TAKE OFF THEM TURTLENECKS AND PUT AWAY THOSE BERETS. SUSAN KRIOFSKY AND MIKE BRENNER ARE DOUBLE-HANDEDLY GIVING ART BACK TO ITS RIGHTFUL OWNERS: THE PEOPLE. WAYNE, VINNIE, AND FPHATTY SAT DOWN WITH THE STEELY DAN OF MILWAUKEE, WISCONSINíS GALLERY SCENE TO TALK ABOUT THEIR INCREASINGLY POPULAR SHOWCASE SPACE, HOTCAKES GALLERY, AND ITS MISSION TO MAKE GOOD ART AFFORDABLE FOR EVERYONE.
Wayne: So, I guess we should start with, "Why Hotcakes Gallery?" Why did you guys start it?
Mike: I think it happened because we kinda fell into it.
M: We (points to Susan) had met through M.A.R.N.-- Milwaukee Artist Resource Network-- which Iím the executive director of. And, like a lot of people, she contacted M.A.R.N. to get information about Milwaukeeís art scene. She was living out in Portland, and I gave her the big sell on how great Milwaukee was. And what I do is, when a lot of artists come to town, I say, "Give me a call when you get here. Weíll have a dinner party, and Iíll introduce you to a bunch of artists." I do that so they feel like they're part of the scene when they get here. I took her to a few events, and she said she needed someone to share a studio with.
Susan: The studio turned into a gallery, basically. (laughs)
W: (to Susan) So, what he told you about Milwaukee and its art scene, was it pretty accurate?
S: Yeah. I think so. (to Mike) You said it was growing, and cool things were happening. I didnít expect to be completely wowed, but cool things are happening.
W: Like what?
S: More galleries are coming out.
Vinnie: (to Susan) tastes like chicken.
S: (laughs) tastes like chicken is here.
Fphatty: Hey, whenís our dinner?
S: Yeah. When is your dinner?
F: Do you have a lot of people approaching your gallery now?
S: More now. It was really hard in the beginning, but now, people are throwing us proposals left and right.
V: Is there anything specific you guys are looking for, now that you are getting all these proposals?
S: I think weíre learning a lot. Specifically, figuring out what we want to show, and if it will sell.
S: I think there are a lot of things weíd like to show, because theyíd be important to see, but we canít show them because they might not sell. I donít know. Weíre starting to be drawn toward paintings, more than anything else. I mean, in the price range that weíre throwing out there-- the $100 to $200 range-- that seems to be what people want for that amount.
W: You guys are located on the east side of Milwaukee, which is sort of off the beaten path of the cityís general art gallery district. But Iíve always thought of the east side as being a more liberal and art-oriented community. How has having a gallery away from the more touristy art gallery area worked out for you?
M: Itís actually worked out pretty well, but I think most of that is because weíve gotten a lot of press, and have done a lot of promotion through email marketing. I mean, we get almost no walk-by traffic. Thatís just not happening.
S: People come in here every day. I think yesterday was the first day we didnít have anyone come in, and thatís because it was so nice out.
M: Plus, we have really good food at our openings. We have people come in and say, "We were at this other event across town, and heard that you have really good food."
W: You know, weíve been to the last two openings here, and there have always been a lot of people here. I also know you guys sell a lot of art. You obviously put a lot of work into it, but when you held the first opening, were you surprised at how well it did?
M: Well, we were surprised we even had people walk through the door! I mean, like you said before, weíre virtually in the middle of nowhere, but had almost 500 people through at the galleryís opening. We sold 30 paintings from that show, and 15 more later on. I donít know. I think itís just an atmosphere where people feel comfortable.
S: And people are hungry for this stuff, you know? People come into the gallery and thank us for providing them with this service, which I didnít even think was such a service. But we show them some good art, allow them to buy stuff, give them a friendly atmosphere to be in--
V: And you talk to us when we come in.
Mike and Susan: Yes!
M: You go to most galleries, and the owners donít even come out from behind their desks.
V: It is hard to find you guys at openings.
W: What I find most interesting about the gallery is-- the three of us [Wayne, Fphatty, Vinnie] lived in Columbus for a long time. And the gallery scene there was very conservative, very stale. It was hard to get exposure there if you werenít doing glass work or photorealistic paintings. Were you guys purposely trying to show less conservative things, or is that just who you are?
