A new arts and music space, Communication, takes shape on Milwaukee Street
The new DIY space, helmed by local musicians and artists, plans to open in May.
Four Madison-based artists and musicians are leading the effort to open a new arts and music space, Communication, by May on Milwaukee Street. Communication plans to try and address a number of needs in the local arts community: It will be all-ages and alcohol-free, host live performances, provide a retail space for artists to sell their work, rent out studio space for artists (and possible host artist residencies), and explore workshops and children's programming. The team is raising additional seed funding through a GoFundMe page.
Leading the effort are Tessa Echeverria, Mollie Martin, Spencer Bible, and Jennifer Bastian. Launching a DIY space is always a big challenge from both a creative and business standpoint, but it's fair to say that this team has a record of making improbable things work. Echeverria (who also plays in several local bands, including Once A Month and According To What) founded the all-analog recording studio Williamson Magnetic in 2015, co-founded the Half-Stack Sessions advocacy group, and worked for several years as a marketing and finance coordinator for Nature's Bakery. Martin is a multimedia artist and a purveyor of vintage fashion, both on a freelance basis and through Good Style Shop on East Johnson Street. Bible plays in several local music projects (but chiefly the hybrid band/solo project Tippy), books shows around town for touring and local bands, and hosts an annual festival called Bluelight on a plot of family land about 40 miles outside of Madison. Bastian, also a mixed-media artist, had a residency last year at the Madison Public Library's Bubbler space, has shown work at Arts + Literature Laboratory and last year's Makeshift Festival, and is currently working on an ambitious art project in which she'll unpack memories of a near-fatal car accident she experienced a decade ago in Iowa. (Full disclosure: Tone Madison has hosted several events at Williamson Magnetic. The Communication team has also discussed working with us on media workshops.)
The space itself, at 2645 Milwaukee St., most recently was home to a window-treatment store and warehouse. Its unconventional layout will be key to helping Communication tackle a diverse mission. Up front is a small storefront space, and behind that a warehouse area that the team plans to convert into a performance area. Behind that, a door opens up into a two-story house, which will serve as artists' studios, a makerspace, and perhaps a green room for performers.
The team has a ton of renovating (including soundproofing) to do in a short time, but on the plus side, they've got a little over 1,700 square feet of space to work with, and the rent posted in the window on a recent visit, at a bit under $1,400 per month, is a steal in Madison's rapidly gentrifying real-estate market. I took a walk through the space recently with Martin, Bastian, and Eccheveria (Bible was home sick), and honestly? If the team can get enough people to donate their elbow grease and construction supplies, this could actually work. They officially signed the lease this week and say the property's landlord has been supportive so far. "It's not uncommon on commercial leases to have build-out time where you don't have to pay rent because you're taking on all the cost of fixing, and they recognize you're improving the space," Echeverria says. "I mean, it's a three-year lease, so we're committing to a big chunk of time."
As they've prepared to go public with their plans over the past couple of weeks, Communication's founders have conveyed a sense that they want to expand access to the arts, and offer something that's a bit harder to define than conventional art shows and music events. "I am also especially interested in promoting young and emerging artists," Martin says. "It took me a really long time to figure out that I didn’t have to do what anyone else expected of me creatively, and once I shed those expectations I was able to create freely. I want to give young artists the chance to do that early on, in order to cultivate their own work."
Bible mentions the need for more bills that mix different genres of music, and looks forward to experimenting with different show formats. "I think the Madison scene is made smaller than it actually is by some rote habits of the community, and I'm excited to play against those expectations," Bible says.
The Communication team is aware of the need to work with neighbors who might be wary of living near a venue, and they think an emphasis on early shows (which Madison badly needs more of) and kid-oriented events will help. Near the corner of Milwaukee and East Wash, the venue will have lots of residential neighborhoods, but it's still in an area that's used to plenty of non-residential activity, thanks to the popular Malt House bar nearby and the mixed-use Union Corners development project, plus the porn store nearby.
"It's like a block from East High, so there's a lot of tie-in to high-school kids, and it's also in a neighborhood that has a lot of families, so we were talking about how there needs to be a mix between the communities that we're involved in and want the space the serve, and also the communities that live next to it, and they're not 100 percent overlapping," Echeverria says.
While Milwaukee Street isn't the first place most people would think to open a venue, the location is near several bus lines and the bike path, and is reasonably walkable for folks on the near east side. Plus, it's not the only new creative project happening in the area—the Sector67 makerspace is working on a new location just around the corner, at 56 Corry St. The area also has pretty easy street parking, and the space has a small parking lot to itself.
The team behind Communication has been plotting, planning, and looking at space for almost a year now. The effort comes as Madison's small venues make a lot of progress and as more commercially oriented venues become more and more consolidated under the Live Nation umbrella. It hasn't been without its challenges—the North Street Cabaret had to cancel a bunch of events last fall due to noise complaints, and the jury's still out on when displaced jazz venue Café Coda will reopen. But these venues, as well as places including Art In, Arts + Literature Laboratory, Williamson Magnetic, Connections, and Robinia Courtyard, have invigorated Madison's touring and local music offerings with a booking approach that's driven by artists and the community. The payoff has ranged from more diverse dance music and DJ nights (especially at Connections and Robinia) to a wealth of jazz and avant-garde music (especially at ALL). And several of the aforementioned spaces go beyond music to program visual art and other live media.
Still, the vision for Communication is something that hasn't really been represented in Madison since the Project Lodge left its East Johnson Street space in 2012, and isn't quite meant to replicate that venue either. (The Project Lodge's volunteer leaders looked for a new space for well over a year, but the effort eventually petered out.) A dedicated physical space, no alcohol sales, by and for the more scrappy and adventurous members of the local arts and music community. The two things aren't exactly the same, but in many ways the Project Lodge experience illustrates the challenges Communication will face. Running such a space takes a ton of sacrifice (in time, money, and effort), and in Madison it's hard enough just to find a location with the right facilities, affordable rent, and tolerant neighbors.
Inspirations for the space outside of Madison include Rozz-Tox, a venue and art residency in Rock Island, Illinois; the multi-purpose space Elsewhere in Brooklyn; and the AS220 residency program in Providence. "I was really inspired by places like Human Resources and Machine Project in LA, which is where I was living when I started to get interested in a less commercial and more community based model of making and sharing art," Bastian adds.