In May of this year, after having lived in Madison for an entire gestation period, I crawled out of the womb and embarked on a quest: to scour the dark underbelly of this city for its highly touted art scene. Here I was, in a city rated the number-one place to live, a mecca described by this year's Insider's Guide as "a hotbed for free thought" and "a lively, affordable arts community." Yet somehow, nine months into my Madison migration, I was still trying to locate the umbilicus, the causeway to the glitter bomb.
"Hotbed" was the word I kept tripping on. Where was it, who was in it, and why hadn't I walked in on at least one slumber party?
Bohemians were the breed I was looking for: unconventional artists and musicians, writers on the fringe, rabble-rousers. Below the layer of retro-chic State Street folk, was there a subterraneous population making art in the dark? Or was the notion of a "hotbed" just a lot of hoopla, left over from the late *60s when the university's involvement in the machinery of war led to protest marches, riots and alternative cultural activity?
Little did I know that just blocks away from State Street's ever-throbbing fashion gland, a local poet (often referred to as "the-fuzzy-pink-book-girl") was hard at work in her faux fur factory, self-publishing her reflections of a girly-girl. A little of the Nancy Drew in me would soon uncover a number of icon-smashing art collectives, a duct-tape sculptor trapped in his garage by the "connective tissue of our culture," a hula-hoop-wielding performance artist whose house has become "a Realibrary," and Madison's very own official Slam Master -- just to name a few.
What makes these people bohemian? Their art is experimental, challenging, political, and many of them aren't recognized by mainstream culture as legit bits of Madison's artistic legacy. Most of them show their work at small venues: coffee shops and bars like Mother Fool's, Espresso Royale and the Living Room. Few of them make a living at it. While some have achieved international acclaim, their names never appear at, say, the Grace Chosy Gallery.
It took me two months and a mufflerless Volvo to find them. It took a good deal of eavesdropping. Lots of people along the way looked at me funny and said, "Bohemians? In Madison? Ha!" But I found them. I dug them up out of their graves. I rang doorbells in the middle of the night. I found them, and they had lots to say about the challenges of living the boho life in Madison.
It's 1969. You pick up a copy of Madison's underground newspaper Kaleidoscope, which sells for a quarter and comes out of a "freezing illegal office, tucked away from the eyes of the zoning board." In it, you come across their manifesto; it calls for Madison to rip up all left turn lanes on East Washington and turn them into flower beds "in one night of frenzied dadaistic energy...to make Madison livable."
With articles by members of the Milwaukee Panther party and other "writers and freaks," Kaleidoscope makes Madison in the late '60s and early '70s sound like Xanadu. "Unclassified ads" offer membership to the New Sexual Freedom League, and a magazine called Position announces that it's Clitoris Appreciation Year. Paintings spontaneously appear around town in reaction to the Vietnam War, and impromptu theater springs up on the street. If you are out and about in your wide-legged slacks, you might happen upon the large orange bus driven by Ron Larson, who fills his bookstore-on-wheels with alternative magazines, radical pamphlets and other small-press publications that can't be found in local bookstores.
The Madison of that era was part of a network so strong it would have put Dionne Warwick to shame.
The *80s would carry on the tradition with the arrival of the renowned Avante Garde Museum of Temporary Art, a front-yard museum set up along Williamson Street by Elizabeth Was and Miekal And. Their home functioned as a visitor's center and headquarters for alternative art culture under the intermedia arts organization known as "Xexoxial Endarchy."
It's 1998. A local collective called Fieldwork is plotting to change the direction of traffic at the Farmers Market in an attempt to sensitize people to their environment. On the other side of town, a group called the SLOP Brand Art Coalition (a "collaborative promotional art squad") prepares for its next supermarket show by packaging artwork Little Debbie-style to mock the demands of consumer culture. You might wish to purchase a uniform made out of rejection letters, for example, or admire Mattel's new Drunken Driving Barbie.
It's Madison. The zaniness never stops. Or does it?
Local artists, from painters to poets to theater producers, paint a sobering picture. While an underground scene does exist in Madison, in some ways it's more underground than ever. Lack of venues, lack of funding, lack of public interest, and an overall lack of connectedness seem to be driving many artists out of our Mad City in search of madder ones: Chicago, New York, San Francisco.
Composer Debby Penberthy says, "I feel like Madison is a great place to start. If you're a musician in this town, people will let you play. You just can't make money here."