S: I think we just show what we like.
M: Yeah. Weíll always show stuff that we like. Iím not just going to show something because it will sell. But thereís always that censor, where weíll look at stuff, but it might be too high for our price range. This gallery is based around the idea that the art is affordable. You can get something for two bucks out of our vending machine, or, thereís always work in here under $100 or $150. Thereís also always that censor that says, "Well, maybe this wonít sell in Milwaukee." Thatís a big part of choosing what we show, too. Neither one of us is a trust fund baby.
M: We need to sell a certain amount of work just to keep the doors open.
F: (to Susan) Is the work that sells in Milwaukee different than what was selling in Portland when you were there? Is it different than what sells in Chicago or other cities?
S: I think itís just that less people buy here. Thatís the difference.
M: And thatís kinda the idea behind Hotcakes, though. In a town where you go from grass roots guerrilla art shows in attics, to places charging $2,000 a painting, there has to be something in-between. One of the most important things, I think, as far as building a community where artists can make a living, is giving people a place where they can come in, not feel intimidated, and buy some art for $100 or $150. Itís training people to be collectors.
S: And, obviously, you canít always do stuff thatís easy to sell. I mean, weíre doing installation shows between our big shows. Itís an instance where we get to show things that donít necessarily have to sell. A lot of people who come here, because of the press we get, are people who donít necessarily come to art galleries. For them, itís a chance to get to see some really interesting things they wouldnít normally get to see.
V: Do you guys feel that thereís a stigma attached to the word "gallery"?
S: Well, I think there is. (laughs) But Iím looking at it from an artistís standpoint. I always had issues with galleries. I ran into a lot of bad ones, and I know a lot of people who have run into the same thing. Galleries typically take too much money, and donít put out as much press as they should for the percentage that theyíre taking. But I want to break that down here. I want us to be more comfortable for the artists, more comfortable for the public, and be nice to people.
S: Not intimidate them.
M: Plus, we both come at it from the perspective of two people with art degrees. Thatís a totally different perspective for gallery owners. Sueís still an active artist, and Iím more art administration now. And running a non-profit organization that tries to help artists promote themselves and further their careers, itís important to me that we do things very seriously. You canít make money doing this, really. Especially not in the first five years. Most people donít ever make money. People who have other jobs and run a gallery canít focus on promoting the show, promoting the artists, and helping them further their careers. And when youíre taking 40% of what theyíre getting, you have to do those things.
W: Yeah, I gotta hand it to you. I think itís amazing what you guys are doing. We had some friends who essentially did the same thing you are doing, only in Columbus. They opened a gallery, showed some different stuff, but went under really quickly. People just didnít support it, you know? And I think itís cool that youíre doing what youíre doing, and you realize you might have to do it for free at first.
S: Not for free.
W: Oh, right. Thatís my world.
W: You know, I think that thereís definitely a stigma attached to galleries. I also think thereís an idea of what type of person goes to galleries. Have you guys noticed some people coming in that arenít the type to normally go to galleries? Or is it still pretty much a gallery crowd?
S: I think itís less of a gallery crowd, to tell you the truth. The younger people are the gallery crowd-- all the young artists, and people just interested in finding cool things. We get a lot of people who have never been to a gallery before. Or, someone sent them an email saying, "Hey! Check this out!" Or they heard about us on the radio. Stuff like that. And I think thatís awesome, because they come through here, and we kinda teach them about whatís going on. Or we give them the statement, and they start to realize thereís more to it than just looking at things.
F: You said you did a lot of email marketing promotions. Where did you get your list of who to send to, and can I have it?
M: I think what we did was basically go through every email conversation we had in the last few years, and copied and pasted every single email address of every single person we talked to. And there were people that we specifically targeted, like people who worked at large corporations who we knew would be interested. And itís easy to unsubscribe to our newsletter. Itís not like weíre sending them tons of mail.
S: And not a lot of people unsubscribe. (to Mike) Whatís the percentage of people that unsubscribe to our emails?
M: I think we send out about 10,000 emails, and maybe 2,000 will bounce back, because the email addresses are no longer valid. And, maybe 50 will unsubscribe, or less than that.
F: Not to change the subject, but whatís with your refrigerator door? You have a bunch of kids' drawings of unicorns on there.
