point that she was moving furniture to make room for more art, it became clear that a dedicated space was in order. 

After several successful exhibitions in Fox Point, Folliard moved to the Third Ward. She has remained there for the past 25 years. 

She attributes her longevity to the deep sense of enrichment visual art gives her. “It makes life so enjoyable,” Folliard says. “It inspires you, it makes you happy, it changes everything. I can’t imagine a blank wall. It just makes your life full in a different way.”

Jensen came to gallery ownership from a different direction. Originally a newspaper reporter, his life took a sudden shift after a yearlong fellowship at the University of Michigan, studying Renaissance painting. Returning to his newspaper job, he had an awakening: “From the instant I got off the elevator the first day after that wonderful year in Ann Arbor, I made the decision that I didn’t want to do that anymore,” he says. “Before the year was out I had a gallery.” 

Jensen’s career as a novelist also demands his attention, but the gallery remains important. “This has been wonderful coming in here each day, sort of like coming into my own little chapel. You get visual stimulation from the work. I spend time with the pictures and everyday see them anew.“

The longest-running gallery in the city is the David Barnett Gallery, now in its 48th year. Initiation into the art business came early for Barnett. When he was 16 years old, his family’s factory closed, derailing his assumed future with the business. His interest in art took over; three years later he opened his gallery. 

Initially, Barnett’s focus was on local artists. But several years in, he took out a loan and flew to New York, where he purchased works by Pablo Picasso, Joan Mió, Salvador Dalí and more: an inventory to grow from in subsequent decades.

Barnett’s gallery is in a Victorian house on the East Side, and visitors will note the extraordinary diversity of works on view — from historical pieces to contemporary art. 

He says these works serve as a reflection of his individuality, rather than diversity for its own sake. “It’s based on my own personal beliefs in collecting, philosophy, instinct and passion. … It’s perhaps not a very business-like model but it’s the honest one for me which is why I have such a big collection.”

Bending Conventions

In 2008, the Portrait Society Gallery filled a 300-square-foot office on the fifth floor of the Marshall Building in the Third Ward. Director Debra Brehmer helped it grow, pushing her exhibitions out of that room and sending them sprawling into the hallway. As they continually increased in scope, they eventually made the leap into adjacent areas as they became available for rental.

These spaces have coalesced into a flexible, multi-room venue, all dedicated to Brehmer’s expansive interpretation of portraiture. “I curate the shows out of my own interests and that’s the way it’s always been,” Brehmer says. “I think it’s the only thing you can really do to grow and get people used to the idea that there is a sort of a center and a vision. It gives the gallery an identity.” 

Other art venues take a different approach. Green Gallery, now located on the East Side after a fire destroyed its primary space, has expanded considerably since its establishment in Riverwest in 2004. Director John Riepenhoff began the endeavor while still a student at UWM. “In essence, no one was doing the type of gallery I wanted to see so I just made it happen,” he says. “My brother started a recording studio in one room, the gallery was in another room and a music venue was in another room.” 

One of the guiding principles of Green Gallery is to create a sense of community, and to form a place where ideas can be explored and developed. 

“For the Green Gallery we don’t narrow what it can be, we open it up,” Riepenhoff says. “Sometimes we don’t know what the work looks like until we’re actually in the space. The opening is happening and there’s a certain kind of presence in the air and in the work. Sometimes it’s years later that I really learn about the depths of what a show was about. For us it’s about a nowness, being very current, being present, and very open to the possibilities of what art can be and not what our expectations have been.” 

Clive Promhows’ Live Artists Studio is driven by a model of deliberate scarcity. Promhows embraces visual culture, drama, music and all manner of creative endeavors, but many of them are only held for a single day or a couple of nights. “The real good stuff, you gotta get in there quick,” he says.

These single-night and limited-run engagements, growing more common among other galleries and groups as well, have become important for showcasing his work and promoting many other artists in often monumental exhibitions. In the last five-and-a-half years, Promhow has hosted 45 to 50 shows in the studio, on the fourth floor of an old industrial building in Walker’s Point. It intrigued him from the start. “I thought, I have no idea what’s going to happen here, but I’m going to do my best,” he says.

