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The Winnebago is open, but music is yet to come

The Winnebago is open, but music is yet to come

Plans are still shaping up for programming at the beautifully renovated east-side café and venue.

Soundproofing lines the walls, the sound system is ready to rip, and a sculpture made of brass instruments hangs from the ceiling. After months of roadblocks, the Winnebago Arts Café—or The Winnebago for short—had its soft opening Wednesday, February 20, on the near east side, at 2262 Winnebago St.

The Winnebago had initially aimed to open in September 2018. A loosely organized team of artists, musicians, and friends converted the old Sons of Norway lodge into a café, bar, and independent performance space with a mutually understood cooperative mindset, making group decisions, and avoiding deferring to one opinion, explains Jake DeHaven, one of the Winnebago's owners and investors. Much of the team has worked this way together before, namely on the Prism Music and Arts Festival. Of course, group decision-making is almost always slower and less decisive than following bosses. Despite these drawbacks, especially for economic and timeline concerns, DeHaven and Vancil agree that slowing down is an intended feature of cooperative thinking.

"It's been a huge group effort," says Tori Vancil, another artist and key member on the team who is listed on city documents as a Café Manager, but who also worked on the construction team and designing the interior. "Even while we were in the thick of it, it's been worth the extra time and effort."

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The Winnebago has also had to tap the brakes on its ambitions for live music, at least temporarily, in part to accommodate concerns about noise—a frequent challenge for Madison venues with residential neighbors. (DeHaven says the renovations included extensive soundproofing in the walls and roof.)  For its first month or so of operation, the space will function just as a café, DeHaven says, and it'll start off slow in March and April, hosting about two shows per month, with plans to ramp up in summer.

Shows the venue has confirmed so far include Kainalu and Bear In The Forest (March 15); Gender Confetti (March 16), Woodrow and Laska (March 22); Labrador and Saint Saunter (March 29); and Bird’s Eye and Oh My Love (March 30).

One recurring highlight on the horizon is a "chamber" night on Wednesdays, focusing on jazz, classical music, and solo-piano performance, booked by trumpeter/composer David Cooper. DeHaven would like to have comedy, spoken-word, and/or storytelling at least once a month, and has thought about hosting film screenings, but is holding off due to licensing concerns.

Confusion about securing proper city permits, and specifically figuring out the venue's capacity, also delayed the opening. Though the space could comfortably hold more than 99 people, it's stuck with that capacity limit until it can upgrade its fire suppression system.

For now, The Winnebago may or may not form an actual legally designated non-profit cooperative, though that was one of the founders' original ideas. The current group of owners and managers intend to wait until they better understand their business model before transitioning to worker control, or the one-worker-one-vote principle. In the meantime, they'll experiment with a profit-sharing model, with leadership dispersed throughout the workers.

"It's been a really humbling process," DeHaven says. "It's hard to gauge timetables in this fashion because there's a lot of opinions with equal weight. It's a lot of thinking through every single thing."

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Other major members of the current team include Jake's brother John DeHaven, as well as their friends, the artist Justin Brown, and bass player Evan Nelson, among a slew of others. Roles are all flexible, and in the process of reporting on the venue, I've noticed everyone is more excited to talk about other people's contributions than about their own.

Besides a democratic spirit, a cooperative process comes with a tendency towards self-reliance. When confronted with the price of contracting out roof repairs, the team did it themselves. This caused major delays, but by enlisting a team of friends willing to learn a new trade and share skills, they rebuilt a roof that met their own standards along with city codes.  

"When I agreed to do this project I didn't know I was agreeing to lay 50-foot trusses on a roof in the middle of August," Vancil says. "I've learned that I can do things that I thought I couldn't."

All this development  makes local passerby particularly curious about what's going on at the building that had once been closed off with boarded up windows and a privacy wall. According to Vancil and DeHaven, the team regularly notices gawkers through the renovated windows, who inevitably get the nerve to ask for tours.

The Winnebago is also positioned in a neighborhood that is morphing into a legitimate arts district, with the Arts + Literature Laboratory and Communication just a few blocks in either direction, Art In within walking distance, and the new Crucible farther east. Far from seeing the proximity of other venues as competition, DeHaven wants to explore for Winnebago's niche, and he sees the potential for a Winnebago Street block party.

"It's not a competition between these spaces," says Madda Udvari-Solner, a local music manager who's informally laying the ground floor in the Winnebago's event planning process. "The options are endless with what we can do with the space."

What should distinguish The Winnebago from other venues is the combination of an open-ended performance philosophy, food and bar service, and the large 2,500-square-foot floor in front of the 600-square-foot stage, with sizable back stages to accommodate theatre performances and other ambitious events. No one on the team wanted the stage pinned to any particular aesthetic, and they saw landing an all-genre license as an obvious move. If their sound system holds up, it could be somewhat of a replacement for The Frequency, whose gap in the scene remains unfilled.

"Most of this winter and spring are going to be experiments," DeHaven says. "I really want the space to be open and versatile, and open for any kind of expression."

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