I take a night train to Milwaukee with an overloaded shoulder bag, a bottle and a half of red wine in me, and full of hope. On the way north I reread articles on the great artist migration from big cities to bankrupt ones, to the exurbs—be born rich or move to Detroit/Cleveland/Jersey City/Belleville. Or Milwaukee, where I’d be staying at The Pfister Hotel for a pop-up arts symposium on empowering the local arts scene, the whole affair orchestrated by Niki Johnson, the hotel’s artist in residence. Go local!
Looking out the window at cheap grocery stores and tunnels of excellent graffiti, I remember that Amtrak has its own residency program. Facebook, too. If artists are being priced out of the urban zone, maybe (corporate) residencies will be their only access point in the future. Artist-in-residence in every retailer up and down the Magnificent Mile/Broadway/the Champs Elysées. Go corporate support!
The MKE symposium was to celebrate both of these: the local, small-city arts scene and the completion of Niki’s year-long residency at the Pfister. In honor of the occasion, and in bid for coverage, the hotel would be putting me and three other writers up. I glance around the train car: people in discount workwear sipping tallboys or snoring. No obvious arts writers. I connect with them on Twitter, Sid Branca (of Bad at Sports) and I agree to meet on the platform. Out the window are spotlit waiting rooms, construction machinery bearing vigil in the night.
All photo: James Pepper Kelly
Sid is cool, with white-blonde hair, here to meet a friend about their theatre group. She’s curious to see if the hotel halls will work for a video project. We walk over the highway together and it feels almost like high school, stopping in a small gas station for cigarettes (Sid) and lottery tickets (me). The wine is still working as we climb up through Milwaukee, wind blowing at our chests one minute, our backs the next. What, I wonder, are we doing here? Sid says this is a regular thing, from time to time she leaves Chicago to eat sausages and drink beer in Milwaukee. I might be here for the same reasons, I think, not sausages or beer but the other part. Go. Local.
After walking up Milwaukee’s wide, empty streets we reach The Pfister Hotel (pronounced “Fister”). Not what I had guessed at: not quaint, not corporate. No, everything in the lobby is marbled and gilded, fluffed and shined. Painted Victorian women lower their tops while bronzed bare long legs lead up to tilted, childlike hips. Overhead, chandeliers light the cheeks of smirking, naked cherubim. From the hotel lounge/bar comes laughter, ennui, the scent of a hundred (dollar) perfumes.
A friend of mine once had a studio visit with Doris Salcedo during which the all-star artist declared, “I don’t want to hear about you and your bourgeois friends!” It’s easy to empathize. Of course we should care about the working artist’s concerns, but having to actually hear them enumerated is dull. I came to Milwaukee from Chicago, The City That Works, expecting the standard talking points around art world economics: student loan debt, the plight of the adjunct, the W.A.G.E. system, lack of collectorship, the sins of mega-galleries, and the numbing standardization of art fairs, to name a few. Retreading these issues, worthy as they are, is usually the art world equivalent of talking about the weather, or the record of your local sports team. Looking round the lobby of the Pfister I wonder if those points are relevant here. What can you say about the weather while sitting in the antechamber to the orgy?
Just off the lobby, in the former Business Center, is Niki Johnson’s studio. This is where she’s spent 30+ hours per week over the last year. Glass walls and an open door encourage visitors to stop, watch, engage, and Niki is chatting with several of them as Sid and I walk up. I look round the studio, take some pictures, read wall text, but mostly I’m watching Niki charm her guests. Later at the bar she’ll laugh and refer to the space as a fish bowl and I’ll feel sorry for her having to make the same noises every day like clockwork, and impressed with her too, and on some level I’ll know that as we sit there, me and Sid and now Kate Sierzputowski too (of Inside/Within and Newcity), that Niki is handling us just as well as anyone.
The three of us keep Niki up late, until we’re nodding off, playing our roles as question-askers. The entire time she sparkles. Her role here is the personally magnetic artist and she’s damn good at it, self-deprecating and honest and polished—but almost too much. Behind her the dark bar stretches out, empty aside from our table. Small tealights go out here and there and stay that way. We were talking about what? The bartender spins a beer bottle between his palms to get the last dregs into a glass (never seen that one before), shortly after kicks us out. We laugh our way back to the hotel, up the elevator, and I notice a gift basket waiting in my room: cheeses, mustard, dip-able pretzels. I read through Pfister press releases while chewing Gouda. Pretzel crumbs are everywhere but I don’t notice because I’m learning that the Pfister is haunted, at least the Internet says so and some sports teams won’t even stay here, but I’m losing focus here so I fall into the bed and pass out.
In the morning there’s a bright sun over Milwaukee, the wind just as strong. I walk down to the lake where there’s an art museum hosting a flower show, then back to the hotel past buff, short-haired insurance employees. If Nelson Algren was right—loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose—then is loving Milwaukee like loving her clean-living Boy Scout cousin? If so, the Pfister is that vanilla boy’s ID.
Before lunch with the marketing team I explore the hotel lobby. I’m happy to see that the hedonism holds up in daylight. I start reading wall labels and thrill to the realization that the text is as idiosyncratic as the artwork. Up on the mezzanine a portrait of Mr. Ben Marcus, the magnate who purchased the property in the early 60s, smiles out at me. There’s also a woman there peering out from beneath an Alice in Wonderland hat, not smiling, tapping on a classic typewriter. The Narrator- in-Residence, I guess based on last night’s PR binge. She stares at me a minute then starts tapping faster.
