RAW events pair photography and video art with daring performances by groups like Jess and Jess Aerial Dance and Circus Entertainment.
From the Capitol to North 6th Street, East Washington Avenue is transforming. There's a fresh crop of apartments, buzz about a new business incubator, and an onslaught of road construction. The most exciting addition, however, isn't a fresh layer of pavement. An art movement seems to be brewing, yet it's so far underground that many locals can't see it.
Meanwhile, Madison artists complain of bubbles. They may drift by others doing interesting work, but for the most part, they toil in isolation. The lucky ones sell work in other markets. The less lucky earn their keep at other types of jobs. Many leave for bigger cities.
But lately, things have been changing. Well, sort of. A number of recently formed groups have set out to burst the bubbles. Their approaches differ, but their goals are similar: to help Madison artists make a living and to make the local art scene vibrant, visible and centrally located. Adding the scene's newest voices to the dialogue is essential. Here are four upstarts determined to change the local arts landscape.
Though East Wash lost Smart Studios in 2010, it has since gained a gallery named Art In and a circus of creativity called RAW: Natural Born Artists. RAW's Madison chapter, formed in 2012, started hosting its events at the High Noon Saloon this year.
RAW gatherings are rich in fashion, photography and performance. Visual artists and jewelry makers display their work in booths while bands rattle the floorboards with song. Fashion shows feature locally made couture and elaborate hair designs. Sometimes there's a film or a body-painting demo. Almost anything goes if it's done with flair. That's because the presenters want to make a lasting impression. Over the course of the event, they're likely to meet at least 400 new people, some of whom might buy their work or hire them for an event.
"RAW is about that make-or-break time in your career when you're making connections and seeking exposure," says chapter director Samiera Kookasemkit, 27. "That's why we focus on indie artists in the first 10 years of their career. Building those connections is hard if you aren't meeting the right group of people."
RAW members receive an arsenal of resources, including web pages with photos of their work, if they meet the organization's criteria for participation. They can also enter RAW's competitions, which take place in more than 80 cities, including Madison. Twenty-seven finalists -- three each from nine artistic disciplines -- are chosen through an online voting process, and then a panel of local critics selects a winner in every category. Winners from each city compete in another online showdown, and five get flown to L.A. to compete for grand prizes such as gallery placement and consultations with industry bigwigs. Last year, Madison's Christy Grace earned top honors in the visual art category.
Besides cultivating glitz and glamour, RAW encourages creative cross-pollination.
"You see musicians pair up with visual artists to make their next album cover or hairstylists pairing up with photographers for a shoot," Kookasemkit says. "And they learn that they're sharing some of the same struggles, that they're not in this all alone."
Candy Phelps is in love with Madison, and she's ready to commit after less than two years into the relationship.
The 32-year-old Montana native moved north from the Chicago area because she was impressed with Madison's combination of creativity and community. This spring she launched the Artery, a website to help local artists sell their work.
"There's something exciting brewing in Madison, something with national appeal," she says. "I think we're on the cusp of being one of those towns everyone wants to live in, now that everyone has lived in Brookyln and Portland. There is so much cool, interesting artist activity here."
As the owner of iCandy Graphics & Web Design, Phelps makes online spaces look good and function well. She likes physical spaces to fit this description, too. Unfortunately, few downtown storefronts are affordable for artists. Even if they are, they're not gallery-ready from the get-go. And getting an appointment to view a potential downtown gallery or performance space can be monumentally difficult. That's why Phelps headed to the web. From her east-side home, she plots her next move, which she hopes includes a physical space near East Washington, close to where Shopbop has settled. In the meantime, she's using the web to gain momentum.
"This town has trouble accommodating all of its talent because there's a lack of physical spaces that work," Phelps explains. "But the web will give you all the space you want."
The Artery attracted 19 artists in less than three months, and several have already sold their work, Phelps says.
"I don't know of any other sites specifically made for purchasing local art," she adds. "You have to make that transaction easy for people, but galleries and artists themselves often struggle with that."
Phelps says the idea sprang, in part, from her own shopping experiences.
"Sometimes I'll go to an art fair and see something I like by a local artist, but I don't realize I want to buy it until I get home. I don't have a good way of finding the artist, so I'm stuck," she says.
Some Madison artists are on Etsy, but it's easy to get lost in a sea of handmade scarves and sock monkeys.
"You can go there wanting to buy something by a Madison artist, and you end up buying something from far away, or shopping by price point," Phelps says of the online shopping site.
