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Summer Arts Getaway to Milwaukee

A visit to Milwaukee reveals a city infused with—and enamored by—art. Take a summer tour of its creative soul, expressed through paintings, pirouettes and rock-star performances.
Summerfest at Henry Maier Festival Park
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Mark di Suvero’s The Calling stands outside the Milwaukee Art Museum.
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The Milwaukee Art Museum’s 2001 Quadracci Pavilion addition added 140,000 square feet to the building.
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Painters add color to their canvases at Splash Studio.
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Marcus Center for the Performing Arts
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Pabst Theater
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Cafe Benelux and Market brings Belgian flair to the popular arts-and-shopping Historic Third Ward district.
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Historic Third Ward district.
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Brewhouse Inn and Suites
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The Pfister Hotel
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I must have been in an adventurous mood when I signed up for an art class. I haven’t picked up a brush since my third-grade teacher took a long look at my painting of a horse and told me some people just aren’t artistically inclined. But here I am at Milwaukee’s Splash Studio, preparing to dive into one of the Midwest’s increasingly popular painting-and-sipping sessions.

One of dozens of galleries nestled in the Historic Third Ward, Splash Studio represents the cultural community’s effort to infuse life with accessible art. Whether you’re in Milwaukee for a festival, a game or a photo with the riverfront Fonz statue, you’ll see art in all the expected places (galleries, theaters, concert halls, festival grounds) and spot it in the spaces of everyday life (elevators, restaurants, hotels).

At Splash, six of us settle into a gallery filled with professional artwork, including several boldly hued florals painted by our teacher. “We want people to experience art in a way that’s not passive,” Splash co-owner Marla Poytinger says. “Here, you don’t just look at the art. You can talk to the artists, learn from them, ask them anything.”

Three hours later, I look incredulously at my canvas. It shows a natural wonderland, towering evergreens and tiny cottages with windows glowing under a starry sky. Photographer Kate Kinser, who doubles as the studio manager, hands me a mimosa. I toast the empowering discovery that I am at least a little artistically inclined.

Inspiration keeps greeting me wherever I wander in the city. At Cafe Benelux and Market, known for its European-flair brunch and Belgian beer list, black-and-white photos of staffers visiting Belgium to find new brews (and do a little cycling) join a large, stylized black-and-white painting of cyclists. Medieval sculptures, stained glass and weaponry cluster inside Mader’s, where classic German dishes shine. At Hudson Business Lounge, works by Third Ward artisans hang in the coffee bar, and the glass-walled storefront of Broadway Paper shows off the paper-craft sculptures hanging from the rafters and tucked among the wares.  

At the Milwaukee Ballet, performing in the ornate 120-year-old Pabst Theater, lissome and kinetic dancers match the palatial theater’s presence. And the audience proves as passionate as the performers.

“Shortly after I got here, I got clobbered over the head by an old woman with an umbrella,” says Artistic Director Michael Pink. “She was upset about something that the ballet had done, I don’t know, maybe
20 years ago. I can’t remember exactly what she was so bothered by, but I do remember thinking she was indicative of how committed and passionate the arts community is here in Milwaukee.”

That enthusiasm makes the city a beloved destination for touring artists. Take, for example, Summerfest. As the world’s largest concert smorgasbord, it draws more than 800 acts and some 900,000 fans to the city for an 11-day sonic binge. I join the crowds in the sprawling Henry Maier Festival Park near Lake Michigan to wander among nearly a dozen stages set against the backdrop of the city skyline. The sounds of new-to-me indie rock, blues, reggae, pop and country acts drift along with me. As evening falls, I follow the flow of fans to the 23,000-seat Marcus Amphitheater, where Zac Brown Band’s comfortable brand of upbeat country has people grooving in the aisles.      

The art on display at the Grohmann Museum invites a more quiet form of contemplation as I take in a series of 17th-century oil paintings depicting Dutch medicine. The vivid images are technically stunning, and they make me thankful for our modern practices. Housed near classrooms and offices of the Milwaukee School of Engineering, Grohmann’s permanent The Man at Work exhibit displays more than 450 paintings, drawings and sculptures dating to the 16th century. They celebrate working-class industriousness by detailing the lives of brewers (an appropriate topic in this city), plus weavers, farmers, blacksmiths, doctors and fishermen.

