Milwaukee's 'Gallery Night and Day' shows off city's vibrant art scene

Chicago Tribune

Wisconsin’s largest city has many charms: Summerfest, a less crowded lakefront, beer. More beer.

But Brew City has a seriously good art scene, too, and it knows how to show it off during Gallery Night and Day. Four weekends a year, dozens of venues throw what feels like a big, communal party celebrating the visual arts on Friday night and Saturday.

The next one takes place Oct. 20-21. If you like art and/or Milwaukee, mark your calendar and make the trip 90 miles north. You don’t even need a car; Amtrak’s Hiawatha train has daily service from Union Station (and north suburban Glenview) that can drop you off within a few blocks of the action.

The heart of that artsy action is centered on the century-old Marshall Building, a converted brick warehouse in the Historic Third Ward. This fashionable ’hood just south of downtown is home to a slew of art galleries, not to mention a lively public market that should be a required stop on any visit to Milwaukee.

The Third Ward is where you’ll find many of the 43 venues — galleries, museums, hotels and more — taking part in this autumn’s Gallery Night and Day. Going on 30 years old, this time-honored tradition draws everyone from collectors to the simply curious. And the simply curiouses’ plus-ones.

“Maybe half of them have never been in a gallery before, and that’s what makes it so fun,” Debra Brehmer said, surveying the scene of strangers milling about her contemporary art space during last spring’s event.

Brehmer’s Portrait Society Gallery is on the fifth floor of the Marshall Building, also home to Treat Bake Shop, another requisite Milwaukee stop — and one that has the good sense to stay open during gallery weekends. Swing by the second-floor shop to pick up some ridiculously tasty spiced pecans from the ridiculously friendly owner, Sarah Marx Feldner. (It’s not unusual to see people lining up outside her shop for “Cookie Friday,” which lasts from 10 a.m. until the baked sweets sell out — which doesn’t take long.)

The Marshall Building is full of artist workshops and galleries like Brehmer’s Portrait Society, where several exhibits rotate throughout the year. The latest, highlighting the paintings of married couple Lon Michels and Todd Olson of Lodi, Wis., debuted in September and runs through Nov. 10.

Michels, whose 8-by-10-foot interpretation of “The Last Supper” is part of the Museum of Wisconsin Art’s permanent collection, taught his partner how to paint. The couple’s colorful works — along with the marriage license they procured several years ago in California — are shown side-by-side for the first time in the exhibit “Husband & Husband.”

At last spring’s event, Portrait Society served as the backdrop for Milwaukee artist Todd Mrozinski’s exquisite pencil drawings of trees and clouds.

In 2015, Mrozinski did a turn as artist-in-residence at the city’s venerable Pfister Hotel, a historic, 307-room property that’s a bit like an art museum itself. When it opened in the late 19th century, owner Charles Pfister envisioned it as “the palace for the people.” The resulting collection of Victorian art is said to be the largest of any hotel in the world. About 80 pieces are on permanent display, and chief concierge Peter Mortensen can tell you a story about each of them.

“In a lot of places, you’re sleeping in a strange bed, you have insomnia, you wake up in the middle of the night, and all you can do is turn on the TV and watch infomercials,” Mortensen said. “At the Pfister, you can put on your robe and fuzzy slippers, go out and tour a world-class exhibit of 19th- and 20th-century salon and genre painting, pieces of which any museum would be happy to house.”

The Pfister continues to add to its collection through its artist-in-residence program. Each year, a new artist occupies a studio and gallery in the hotel lobby, where the public can drop in and watch the magic happen. The highly coveted post currently belongs to Milwaukee native Margaret Muza, who specializes in tintype photography, a technique that predates film.

People can have Muza make a tintype portrait on the spot for roughly $150. This precursor to the selfie takes about 15 minutes to create.

Muza will be in her studio 5-9 p.m. Oct. 20 for gallery night. She’ll stick around to host a reception with free snacks and a cash bar in the hotel’s ballroom 9-11 p.m.

Art fans who visit the city any time of year might want to check out the Pfister’s art-focused package. Starting at $279, it includes overnight accommodations, parking, a bottle of wine, a $40 dining credit and two tickets to the Milwaukee Art Museum, or MAM.

The recently renovated museum, with its stunning, Santiago Calatrava-designed addition sprouting massive, movable wings, has rightfully evolved into a symbol of the city.

In September, MAM welcomed the first retrospective of LA street photographer Anthony Hernandez. And in November, it debuts a new exhibit chronicling the development of modern art through 150 works by big-name creators working in Paris in the 19th and 20th centuries. Running Nov. 4 to Jan. 28, “Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France” builds on an exhibition developed at England’s Oxford University, with MAM adding a few of its own touches, like a Picasso sketch of his Daley Plaza sculpture.

About 1,000 MAM members live in the Chicago area. Let’s face it: For some folks in the northern suburbs, it’s quicker to get here than to battle downtown traffic to the Art Institute.

Just in time for Gallery Night and Day, Tory Folliard Gallery on Oct. 20 will display new works inspired by glass artist Jeremy Popelka’s travels to Thailand. Mid-October also sees the launch of a pair of shows at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, or MIAD: “Fantastic,” an exhibition of contemporary illustration artists, and “Chair5,” an homage to this ubiquitous piece of furniture that kicks off with an Oct. 20 evening reception at the Brooks Stevens Gallery of Industrial Design.

Oct. 21 marks the final night of a solo exhibition by Milwaukee-based Jon Horvath called “This Is Bliss,” a multimedia project revolving around a tiny town the artist stumbled upon during a drive through Idaho. You can catch it at The Alice Wilds, a buzzy new gallery named for a Lake Michigan shipwreck. The gallery opened in June in the Walker’s Point neighborhood south of the Third Ward.

As mentioned earlier, galleries aren’t the only venues to get in on the act. The list of 43 official Gallery Night and Day participants includes some unexpected spots, like Great Lakes Distillery (also good for drinks) and The Iron Horse Hotel (also good for drinks, dinner and lodging). Get information about what’s planned at all of the locations and a helpful map at historicthirdward.org/events/gallerynight.php, which also lists the dates for 2018 events.

The upcoming Gallery Night and Day weekend is your last chance to see the 22 sculptures that spent the summer outdoors on Wisconsin Avenue as part of the inaugural Sculpture Milwaukee program.

Featuring works by the likes of Calatrava and Chicago artist Tony Tasset, the guy behind that giant deer on Chicago’s Riverwalk, the “urban avenue art experience” was designed to raise the profile of Milwaukee’s historic main street.

If you see a sculpture you like, it can be yours — for a price. The public art is being sold to help raise money for the next installment of what’s hoped to become an annual event.

lrackl@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @lorirackl

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