Art Draws Tenants Together

All artists need space in which to work, and the 7th street Collective has found its own in an empty office, in a revamped furniture factory.

On warm summer days, members set up an impromptu studio in the vacant ground-floor office space of the building they share. Floor-to-ceiling windows make them one with the streetscape and draw passers-by to watch them paint, draw and sculpt.

It’s the perfect way for the collective to accomplish many of its objectives: produce art, gain exposure and associate with those who live nearby.

“We’re about showing people what’s going on here, that there’s an actual community of artists and that we’re all working,” said painter and photographer Kim Zsebe, 29.

“Here” is the Kunzelmann-Esser building at 710 W. Historic Mitchell St., a 3-year-old loft development for practicing artists. A project of Gorman & Co. of Madison, the Kunzelmann-Esser building offers all of its 67 units under a federal affordable housing program.

Tenants need not be full-time artists to live there, but most are, or are working toward it. Like similar projects in Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and other industrial cities, the K.E. community is a catalyst for change in its environs. Particularly in cities with rapidly emptying manufacturing districts, such as Milwaukee’s Third and Fifth wards, the work-shops and warehouses let behind have become a perfect retrofit for painters, photographers, sculptors and installation artists.

Caitlin Glass of the Alliance of Artist Communities, an advocacy group based in Providence, R.I., says that in a best-case scenario, self-contained art colonies such as K.E. can become the bedrock of a neighborhood.

The Bemis Center, in Omaha, Neb., completely changed the blighted face of its industrial district, Glass said. Through use of public space shared by both the neighborhood and the artist community – such as a gallery or cafe – such developments can successfully bring together an eclectic mix of neighbors.

“It especially works if there’s something to go to in the building, partly due to the visibility of people bringing energy in and out of a place where there was none before,” Glass said.

Suellyn Woodall, a K.E. resident and figurative painter and bookmaker, is seeing this unfold on Mitchell St.

“It’s a wonderfully diverse neighborhood. We’ve met a lot of the local Hispanic painters and included them in Gallery Night and asked them to join our drawing group,” Woodall said. Patrons and neighbors are welcome to visit during office hours, although it’s Gallery Night that attracts the biggest crowds.

“You know, every time people come here for Gallery Night they want to know more about us. When we have open studio, that’s a big draw, too – people want to see how crazy artists live,” Zsebe said.

Large spaces
The lobby is a cavernous gallery with polished wood floors and oversize canvases adorning the walls. A large industrial elevator ferries residents to the seven floors. The second floor houses the main gallery, the heart of the main gallery, the heart of the building. The room stretches tall to a ceiling composed of bright skylights. The shiny wood and the white walls reflect light even on a cloudy winter day.

Touring the basement of the old factory is like walking through an artist’s tool-supply dream. A woodworking studio has saws lined up like sentinels along the wall, the smell of cut wood everywhere. An enormous kiln squats in a nearby room adjacent to the ceramics studio, and the chemical aura of the darkroom fills an adjacent space.

It’s an organized mess, with paint splatters covering everything, sawdust on the floor and an empty bottle of Yellowtail cabernet stashed behind a garbage can.

“To be an artist, and to live with a view like this, with the light, the safety, the amenities and to be able to afford it, it’s just a real gift,” Woodall said. Her own east-facing studio window frames a view of the city.

Together, the tenants keep creative blocks at bay.

“It helps to have a community like this because if you’re off working somewhere, in a house, you’re alienated from everything else. Seeing other people working on a regular basis really inspires you, because you’re like, ‘Oh, Jenny’s got three paintings. I’m gonna have to do some, because I’m slacking off,'” Zsebe said.

The building’s own group, the Seventh Street Collective, sprang from its close quarters and a few potluck dinners. Now, it sponsors gallery nights and other events.

Subsidized rent
Starving is part of the artist oeuvre, at least in the early stages of one’s career, but the building’s rent structure helps alleviate the dilemma of choosing between brushes and breakfast. Like similar communities around the country, K.E. is set up on the premise that artists need cheap space.

Gorman sets rents under the guidelines of Section 42, a federal tax credit program. The tax credit is a complicated affair, but the end result is that it enables developers to tie rents to the median household income of the county.

At K.E., that translates to a one-person household income ceiling of $28,200 and four-person household income limit of $40,320. Studio apartments start at $585 and two-bedroom units at $860, including use of shared space. The rents rise along with the local median incomes, and the program guarantees that rents will be affordable for at least 15 years.

The income limit applies when someone first moves in, but if an artist’s income rises dramatically – say, through the sale of a major piece – she doesn’t have to move out.

“Artists are looking for different types of experiences. They’re a nice match with affordable housing, as they have chosen limited income with their life choice. The nice thing is we guarantee this affordability for a set amount of time,” explains Thomas Capp, Gorman’s executive vice president.

Gentrification a possibility
The dream loft can turn into a nightmare if the neighborhoods that artists help stabilize suddenly become wildly popular, the prices shooting out of their meager rent range.

Harvey Rabinowitz, professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said that gentrification is a possibility for Mitchell St. but that it shouldn’t be an immediate concern because other neighborhoods, such as Riverwest, are attracting more attention at the moment.

“Just like in New York – the artists couldn’t afford SoHo, they were gentrified out, so they moved from Greenwich Village to SoHo, to Tribeca. Now they crossed the river into Williamsburg (in Brooklyn) to an area called Dumbo. They have to keep on moving because they love the space but need low rent,” Rabinowitz said.

Woodall, who has traveled the world in search of such a place, said Milwaukee’s prices area steal compared with cities such as Los Angeles, where she found rents approaching $12 and up a square foot. The smallest K.E. studio works out to about 98 cents per square foot.

Ideal building
Gorman’s specialty is rehabbing forlorn buildings, and this former furniture store in a once-booming industrial corridor on Milwaukee’s south side certainly fit the bill.

A century-old landmark, the Kunzelmann-Esser building closed in 2000 and was quickly earmarked by then-Mayor John O. Norquist as a great place for such a venture, Capp recalled.

Gorman used K.E. as a model for a second artists’ community, the Mitchell Wagon Factory Lofts in downtown Racine. Open since last fall, its 100 units are all taken and there’s a waiting list, Capp said. Like the K.E., it drew artists from across the country.

Woodall was en route to Paris from Mexico when she saw a piece in Art in America magazine touting Milwaukee as a hot spot for emerging artists.

“I was so happy to find a place that really, actually welcomed and supported artists,” she said.