Misa: Milwaukee's New Community Arts Center on Mitchell Street
On Friday, August 18, Mitchell Street Arts (MiSA) will officially open its doors with a grand opening celebration. The space is the culmination of a long-held dream by founder and director Rew Gordon, who, along with volunteers and collaborators, has been actively working on building out the space, hiring staff, and planning the programmatic arms of MiSA over the last two years. I spoke with Rew Gordon about their vision, how they see the space functioning within its neighborhood and within Milwaukee's arts and culture landscape, and the programming and resources that will now available to creatives and to the whole community.
Banana Fanana event at MiSA. All images courtesy Rew Gordon
Tell me about your pathway to opening this space. What inspired you to launch MiSA at this time, in this location?
Collectively, MiSA was inspired by dozens of people who contributed early on during our listening sessions and became regular volunteers. That groundswell of support was absolutely essential. It provided the minds and hands necessary to build an organization as intricate as this. Personally, I’ve thought about starting a community arts center in one form or another since I was in high school. Art, education, and community organizing define my personal and professional life so it makes sense that MiSA falls at the intersection of all three.
For me, the first step to making an idea come to life is to talk about it with as many people as possible. If it’s sticky enough to stay in other’s heads, then it can start to grow. All of the listening sessions were done on site. Our landlord was nice enough to let us go through the process even though we didn’t have a lease at the time! It was really exploratory early on and we intend to hold onto that experimental “let’s try it!” mindset after we open.
The space is a historic one. What’s its history, and what are its unique features?
The building is located on Mitchell Street, which used to be the “downtown of the southside”. I love looking at old pictures of the street and seeing how it’s changed over time. There used to be a tram line that ran down it. John F. Kennedy paraded down the street after winning the presidency. Goldmann’s was a household name.
The building itself was built in 1900 as the Kunzelmann-Esser furniture store. The two glass rooms that house our gallery walls were originally designed to hold living room and bedroom spreads for window shopping – one of the earliest versions of the phenomenon in the country! After the building was rehabbed into apartments in 2003, Mitchell Street Menswear occupied the first floor but closed about 6 years ago. In 123 years, we will be the third group occupying this space.
MiSA has been in development for 2 years now and it’s been cool watching the street move forward into it’s next chapter. La Michoacana Plus just opened up 3 blocks down from us. Across the street, 723 Mitchell is going to have a new façade put on to resemble what the building looked like in the 1920’s as a vaudeville theatre. There’s constant conversation around the Modjeska’s next phase. It’s great being a part of this new wave on a street with so much history.
Event at MiSA
What drew you in to the neighborhood of Historic Mitchell Street? How are you interacting with the surrounding neighborhood?
I first moved to Milwaukee to work on Biden’s presidential campaign as the city director for a Political Action committee. I learned a lot about the whole city during that time, and one of our offices was on First and Mitchell. I liked walking around the neighborhood - it had some of the best eavesdropping in Milwaukee. I live on Mitchell Street now, so a lot of my personal life is built around the area. As an organization, I would say the neighborhood is interacting with us! MiSA is largely powered by volunteers, most of whom are nearby residents. We are hosting volunteer build nights every Wednesday until we open on the 18th at 5:30, swing by if you can!
Volunteers helping with MiSA's renovation
What are you hoping MiSA will contribute to the artistic ecosystem in Milwaukee? What holes are you hoping to fill within our current landcape?
We are a creative commons. As a nonprofit we ask people to both take what they need and give what they can. Classes are generally free and taught by artist-volunteers. I hope MiSA contributes to the artistic ecosystem as a dynamic example of what a sharing economy can look like in practice.
We are partnering with refugee, immigration, and prison re-entry organizations to teach arts classes to their constituents. There is no other organization in Milwaukee doing this.
We are the only space that provides access to a woodshop, ceramics equipment, and a photo darkroom for free! That’s huge, because it allows people who wouldn’t normally access the arts to try their hands at something new. Our residency program is one of a few local programs that gives studio space out to local artists for free.
At large, I hope the organization helps neighbors live more fulfilled lives. For artists, I hope it encourages folks to stay here professionally.
What specific services/offerings will Milwaukee creatives have access to at MiSA?
1. Our gallery displays works by local artists.
2. Our TWIG artist in residence program provides free studio space, along with networking opportunities, and a gallery show for local artists. It is a competitive, iterative program with a 6-month cycle. We just announced our first cohort!
3. Our makerspace is open to the public 3 days a week and people can become a member for full access at $40/month.
4. Cool events on our stage!
Performance by Your Move MKE
The new public dark room during its installation
What will the future of the residencies be? Who are they for?
The TWIG is for local early stage or mid-career artists with a soft focus on socially engaged art. I am looking forward to building out the program by connecting with other arts organizations and residency programs around the country to learn best practices.
We are looking to launch the NEST residency, which will provide live/work space for national and international artists to come contribute to Milwaukee’s artistic ecosystem for stints of time.
What can folks expect from the grand opening event?
What is coming next for MiSA, after the grand opening?
On the 24th of August we are having our first gallery show, The Art of Scale, guest curated by Isabel Castro. It features the stories and works of local Milwaukee muralists. On September 8th and 9th we are hosting Joy Engine’s NiteLight. The street will be shut down and there will be animated images cast onto the façade of the building, along with a bunch of other cool activities. That is certainly a “can't-miss".
How can people engage, or get involved in MiSA?
Become a member of our makerspace, volunteer to teach classes, sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date, and follow us on Instagram.