Being outside of a formal gallery structure is also a point of liberation. Promhows says, “We’ve got nothing to lose, we’ve got no one to please. There’s so much hidden talent in this town. Huge. With art, with music, with acting, with film. It’s just a question of elevating people’s attitude.”

Recent Ambitions

Making a physical location for things to happen also motivates some of the newer galleries on the scene, including Usable Space, initiated by Keith Nelson about two years ago in Bay View. 

His background as an artist, as well as 10 years spent as a preparator at the Milwaukee Art Museum (where he still works freelance), gives Nelson a unique curatorial approach. He calls himself a “facilitator,” offering exhibition opportunities for others. 

“I started Usable Space knowing that it’s not going to be a profitable business that can generate its own funding,” Nelson says. “Another thing that was important to me was to have artists curate, and bring in artists from outside of Milwaukee. I didn’t want it to just be a local scene thing. I’ve had artists from New York, Chicago and L.A. alongside artists from Milwaukee, so it shows that what is going on in Milwaukee is relevant to what is going on in all the big art centers, too.” 

Six shows are held at Usable Space yearly, monthly from April to September. The location’s logistics (the gallery is a converted garage) preclude winter exhibitions.

Equally inventive is the new gallery space opened by Mike Brenner, a veteran of the local scene still known for his edgy Hotcakes Gallery, which was open from 2004 to 2008. Brenner’s recent ambitions offer another alternative for the promotion of art. He’s opened a new brewery in Walker’s Point, Brenner Brewing Company, that features and facilitates an adjoining art gallery and studio space: The Pitch Project. 

Overseen by Jason Yi and Sonja Thomsen, The Pitch Project serves as a network of 22 artists’ studios, as well as exhibition space. It’s an effort by them and Brenner to integrate art spaces into the community. Brenner is also incorporating original, contemporary art into the packaging of his beer, with designs by artists including Sue Lawton, Erin Paisley-Steuber and James “Jimbot” Demski on new products.

Brenner says there are challenges to this joining of art and commerce, but he sees this as something more than product promotion. “You hope that eventually people do see the value in it and it pays off. And then we can continue to do it and grow it and make even more good for the community.” 

It’s a mission that echoes the missions of so many other gallery operators throughout the city, even as each frames their galleries in their own individual way.

Current/Upcoming Gallery Exhibitions

Tory Folliard Gallery 

233 N. Milwaukee St. 

‘Mark Forth: Modern Ballads’

‘Harold Gregor: Midwestern Master’

May 29 to July 4 

Dean Jensen Gallery 

759 N. Water St. 

‘Great Impressions IV: An Exhibition of Contemporary Prints’

‘Gérard Sendrey: Constantly Inconstant ‘

Through June 14. 

David Barnett Gallery 

1024 E. State St. 

‘Kiki’s Paris’

Through July 18. 

Portrait Society Gallery 

207 E. Buffalo St., Fifth Floor

‘Wis-Con-Sin’: Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, J. Shimon & J. Lindemann, Charles Van Schaick

June 12 to Aug. 30.

Green Gallery 

1500 N. Farwell Ave.

‘Kim Miller’

‘“Democrats, Republicans, Capitalists and Creeps” … and You’ 

Through June 13. 

Usable Space 

1950b S. Hilbert St.

‘Where Does It Go Now? New Paintings by Annie Hémond Hotte’

Exhibition opens May 22. 

Live Artists Studio 

228 S. First St., Suite 302 

‘The Carol Show 2: Pastel Drawings by Carol Rode-Curley’ 

Exhibition opens May 22. 

Brenner Brewing Company 

The Pitch Project

706 S. 5th St. 

‘Pyrite Suns, Miner’s Dollars’: An Installation by Aspen Mays

June 12 to Sept. 12