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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Creativity Pops Up Around Milwaukee

Community Improvement Projects fill vacant lots with art

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The "essential thing," pop artist Claes Oldenburg once said, was to "look for beauty where it is not supposed to be found." Oldenburg's idea echoed the philosophy of Jane Jacobs in her influential 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She celebrated urban art and critiqued how modernist planning policies were destroying existing inner-city communities.

The threat remains today, but look and you'll find beauty in unlikely Milwaukee locales as part of a cultural renewal project. Colorful art installations and permanent landscape renovations are "popping up" citywide as part of Neighborhood Improvement Development Corp.'s (NIDC) Community Improvement Projects (CIP), dubbed "Pop-Up" art. The term is borrowed from Internet lingo, but NIDC, the Department of City Development and community partners strive to make real-world Pop-Up projects public-friendly rather than intrusive. Private persons and local businesses raise money for the projects, which receive matching city funds. Some CIPs are submitted from neighborhood associations, block clubs and other groups. The key is grassroots involvement.

"A lot of my ideas are unconventional, but sometimes you have to demonstrate your capabilities," explains David Weber, the NIDC community outreach liaison and impresario for Pop-Up art and landscape projects.

Unlike "cookie-cutter plans" for urban development, "there's no blueprint for every neighborhood. We have the flexibility to create it for each space and environment," Weber says. This helps to redefine presumptions about where art and beauty might be found and improve neighborhood identity and activism, Weber says. "It's a constant, step-by-step process."

CIPs are taking place all over the city, including several on the North Side. Express Yourself Milwaukee (EYM) Summer Arts Camp will open the outdoor exhibition "Lifted"—as in elevated and empowered—on July 30 with a 3-6 p.m. reception. The show will run through Oct. 31 at 3322 W. Lisbon Ave. The vacant lot will soon be vibrant with primary colors from painted murals of neighborhood children and birds. Artist Daisy Bouman, EYM Marketing Director Muneer Bahauddeen and other artists assist children in painting images based on photo blowups.

In another project, Minnesota artist Faith Purvey is working at a vacant lot workshop/gallery with neighborhood children Friday afternoons in July at  3322 W. Lisbon Ave. The site previously exhibited portraits of famous African-American women.

Mayor Tom Barrett says the projects are vitally important.

"Historically, our country has made notable investments in cultural and aesthetic assets," Barrett says. Today, with limited public money, "any expenditure deemed 'non-essential' is frowned upon. But hardworking people in all Milwaukee neighborhoods care about their community."

The modest public investments in these projects "add life and energy to these areas" and send a "visible message that good things are happening here with strong neighborhood collaborations," Barrett adds. "These efforts are bringing people together. That strengthens neighborhoods [with] elements of beauty that instill additional pride. With just a little encouragement, we're seeing more neighbors plant flowers in their own yards and help maintain public spaces. That attention to detail really benefits our residential areas."

One impressive Pop-Up project is actually below street level, on 35th Street between Courtland and Glendale avenues. A once-overgrown flood plain along Lincoln Creek now reveals seductive charms. A wooden staircase descends to a sinuous urban prairie and glimmering creek, where locals can meditate or watch deer, fox and other wildlife. The project, which took 130 hours from volunteers, including Boy Scout Troop 55, and community service laborers, cost $17,000-$18,000, most of it from private money, NIDC's Weber says.

Contributors to CIP have included Harley-Davidson Foundation, Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Lowe's Charitable and Education Foundation and Lowe's Home Improvement Stores, Red Arrow Starbucks and Washington Park Partners Arts & Culture Committee.

According to the city's website, "CIP grants are for $3,000 and require a dollar-for-dollar match. Grant activities should stimulate resident engagement and support sustainable projects within a small geographic area. If your group is interested in a CIP, call 286-5626 for an application."

For more information, visit www.mkedcd.org/housing/nidc/CIP.html.

Kevin Lynch is a former staff arts reporter for
The Capital Times in Madison and has written for DownBeat, The Village Voice, New Art Examiner and American Record Guide. He currently blogs for nodepression.com and is working on a book on Herman Melville.

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