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  • Writer's pictureElisabeth Gasparka

Exploring the Vel R. Phillips Plaza Art Commission

In part one of this special two-part episode, Elisabeth speaks with City of Milwaukee Commissioner of City Development Lafayette Crump and arts leader Marilu Knode to discuss the plans for the Vel R. Phillips plaza. It’s a development project for which Crump and Knode are both serving on the art committee to select an original sculpture installation concept that, once completed, will memorialize and animate the legacy of Phillips, a trailblazing Black woman, attorney, politician, jurist, and civil rights activist, who served as an alderperson and judge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and as secretary of state of Wisconsin.

The group reflects on how the arts are a special ingredient to development—that art can help our city to stand apart and also function as an economic engine. Crump shares how investing in the arts is often a “less obvious” aspect of infrastructure to decision makers, but an incredibly important ingredient to a city that can retain and attract diverse residents and visitors. With a new generation of leadership in place in Milwaukee under Mayor Cavalier Johnson, the city has made a one-time investment in public art through this $600,000 commission. But the plaza and the artwork will not just be about aesthetic beauty: it will have activations, spaces for vendors, food and beverage offerings and programming to encourage people to linger, engage and learn about Vel Phillips.  

Vel R. Phillips Plaza project rendering by TKWA UrbanLab.
Rendering for plaza between N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. and N. 5th St. by TKWA UrbanLab.

In her life, Phillips was a boundary pushing figure, and, as Knode reflects, “she forecast the direction the country would be going in with her leadership.” The intention is that the plaza installation and the social and artistic activations it invites will build upon this legacy. “Often people think public art is always “man on horse” or “woman in fountain.” Vel Phillips had a different form of leadership,” reflects Knode. “Let’s use this an opportunity to reformulate how we think about leadership."

But should artists have to be activists? Knode suggests that in this day and age, everything is political. According to her, “going into the arts itself” is political. At the heart of this commission plan is the acknowledgement that artists are often the ones who drive social change in society. 

“A lot of creativity or boundary pushing that does come out of city government... somewhere you will find an artist pushing on us to do that,” says Crump.  

Vel R. Phillips Plaza will be constructed by July 2024, and the public art installation is estimated to be completed in 2025. Learn more about the project.



Full Interview Transcript (Click to Expand):




References and resources:

Marilu Knode Bio  (Click to expand)

Lafayette Crump Bio  (Click to Expand)


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