It's easy to say money isn't everything, but the problem seems larger than a fiscal faux pas on the part of Madison's moneyed moguls; it's a general attitude, an overall feeling of Madisonian malaise. Internationally known photographer and duct-tape artiste Lewis Koch blames it on a fear of taking risks: "No one is showing unconventional art in the galleries. There are few collectors here."
Blunt Rapture, longtime musician and member of the band Headpump, traces the slackened scene back to the demise of the Club de Wash, which burned down with the Hotel Washington a few years back. "There are no more big clubs with big stages," says Rapture. "Everything's a coffee shop with a stage in the corner, and the Barrymore costs a huge amount of money to rent."
Rapture wishes that Madison was more conducive to multidimensional artistic events, all-out extravaganzas where painters, musicians and performers could create large-scale phantasmagorias. "In places like Spokane and Seattle," Rapture says, "all the artists get together for mass happenings."
Many artists note a growing conservatism sweeping the cheese state. And while Madison is still viewed as a Midwestern oasis, it's going through a real period of stasis. Can it be that we are consuming too much Havarti and not enough art? Video artist Luciano Brazen says, "I think if there was any sign of bohemian activity in Madison, there would be an ordinance."
Elizabeth Schaefer, a nontraditional singer-songwriter whose music has been called "Tarantino-esque," has found that Madisonians can be slow to appreciate new things. "Some people here will love what you do," says Schaefer, "but another portion stereotypes you immediately -- almost like in high school when you show up wearing black lipstick."
Broom Street's Joel Gersmann claims that people have ceased to engage in intelligent discussions about art: "They talk about entertainment. They have such commercial tastes. They've turned into sports announcers."
But perhaps SLOP artist Scott Speh sums it up best when he says, "People in Madison are here for the beer and the weather."
Whether you're here to enjoy the Blatz and the blizzards is your business, but one thing is certain about Madison: If you're new to the scene, it's difficult to tap into a wider support system of artists and art enthusiasts, especially if you aren't linked to the university.
Photographer Ann Sautter describes how, after living in Madison for 10 years of relative artistic isolation, she finally placed a personal ad in Isthmus that read: "Is there anything happening in this town? Intellectual Riot Grrrls, where are you?"
The lack of community in Madison has spawned collectives like Fieldwork and SLOP. Local weaver Julia Weaver sought solidarity through a national organization called No Limits. The Madison chapter now meets monthly to provide support for women artists and to talk through impediments preventing women from making art.
While a number of groups like this exist, it's surprising to discover the lack of cross-pollination between cultural clusters.
Enter Tracy Dietzel, Madison's very own diva of unusual chutzpah. In an effort to create a sense of artistic community in 1993, she converted her east-side home into a public space she calls "The Realibrary." Formerly open on a daily basis, the Realibrary now serves the Madison boho community as a performance space, an archive, a classroom and a site of notorious theme potlucks.
"I'd like to have people use this as a resource and as a space," says Dietzel, whose clever use of a hula hoop during a performance piece at A Room of One's Own had people howling. "It's not a resource of things but of community."
Dietzel, who shares her airy dream space with a cat named "Dorine Leisure," moved to Madison in 1990 after searching the Midwest for a city with a strong community base. Tom Petersen, self-proclaimed "angel" of Brave Hearts Theatre, landed in Madison in much the same way. He drove through to visit friends in 1978 and stayed on to begin a cultural renaissance on Madison's east side. First he helped open the Barrymore Theatre, and now he runs Brave Hearts, a low-cost performance and rehearsal venue designed to encourage fledgling theater companies and individual performers. Today the man with the most soothing voice in the world is responsible for what he calls an "explosion of new companies." Despite financial hardships, he continues to nurture a growing community of performers.
"This is the roots of theater," Petersen says. "This is how you grow groups."
Not far from experimental lairs like Brave Hearts and The Realibrary, the luxurious couches and casual atmosphere of Mother Fool's Coffee House form another such multipurpose gathering space that was started in an effort to showcase Madison's bold and beautiful. Opened in 1995, Mother Fool's has grown into the east side's velvet-lined womb of one's own. Weekly live music, frequent readings, regular exhibits and other rarities have turned this vault into a vent for the most excruciatingly experimental entertainment available, and I mean that in the sweetest voice. Co-owner John Hain says, "Part of Mother Fools' mission is to give people their first show and to support upcoming artists."
