A site located on a prominent corner of Milwaukee’s Bronzeville district and formerly occupied by the Department of Natural Resources could be transformed into a center for African American art and culture.
The Bronzeville Center for the Arts, a nonprofit group focused on persevering and presenting African American art and culture, unveiled on Wednesday its vision to develop a 50,000-square-foot cultural campus featuring exhibitions, education and artistic programming at 2312 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on Milwaukee’s north side.
BCA was recently selected as the top responder to an offer to buy the 3.4-acre state-owned property at the northeast corner of King Drive and North Avenue. The two-story building on the site served as the Wisconsin DNR Southeast Regional Headquarters and Milwaukee Service Center until last summer, when the department moved those operations to 1027 W. St Paul Ave. The state listed the former DNR property for sale in October.
[caption id="attachment_542150" align="alignnone" width="2498"] Bronzeville Center for the Arts (Rendering: Wilson & Ford Design Studios)[/caption]
BCA’s $1.6 million land purchase proposal will be considered by the State Building Commission on Feb. 9. If approved, it would then need approval from the state’s Joint Finance Committee.
The state received five offers, including BCA's, to purchase the property, according to State Building Commission documents.
When the organization learned the DNR property was for sale, it was “almost too good to be true,” given its central, prominent location, said Kristen Hardy, a Milwaukee attorney and president of the Bronzeville Center for the Arts board.
“It’s really, truly in the heart of the city,” she said.
Bronzeville is currently home to many murals, sculptures and historic architecture. The district annually hosts a celebration of African American culture, history and art as part of its Bronzeville Week.
“Since the 21st century Bronzeville is emerging as a revitalized destination it just made sense that if you’re going to have a cultural and arts district, why not have that presence in that location?” said Mutòpe J. Johnson, a Milwaukee-based artist and the BCA’s project manager.
The arts and culture center would be BCA’s second planned project for Bronzeville. The organization is also planning a $1 million redevelopment of the duplex building at 507 W. North Ave. and construction of a 6,650-square-foot addition on an adjacent vacant lot. That development would be home to a gallery, workshop space and BCA’s offices. Currently, the group has office space at the Griot at 411 W. North Ave., the mixed-use development where America’s Black Holocaust Museum is also located.
“When we learned about the 507 building, we thought that would be an opportunity to really cement our (presence) in the neighborhood to begin some of our programming this year,” said Hardy.
The 507 building is currently owned by DSK LLC, which plans to gift the building to BCA, Hardy said.
Planned programming for both the 507 W. North Ave. and former DNR building would include exhibitions of visual arts, workshops that teach creative skills, live performances and educational programs, such as lecture series, panel discussions and seminars.
Bronzeville’s history as an epicenter of Black arts and culture – famed for having once drawn jazz legends like Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie – is the foundation of BCA’s work. Its goal is to put a spotlight on the history and heritage of Black artists while also promoting current and future artists.
“We know the history; we know that it’s always been a prominent area for showcasing local talent and national talent, various artists and their work. So, it’s a natural fit,” said Hardy.
BCA first began to take shape as an organization in 2019 when a group of artists and art supporters coalesced around the idea of developing a museum development dedicated to African American art, said Johnson.
“The idea was to continue to promote the arts and culture in the Bronzeville area,” he said, noting the district has been a hub for artists for years.
In addition to Hardy, BCA’s board includes Milwaukee artist Della Wells, Kelly Goodmon of RitzHolman CPAs, Terri Boxer of von Briesen & Roper, Deborah Kern of Black Box Fund, and artist and UW-Madison professor emerita Freida High Wasikhongo Tesfagiorgis.
Johnson said the group is focused now on its “soft entry” into the neighborhood with the 507 building and, if the proposal is approved, it will later turn its attention to the DNR building. The group hopes to move into the 507 space by Bronzeville Week, held annually in August.
“We’re looking to put together a functioning staff and operations to be able to fulfill our goals long-term,” Johnson said.
The group hasn't yet determined cost estimates for the DNR building redevelopment, Hardy said.
Milwaukee's Bronzeville district is bordered by North Avenue on the north, State Street on south, Third Street on the east and 12th Street on the west. The commercial corridor developed during the Great Migration of the first half of the 20th century, but residents were displaced in the 1960s as a result of federal housing policy and the construction of I-43 directly through the neighborhood.
A plan to reinvest in the neighborhood was first introduced in the early 2000s, centered on developing an entertainment district anchored by America’s Black Holocaust Museum, according to the city's website. Several new developments have emerged in recent years, such as Pete’s Fruit Market and the redevelopment of Garfield Avenue Elementary School into the Griot building. After remaining shuttered for over a decade, ABHM will open its new homethere later this month.
A block south of the former DNR building, the former Gimbels-Schuster’s building at 2153 King Drive is undergoing a $100 million redevelopment, led by Royal Capital, Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the Medical College of Wisconsin. The building, dubbed ThriveOn King, will house offices, early-childhood educational programming, health and wellness space and affordable apartments when the project is completed.
BCA's vision for the neighborhood is big. With the addition of the group's potential developments, Hardy and Johnson said they hope to soon see visitors from across the country coming to Bronzeville to explore African American art and art history.
"(Bronzeville) will probably never be the place that it once was, but we think it has the opportunity to be so much more, with new thinking -- and with that new thinking and the acceptance of how important culture is to not just Milwaukee and rest of the region. We see it as a global phenomenon," he said.