The second Milwaukee International Art Fair arrived to the Polish Falcons beer hall, May 16-17, 2008. This location put amazing contemporary art from around the world against a backdrop of real old-world charm, in the midst of the quaint working-class Riverwest neighborhood. Strolling through the aisles provided a glimpse of new drawing, painting, video and sculpture while the sweet sounds of the Falcon Bowl rumbled up from the basement. The Falcon Bowl sports the 4th-oldest bowling alley in America, and for two days, possibly made the coziest art fair one could ever visit.
EXCERPT FROM MATTHEW HIGGS BEST OF 2006 ART FORUM:
In fact, one model of this kind of approach turned out to be my personal highlight--and possibly my personal epiphany--of 2006. And, in what could be considered an encouraging reflection of the general dispersal of influence from the institutions, and cities, where it has traditionally been concentrated, this experience transpired not in any of the established centers of attention (London, Berlin, New York, etc.) but rather in Milwaukee. A week after the Frieze Art Fair kicked off, in early October, the midwestern city hosted a kind of samizdat version of the London jamboree: the inaugural Milwaukee International, a new, bona fide art fair--of sorts. Conceived and organized by an informal collective of Milwaukee-based artists and galleries (among them Kiki Anderson of Jody Monroe Gallery; Nicholas Frank of Hermetic Gallery; John Riepenhoff of Green Gallery; and Tyson Reeder, Scott Reeder, and Elysia Borowy-Reeder of the General Store), it opened more modestly than Frieze, in the Polish Falcons Beer Hall in the city's Riverwest neighborhood. The fair temporarily displaced the hall's typical goings-on--cribbage, dart-ball (a game that "combines darts with baseball," according to my local guide), spaghetti dinners--but, even though the space had been tricked out for the weekend to look like a typical art fair, the spirit of these activities remained as a spectral ambience. The exhibitors, who each paid $150 for one of the white-painted booths, constituted a curious, ad hoc group of thirty-odd galleries and projects, both commercial and otherwise, from Oslo (Willy Wonka Inc.); Zurich (Karma International, in collaboration with Mark Muller); San Juan, Puerto Rico (Galeria Comercial); Winnipeg, Canada (Paul Butler's Other Gallery and its affiliated Collage Party); Los Angeles (Ooga Booga); New York (Canada, Gavin Brown's Enterprise, Zieher-Smith, Swiss Institute, and White Columns, among others); Miami (Locust Projects and Bas Fisher Invitational); Oak Park, Illinois (The Suburban); and elsewhere. What distinguished the whole affair was that selling art didn't seem to be anyone's primary--or possibly even secondary--concern. Instead, the weekend seemed--in the most straightforward yet profound sense--to be about hanging out. Cannily employing the format, and exploiting the ubiquity, of conventional art fairs while eschewing the civic (and corporate) ambitions of, say, a biennial, the organizers put together a genuinely organic "grassroots" gathering that mimicked the form of a marketplace to create a porous social event. Turnout was excellent: Over the course of the weekend, a steady stream of visitors, seemingly of all persuasions, braved the inclement weather simply to check out the fair and listen to its house band, Vern and the Originals.
The Milwaukee International felt simultaneously fundamental, magical, and possibly even a little subversive. Certainly it felt like something significant was happening, even if the exact nature of that significance--still--remains elusive. The event's informal structure reminded me of some of the pioneering art fairs of the early and mid-1990s, fairs that, in hindsight, can be seen to have helped shape international networks of artists, dealers, critics, curators, and, indeed, collectors that persist to this day. Like the original Unfair, held in Cologne in 1992, for example, or the early manifestations of the Gramercy International Art Fair (1994-98), held in the guest rooms of the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, the Milwaukee International served a function that went beyond the merely commercial: It provided an occasion, a platform, for sympathetic individuals to meet--in person--to share information and ideas in a manner that was both convivial and communal. The fair also reminded me of how and why, as a teenager in the North of England in the late 1970s, I started to become tentatively interested in art via the independent, DIY music scene that emerged in the aftermath of punk. Like that scene, the Milwaukee International proposed a viable, self-sustaining model of culture, one that was rooted not in social or economic one-upmanship but in the pleasures of self-determination, friendship, and cooperation (reasons that, I imagine, partly motivated Jeffrey Lew and Gordon Matta-Clark to start White Columns, or 112 Greene Street as it was then known, in 1970).