At lunch the writers (now joined by Corinna Kirsch, Art F City) sit down with three members of the Pfister’s marketing team. We cover the details of the press releases, which, surprisingly, I seem to somehow remember. All three of them love working for the Pfister, or, more accurately, for The Pfister Hotel’s holding company, Marcus Hotels & Resorts, a division of The Marcus Corporation (NYSE: MCS). Mentally I flip what’s instantly “problematic” —who doesn’t love to bash corporate?—but it’s a reflexive impulse. The Pfister gives the AIR studio space, pays her, feeds her, gives her latitude to make use of the hotel’s resources and propose projects. Hence the symposium, which Niki proposed, and The Marcus Corporation inviting us all to Mil-town. During the talking points I fantasize about being rich and investing ethically: only corporations with AIR programs.
Towards the end of the meal things pick up: one of the employees starts describing her hobby as a competitive dog-track trainer. At this point the Pfister has my complete respect: how, how does it completely fail to be normal?
And then, the symposium. I wish I could say that the arts speakers did well by the Pfister’s weirdness. I wish that we’d met in that haunted ballroom, old man Pfister looking down on us from back balcony, and truly realized where we were. Speakers could talk about the poetry of wall labels, the painting of a regal lion hanging up high by the ghost, how this spectacular art collection of hope and perversion came to Milwaukee and how we should face it today.
But that didn’t happen. We hear about how to write for grants, that we should talk to strangers, that someone writing for Hyperallergic said something about Kehinde Wiley and there are a lotta blog comments. That “there is art writing out there.” When an earnest young man insists that “community is about food but it’s not about cocktail parties.” I walk out to go buy toothpaste.
I walk through the cold, bright city, thinking about Charles Pfister’s “vision for ‘The Palace of the People…[w]here anyone would be able to walk through the doors and gaze upon the work of famous artists from Europe and America.” Why, then, are the symposium’s speakers coming off self-conscious and defensive? We sit there in the inner chamber, surrounded by raw possibility, and they want to talk about whether it will rain. Go local?
Back at the Pfister the art press table taps away avidly. Corinna is live-blogging for Art F City, Sid and I snapping out tweets, Kate loading her computer with notes. We drink lots of coffee, and soda, then Sid leaves and Kate and I steal beers from the caterers out in the central staging area while Corinna grabs her gift basket lager from her room. Up front a trio of presenters bluster in the language of self-help manuals, something about creative communities and branding. I look around the room. Does anyone understand what they’re talking about? Beside me, Kate raises her hand. “I’m from Chicago and not familiar with your work. Can you explain what you do?” The man guffaws. “How long ya got?” After that, we’re treated to several minutes of an incomprehensible explanation from the brand specialists.
The sun goes down outside and the last speaker, painter and former Pfister artist-in-residence Reginald Baylor, takes the stage. Baylor jokes, poses, delivers copious biography about himself as a young man. Baylor charms. His dubious message—concentrate on direct sales to the suburbanites of middle America—isn’t what sticks. He winds up, we laugh, and then it’s over and Niki’s up there thanking everyone. And her piece of artwork being dedicated to the Pfister is borne up the front of the aisle and it’s a little crib-like structure for from a fairy tale, laced with feathers, and finally there’s a little bit of fantasy in the room. Niki won some notoriety making a portrait of the Pope with condoms some years back, and I’m glad that she found her way to the Pfister which otherwise has played it safe and innocuous with its residents, and that she orchestrated this gathering because how else would I ever have known that such a place existed, a temple impervious to our pedantry?
That night after, Kate and Corinna and I go to a bar for journalists with a dead cat (locals look down their noses at it but we don’t care) and after Kate and I stop by the hotel’s city-view dark bar, I take the elevator back down to the lobby. It’s 2a.m. In eight hours I’ll be on an Amtrak back to Chicago, but before then I want to breathe in the air here and spend just a little more time staring at this thing I can’t make sense of. Mr. Marcus, with his fixed grin, watches me as I pass him on the stairway. I walk round the circular floor on each level, taking in every blushing painting and softly lit landscape. The carpeting is thick so that I become a silent witness to the invisible guests, their sounds drifting out into the hallways. Laughter, loud talk, quiet TVs, small groups bringing together their noises in the night. The seventh floor, Niki’d said, I hear there’s a kitchen there that’s locked and no one’s ever allowed in—too haunted. Sounds come and go in the hallway but not a person to be seen, not even over my shoulder (which I check, again and again and again).
In the other hotel tower, the unhaunted one, Sid and Kate and Corinna are asleep, and Niki too. And tomorrow we’ll pick up our lives and talk about Theaster Gates and adjuncting and #activism but at this very moment Charles Pfister’s ghost is stepping in stride with me just one floor away, admiring the collection he built a hundred years ago while working to bring culture to Cream City. Somewhere across town nonprofits and collectives are dreaming about community but here in The Pfister Hotel everyone’s asleep and I’m lost, Charles’s ghost bearing down on me, gut out, pausing here and there to stroke the ornate frames of his favorite pieces. By now the paintings are positively leering at me. I stop, exhausted, and suddenly the sounds of hardcore sex surround me: slapping, pounding, moans building up to voice-snapping octaves. Full-throated. I look down at the carpet, spinning. After the climax, a voice: “Oh, yeah…. That was for a you.” And then silence.
 An image that I admit the power of but also find heinous. “Dated” would be the conservative way to put it. The problem is precisely that sense of allowance by which the broken nose is accepted and deemed valid, and incorporated into some self-mythologizing hype about what’s “real” while avoiding any ethical considerations at all. Today loving Chicago is like loving made-for-Netflix specials.
 The notable exception is Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design professor Jill Sebastian. She’s fresh and fierce and one of the only speakers to spend more than a perfunctory amount of words on audience.