Café Montmartre, a breezy, low-lit bar just off the Square, has become another site of bohemian activity. Its Sidecar bar hosts bimonthly poetry slams under the direction of poetry megalith Rusty Russell, fearless leader of the Cheap at Any Price Poets. For the chintzy rate of two bucks, you can watch a whole evening of local characters spin words off their tongue and even join in if you have an opus in your pocket.
Russell has noticed a change in the local climate. Fewer people attend readings and slams, and there's a sense of snobbery. "People think if an event is not connected with the university, it must not be any good," he says. Russell cites places like Austin, where poets pack the house; 150 people or more each night is not unusual. In places like Asheville, New Orleans and Vancouver, the slam scene has reached epidemic proportions, and poets can actually make a living by reading.
Canterbury Booksellers, A Room of One's Own, Café Assisi, O'Cayz Corral and, yes, even the Kmart-driven Borders regularly feature local artists and performers, but is it enough? Visual artists, more than any other group, seem to be clamoring for exposure. Many are quick to point out that once you have done the coffee-shop circuit, there's a real ceiling.
Artist Dale Malner says Milwaukee is a much livelier scene: "There's nothing in Madison that resembles UW-Milwaukee. The director of the UW-Milwaukee Art Museum is amazing and current. The commercial venues here aren't even within the modern dialogue, and the university sticks to itself."
But perhaps the larger question is whether or not Madison could even sustain anything beyond the status quo. Anne Sautter, whose Barbie Doll photographs were recently on display at Borders, says that she received flak for being too controversial, and that several customers informed Borders staff that they were going to take their business elsewhere if the show did not come down.
Smart Studios recording engineer Brian Daly says, "Perhaps people in Madison are more interested in being comfortable than exploring the cutting edge."
Clearly what's going on in Madison is not enigmatic, but part of a nationwide trend. Artists are struggling everywhere, diminished by an overworked market that is focused on the next Leonardo DiCaprio and driven by booms like Beanie Babies. Audiences claim that tickets are overpriced, and in an age where performing arts are valued by their box-office success, it's no wonder. Yet, if every teenager who saw Titanic 10 times had spent their money on a live performance, just think!
It's easy to get caught up in the gloom and doom, but there are some hopefuls among us. Joel Gersmann is convinced that within the next 10 years we are going to see a dramatic shift in the arts for the better. He says, "Kids will discover that in order to make something, they'll just have to do it themselves."
While local arts agencies waffle between pleasing conservative constituents and funding fringe projects, they do strive to nurture experimental ideas.
This summer, the Sesquicentennial celebration helped to showcase cultural innovators like Cycropia Aerial Dance, whose recent performance at Orton Park brought in a crowd of over 1,300 people. "The community has been integral to our survival, financially and in terms of maintaining our philosophy," says artistic director Renee Miller.
Founded nine years ago by four aerial dance enthusiasts, the group has blossomed into a unique, community-based theater that involves traditional dancers along with martial artists, yogis, rock climbers, skate boarders and gymnasts as well as movers and shakers of various ilks. Miller recounts how the group has gone from hosting a "Beg and Breakfast" to raise funds its first year to collaborating in shows at the Civic Center and receiving major grants.
People like Lynne Eich of the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission and Dianne Steinbach of Madison Citiarts are busy queens in the hives of local arts agencies, helping to fund such projects. Steinbach says, "Part of our mission is to encourage established and emerging talent and to preserve Madison's rich artistic tradition."
While numerous letters to the editor have criticized spending taxpayer dollars on unconventional art, Steinbach says she has never received any grief. She adds, "Atonal music is something that some people don't like, but I don't think it's a waste of taxpayer's money." The agency, which awards $31,000 in grants to local artists and art organizations each year, tries to balance what Steinbach calls "bread-and-butter programming" with programs that present audiences with new ideas.
Eich is particularly excited about the future of the arts in Madison. A challenge issued by the Madison Community Fund was recently met by the Overture Foundation, which will aid in boosting the commission's budget from $256,775 this year to $311,775 next year. Eich, who was giddy in announcing the recent endowment, stressed the importance of supporting cutting-edge art in Dane County. She says, "I think there is great enthusiasm for proposals that show spark and spunk and originality."
Whether or not greater Madison is capable of supporting its local bohemian culture, the resurgent spirit is still burning the midnight oil in basements, garages, attics and back yards. Look up into the trees some night, and you may even see dancers dressed in white flying through the air on a bohemian breeze.
It doesn't take a Volvo to find them, just a good ear and a wandering eye. Stay tuned next week for more in-depth profiles of local boho fixtures who pave our neighborhoods with flavor and undying panache.