I mull the work-as-art theme while gazing at Santiago Calatrava’s dramatic Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum, an architectural wonder with external “wings” that open and close. Later this year the museum will unveil a $25 million gallery renovation, an investment designed to make the galleries bigger, brighter and more accessible. School-age children roam the pavilion; some talk about what they see, and others sprawl across the floor, sketching, inspired. And nobody is telling them they can’t draw.

Can’t-Miss Summer Shows

H.D. Tylle: Studies Labor and art fuse in the paintings of German artist H.D. Tylle. The Grohmann Museum’s exhibit includes Wisconsin scenes. Through June 28.

Florida Georgia Line The innovative country music duo bring their Anything Goes tour to the Marcus Amphitheater on June 24, the opening day of Summerfest.

Motown the Musical Catch this high-energy show about Motown founder Berry Gordy July 7–12 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Rebels See 80 major pieces from modern artists, such as Picasso, Warhol, O’Keeffe, Pollock, Van Gogh and DalÍ, at the Milwaukee Art Museum (June 18–September 20).

Trip guide

More information: Visit Milwaukee (800) 554-1448; visitmilwaukee.org

What to do

Broadway Paper Browse colorful handmade papers and greeting cards in the Historic Third Ward. broadwaypaper.com

Grohmann Museum at the Milwaukee School of Engineering The hundreds of paintings and sculptures here celebrate human achievement. msoe.edu

Marcus Center for the Performing Arts Between performances of Broadway hits like The Book of Mormon, look for community events, like an adaptation of Big Fish. marcuscenter.org

Milwaukee Art Museum The “wings” that open and close with the museum rival the art inside; a $25 million renovation will wrap up in late 2015. mam.org

Milwaukee Ballet Catch Cinderella May 14–17; a new season starts in October. milwaukeeballet.org

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater The Rep produces 13 shows each season. Through May 24, watch Peter and the Starcatcher, the prequel to Peter Pan. milwaukeerep.com

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra The symphony orchestra pioneered digital downloads to get music to the masses, but you can hear Beethoven’s Fifth live May 21–24. mso.org

Renaissance Theaterworks This women-founded and women-run company celebrates women’s roles on (and off) stage. r-t-w.com

Splash Studio Sip drinks while you paint under the guidance of  an artist in the Historic Third Ward. splashmilwaukee.com

Summerfest This celebration of music brings rock, pop, country and blues acts to 11 stages. June 24–June 28 and June 30–July 5 this year. summerfest.com

Where to eat

Cafe Benelux and Market Celebrate Europe’s Benelux region—Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands—with beers and dishes like Dutch pancakes. cafebenelux.com

Hudson Business Lounge A shared work space in the Third Ward also operates as an art-filled coffeehouse and wine bar. hudson-business-lounge.com

Mader’s Open since 1902, German-inspired Mader’s has some of the city’s best schnitzel and strudel, served in an antiques-filled dining room. madersrestaurant.com

The Rumpus Room Warm pretzels and bacon-laced appetizers top a reasonably priced menu. (We love the half-pound Rumpus Burger.) Across the street from the Marcus Center. rumpusroommke.com

Uber Tap Room and Cheese Bar Next door to the venerable Wisconsin Cheese Mart, this classy spot in Westown offers flights of cheese, plus beer. ubertaproom.com

Wolf Peach An evening here in the Brewers Hill neighborhood includes a view of the Milwaukee skyline and a menu rich in locally sourced, European-inspired fare. Try the house charcuterie board and wood-fired pizzas. wolf-peach.com

Where to stay

Brewhouse Inn and Suites Part of the architecturally significant Pabst Brewery Complex, this former brewhouse contains 90 guest suites arranged around gleaming copper brewing kettles. From $150, including Continental breakfast. brewhousesuites.com

The Iron Horse Hotel This edgy yet welcoming downtown hotel mixes biker-inspired decor with sophisticated guest rooms. From $179. theironhorsehotel.com

The Pfister Hotel Opulent architectural details,   antique furniture and an artist in residence make this hotel an elegant option. From $200. thepfisterhotel.com

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