A Public Art Tour of Milwaukee

I went to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in search of beer and beer history, but found a laid-back, waterfront city with a thriving arts scene. (Okay, and plenty beer and beer history too.)

The best part is that a lot of that art is outdoors, public and absolutely free, so you can take in the city, its art and get a little fresh air and exercise without breaking your travel budget. Here’s where to find some of my favorite public art in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee RiverWalk near Mason Street, my favorite picnic spot

Experience Art and Nature Along The Milwaukee RiverWalk
Milwaukee’s RiverWalk quickly became one of my favorite outdoor gathering places in the country. The two-mile long stretch takes you through downtown Milwaukee, into the city’s historically German neighborhood of Old World Third Street and the artsy enclave of The Historic Third Ward and through the formally industrial zones that served the city’s brewing industry. There are parks, trees along the pathway and lots of spots to take in the river.

You’ll find signage describing the neighborhoods’ histories as well as lots of public art in every season. River Sculpture! currently showcases the work of 20 artists along the RiverWalk, roughly between Wisconsin Avenue and Juneau Avenue. You can find the locations listed here.

The city’s most famous sculpture, The Bronze Fonz, (yep, “Happy Days” was set in Milwaukee) is here too. You’ll find it at RiverWalk and Wells, on the east side of the river. I used to want to be Fonzie, so I couldn’t’ resist a photo.

The art along the river is great, but I really love how this is a public outdoor space that’s truly made for people. It’s full of little touches that make it feel inviting and user-friendly, from floating docks where people lounge, sketch and doze (and moor their boats, of course), restaurant patios overlooking the water and comfortable benches and bistro tables to encourage picnics and riverside chats.

I loved walking along the river, both to get where I was going and just to move and be outdoors. And sitting on the dock by Mason Street, picnicking, feeding the ducks and staring out at Cork Marcheschi’s “Dream With the Fishes for Aurora” across the river was strangely meditative.

“Immigrant Family” by Tom Otterness

Take A Wisconsin Avenue Art Stroll
One of the city’s most historic thoroughfares is a great walking route for art lovers. Sculpture Milwaukee placed 22 sculptures along Wisconsin Avenue, from 6th Street to O’Donnell Park, and the juxtaposition of sculpture and the urban landscape really does make you see both the art and the city in a new way.

The 2017 sculptures come down on October 22, so there’s still time to check them out if you’re in the area. (And if you needed a reason for an impromptu Milwaukee getaway, this is a good one.) There will (presumably) be a new line-up of sculptures in upcoming years, so keep an eye out on the website for updates.

If you can’t make it in time (or if you’re reading this after the sculptures have already come down), you can still read Matt Mueller’s  article. It details the artists and the location of every work on display.

If you’re in Milwaukee after October, there is still art to see on Wisconsin Avenue. Check out ten colorful utility boxes by artist Mauricio Ramirez (famous for his work with brands like Red Bull and Microsoft), along Wisconsin Avenue from Cass to 9th Street. They’re a new addition to the downtown landscape,  added in the summer of 2017. (The exact locations are listed here.)

Then keep walking toward the cool, blue-gray expanse of Lake Michigan, toward the the bright orange sculpture rising up from the earth and standing in stark contrast to the sleek skyscrapers around it. This is “The Calling” by Mark di Suervo and you’ll find it just before the bridge to the Milwaukee Art Museum.

There’s obviously a ton of art inside the museum, but the building itself, which appears to be rising out of the lake like a gigantic sea bird, is worth a look. There’s no charge to stand outside and watch the wings of the building (which are actually a sun screen) open at 10 a.m., flap at noon and close at 5 p.m., weather permitted.

Discover Colorful Street Art At Black Cat Alley
This art alley is one of the coolest spots in Milwaukee. Tucked behind the Oriental Theatre, between Farwell and Prospect Avenues in the East Side neighborhood, this colorful love letter to street art unfolds on a massive scale. (See the humans in the photo for an idea of just how big some of these murals really are.)

Heads up, shutterbugs: This is easily one of the most photogenic spots in town, but the large scale and sloping alley create all kinds of interesting angles, so your Instagram shots might require a little extra experimentation. It’s absolutely worth the creative challenge.

 The 60-foot frog by French artist MTO that greets you is one of the largest murals, but there are also calm, quiet, intimate works, like this one that incorporates small raised gardens and trees in the alley. I’ve seen a lot of street art in my day, but I haven’t seen this kind of integration before, and I really responded to it.

Look Down For Jeremy Novy’s Koi Fish
Black Cat Alley actually grew up around a few colorful koi fish by street artist Jeremy Novy. He started painting them on sidewalks on the East Side, several other neighborhoods in Milwaukee and along the nearby Oak Leaf bike trail for a printmaking project as a student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I noticed these koi under my feet downtown and they made me smile. And then they made stop and think.

That’s exactly what Novy intended. His koi — a symbol of strength and beauty in adversity — are painted as a statement against urban blight and as a kind of encouragement to those facing struggles. “The koi symbolize several lessons and even trials individuals often encounter in life,” Novy told On Milwaukee in 2016. “The koi has a powerful and energetic life force – and it has the ability to swim against currents and even travel upstream.”

You can read more about Novy’s mission and his work in this excellent article in the Wisconsin Gazette or hear an interview with him on Radio Milwaukee.

What about you?
What are your favorite spots for public art in Milwaukee?
What are your favorite places to see public art in your home town?
What kind of public art do you respond to most deeply? (Sculpture, murals, light installations, etc.)
Do you have a favorite work of public art? Tell us about it!
Why do you think public is important? What does it add to a community?
Do you seek out public art when you travel? Why or why not?

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