Reimaging an Art Event for the Community, with Neighbors and Partners
After a beloved and longstanding Cooper Park neighborhood art event went by the wayside in the wake of COVID, local creative entrepreneur Mike Bate of took it upon himself to reimagine a new community art event with the help of many in his network.
For over 50 years, Mount Mary University hosted the Starving Artists' Show: a diverse annual art show held on the university campus to raise money for scholarships. The event, organized by Mount Mary's Alumni Association, was a popular attraction in the neighborhood of Milwaukee's Cooper Park, drawing in visitors and uniting residents around the power of visual art. But in 2022, university leadership made the decision to let go of the tradition of hosting the Starving Artists' Show, citing "rising costs" and challenges in staffing the event.
According to Mike Bate, the decision sent “shock waves through the art community and the patrons of the arts.” Bate himself was disheartened, as a resident of the Cooper Park neighborhood who had grown up with the positive influence of the art show, which had taken place since well before he was born. But in the wake of its cancelling, Bate saw a challenge and an opportunity. He realized that if he wanted to see an art event continue in his neighborhood, he might need to take action...and with his professional experience, he was just the person to step in and envision a new outlet for the spirit of the old art event. As the owner and maker behind the local candle company Lit Milwaukee, Bate had knowledge of and years of experience in how local craft fairs worked, and a network of friends, acquaintances, and neighbors who felt strongly about seeing a new art event come to life. Bate teamed up with Sue Smith of Re:craft & Relic, a two-day market held three times a year at the Milwaukee County Sports Complex in Franklin, WI.
Bate’s creative thinking also led him to reimagine what an art event could mean for the Cooper Park neighborhood. While the previous Starving Artists' Show benefited Mount Mary University students, Bate, who serves on the board of the Friends of Cooper Park, imagined a new event model where a portion of the revenue from the show could be funneled back into beautification efforts in the park, which he uses frequently with his family. He was also conscious of the ongoing need for support for arts education, which is often subject to cuts from school and organizational budgets. According to Bate,“...30% of each ticket sold will be donated to three worthy causes: Friends of Copper Park for park revitalization and improvements, Immanuel Lutheran School, who has guided us in fundraising strategies, and Milwaukee German Immersion School, who is helping us fill volunteer roles prior to and day of the event. Both schools will receive 10% for art programming.”
What's being called Make Art MKE on Sept 10 will not be directly affiliated with Mount Mary, but the university will continue to be the site of the happening. Bate hopes the momentum of the 50+ years of energy from the previous creative event will help Make Art MKE to be embraced by the community in a similar way, and will preserve some of the local culture that the Starving Artists' Show shaped.
“The former Starving Artist Show sewed many seeds for artists/small businesses. If we don’t continue to water those seeds, they will die and so will a little piece of our culture, which I don’t want to see,” Bate reflected.
Make Art MKE will pay homage to the art show that came before in some ways, but will also include new elements including expanded food and beverage offerings, several of them businesses from the immediate area.
“Out of the 148 artists and makers participating in Make Art MKE, we have over 50 past participants returning," said Bate. "We are incorporating a food court area and for the first time inviting food trucks. They are: Frankies Caterers, Mex Avenue, Fatty Patty, Hidden Kitchen, and Hoppers Mini-Donuts. An exciting new addition is our lounge area located within the shopping area where guests can pull off to the side and grab a drink/snack hosted by neighborhood favorite, Miss Mollys Café. Molly is also from Cooper Park, and she is building out a mini café setting in a section of the market.”
While Bate has been organizing of the Make Art MKE event— the first large-scale event he’s ever organized — he’s been uplifted, encouraged, and assisted through the challenges of learning “on the job” with the help of many, including Kelly Mutsch of EcoEvie, who made a crucial connection between him and the administration of Mount Mary, to explore hosting the event on the campus. Ultimately, Bate had to find funding to rent the space for the community event: a process that revealed how deeply the community was vested in seeing the spirit of the art event continue.
“Finding the capital to put this show on has been the biggest mountain to climb, but finding fellow businesses within the community that want to show their support for Make Art MKE has been the biggest reward. Businesses including Knight Barry, Bunzel’s Golden Nest Pancakes and Café, Draft and Vessel, The Flannel Fox, Little Village Play Cafe, Lemberg Electric, Artery Ink, Tosa Yoga, Smalwaukee, Miss Molly’s Café, and Culver’s of Midtown all have showed tremendous support and this could not happen without our community of businesses/organizations.”
Through it all, Bate finds that he has drawn heavily from his experiences as a creative entrepreneur.
“I definitely had to be creative throughout this process in order to pull this off in a short amount of time. I recognized this as an entrepreneurial opportunity for our community. When you see an opening you have to hit it hard and ignore the doubt if you want to see your vision come to fruition,” Bate reflected.
“I have participated in many events, festivals, pop ups, and shows with Lit MKE over 8 years and drew on all of my experiences focusing them on what I want Make Art MKE to be. Trusting your instincts, being patient, staying positive, working the problem, waiting for the right times to make certain decisions, and bringing the right people in at the right times... thankfully, I have a really great and understanding support system around me and they’ve been so encouraging. I couldn’t do it without them. Keeping a positive attitude and a relentless focus on problem solving has aided me the most in this project.”
Despite the challenges and steep learning curve, Bate hopes that his ability to see Make Art MKE through is going to be generative for the entire community. He also hopes that sharing about his experience may provide a spark for someone who’s interested in organizing large-scale cultural community happenings to take action and create something meaningful in their own neighborhood, drawing from their own networks.
“Your thoughts and energy have power, but nothing ever happens if you don’t act,” said Bate. “Find a place to start, surround yourself with people who want you to succeed, continuously work every piece of the puzzle and eventually the big picture will come together.”
Make Art MKE is happening on Sunday, September 10 from 10 am- 4 pm at Mount Mary University. Tickets are $10, and are free for kids 12 and under.