Phelps stresses that the Artery isn't meant to replace Etsy or artists' personal websites. It's simply another table at the art fair known as the Internet.
She wants the Artery to be a hangout for potential art buyers, too. The plan is to become a "jumping-off point for all things art in Madison," complete with an events calendar and interviews with local painters, sculptors and more.
She's also eager to be part of the larger conversation about art in Madison.
"There's a community of people in town that are all about trying to brand Madison as the new, hip, Silicon Valley type of place," she says. "Some people want a tech district near downtown, and some want a 'makers' district that could include artists."
Phelps wants to make sure visual artists are part of the equation.
Last weekend at 100State, a downtown coworking space that's morphed into a "community of passionate problem-solvers," the conversation about Madison's creative economy took another step forward. A few floors above Ian's Pizza, on the Capitol Square's State Street corner, the group hosted a three-day event called Artup Weekend.
About 35 people gathered to brainstorm projects that use the collective powers of artists and entrepreneurs, then put their favorite ideas into action. Before long, two pianos were wheeled onto State Street, where they were painted and played by everyone from toddlers to homeless adults. Inside, participants painted small canvases that were used to form a mural of the train on West Washington that housed 100State's predecessor, Caboose Coworking. Each small picture was visually interesting, but they had the greatest impact when pieced together.
The mural represents Artup's approach to both art making and problem solving, according to cofounders Adam Braus and Chas Feuss.
"I believe the world is run by those who show up," says Braus, a 28-year-old entrepreneur. "We think it's unique to have a weekend that includes a lot of people who don't necessarily consider themselves artists. People say it's so hard to create public art, and call Madison's art scene anemic, but then everyone I talk to says, 'Go for it!' for events like Artup Weekend."
Braus and Feuss hope to grow Artup into a national event that's a bit like Make Music Madison: inclusive, collaborative and as spontaneous as possible.
Feuss, a 24-year-old painter who interns at gener8tor, a downtown startup accelerator, says Artup also helps artists think like entrepreneurs.
"It's about connecting artists and helping them embrace business skills and learn how to market themselves," he says.
During the final hours of the event, teams presented their projects as they might during a laidback board meeting. There were bulleted lists and discussions about manufacturing and marketing a product. Business cards were exchanged, and iPhones were brandished. One of the piano players said he'd received paying gigs thanks to a few minutes of ivory tickling on the street.
The weekend wasn't without its problems, though. As the excitement surged, the pianos disappeared. The Artup organizers hadn't secured a permit or put contact information on the instruments, so the city's cleanup crew had to haul them away, says Karin Wolf, the city's arts program administrator. And the city's still trying to remove paint from the 100 block of State Street.
"I think the event is a really great idea, but there's something to be said for asking a few questions ahead of time," Wolf says. "The city is here to help."
Braus expressed frustration about the incident but still considers Artup a success. He hopes the event will spur a larger conversation about placemaking, specifically the need for centralized spaces where entrepreneurs and artists can live and work in close proximity.
"Put them together and shake; it really is that simple," he remarks. "The pop-up model of art making works if you know an event is happening in a particular place, but we need multiple fixtures that draw creative people every day. Some cities even provide housing for artists and entrepreneurs. Imagine if we had something like that near downtown."
Evan Bradbury is proud to be a Madison native.
"Lakeview, Sherman, East!" he exclaims when asked about his upbringing. But several years ago, the 25-year-old painter and gallery owner was sure he had to leave town to pursue an art career. He moved to New York City, where he worked at a gallery and took classes.
"I thought I was going to be the next Basquiat," he says with a laugh. "I came back two years later, after running almost entirely out of money."
Luckily, Bradbury landed a job in real estate management and built up enough savings to launch Bright Red Studios, 9 Ingersoll St., a space that mounts exhibitions and concerts, and rents out two private art studios. In addition to managing the space, Bradbury offers services such as flyer design and curates about six shows a year.
"I try to make Bright Red as affordable as possible for the artists," he says. "Madison has the energy necessary to be a real art city, but people aren't ready to spend more than $1,000 on a piece of art. So it's pretty hard to make a living."
That said, Bradbury hopes to command "big-city prices" for his paintings 10 years from now. But there's a lot of work to be done in the meantime.
While Feuss argues that well-heeled young professionals, especially those from the tech industry, are an important target market for Madison artists, Bradbury thinks a cultural shift needs to take place first.
"People are still nervous about sounding naÃve or foolish about art," he says. "The majority of my week is spent shaking hands and making people feel comfortable around art. Art can make you feel at home."