S: Those belong to a little kid who lives down the street. When we first opened up, he came through the doors and was like, "Oh my God! Iíve been waiting all my life for a gallery!" But heís ten!
S: But heís so incredible. And he was so forward then, that I asked him, "When are you gonna show me some of your drawings? Maybe if we like some, you could show work here." Well, he freaked out and got super shy. But at some point, he brought over a bunch of drawings, and I went through them all, picked out some of them, and hung them on the refrigerator. So now he comes over every week, just to drop off more and more drawings.
V: Is he bringing over ten-year-old girls heís trying to hook up with, telling them, "Check it out. My artís hanging in a gallery, baby!"
M: Well, he came over on a gallery night on his way back from school, and I was like, "Why donít we get another show up?" So he brought over more drawings. Itís better than a lot of the other gallery work in town.
V: I walked through most of the Third Ward galleries Friday night, and, man... all Iím saying is, it was an experience.
V: Then again, Iím very picky. Most of the time, Iíd just bite the bullet and go in. There were a lot of bad watercolor paintings, and pictures of flower pots. Shit like that.
S: And free alcohol.
V: At some of them.
S: Oh my God! Bad art and no alcohol?
V: Yeah. I left a lot of those places very quickly.
F: (laughs) Were there any other reasons why you were going into these places?
V: (laughs) Well, there was one place where we saw all these girls in weird pastel prom dresses walking in, so Watchman and I followed them into the building.
V: I mean, most of the galleries we went into, we just went in to check out the girls. It was the first warm day of the year!
M: Hey, man. Whatever it takes.
W: Of the shows youíve had, itís obvious youíre not just looking for anyone. I mean, are you?
M: Yeah. We just want new ideas. It just happened to be a coincidence that the first two shows were Chicago people. You know, a lot of the group shows I go to here in Milwaukee are the same people, doing the same work. You go back four months later on a gallery night, and itís the same people doing the same work all over again. Everybodyís making new work for the shows we have here, for the most part.
V: Have you guys approached any artists about showing here, or has it all been strictly them approaching you?
M: We approached Jeremiah [Ketner, their first show]. Our next show, we approached the artists.
S: Itís a little bit of finding and weeding. A little more weeding, though. Itís harder to find. There arenít many buildings full of artists you can go into. Not many of the schools have days where you can go into the studios and look around, you know? When I was starting out, showing work, we had open studios in Boston. Curators, gallery directors, whoever, would just walk through the doors and say, "I want this. I want this. I want this. Do a show here." I think the only open studios here... well, thereís Bay View and Riverwest. So, itís kind of hard to find artists, unless you steal them from some other gallery, which you donít want to do.
F: Are people generally pretty enthusiastic when you approach them?
M: Yeah. I mean, we want to give people something worthwhile. So, I try and promote the gallery as much as possible, to motivate them to do better work.
V: Do you guys have any dream shows?
S: I want to have a piŮata show.
V: (to Mike) What about your dream show?
M: My dream show?
V: Art show.
M: Oh. Art show.
M: Letís leave the intern out of this.
M: No, I donít know if I have a dream show.
F: What do you guys not want?
M: What do we not want? I donít know.
S: I think weíre still just figuring out what we do want. But, I mean, weíre finding things we like, but arenít necessarily saleable.
V: What, are they political? Or powerful in a way that people wouldnít want them hanging in their houses?
M: No, because I think people might actually buy stuff like that. We get a very broad spectrum of art. Letís just say that. And weíre approached all the time. Itís just pick and choose, you know? I mean, if you want one, my dream show is just one where most people will buy. I want people to come in here and see something that makes them go, "Wow!" Something that influences their art.
W: Being a visual artist, you guys have things you pull from. Influences. Things that inspire you. As a gallery person, are there gallery things that influence you? People, other galleries, places? Like, CPOP in Detroit is obviously a very young gallery. Are there people like that whoíve inspired you guys, or is it something else?
S: Itís pretty much done from scratch.
S: I mean, weíre learning a lot along the way. We talk to other galleries in town to see how they handle little things, but thereís no straight up plan we followed. The things I know about galleries, I learned from the galleries Iíve showed at. Weíre mostly learning as we go.
M: We really know nothing about the gallery business.
W: Maybe thatís why itís successful. Maybe thatís why itís so different.
M: Right. I mean, itís not like we decided we were going to open a gallery, wrote up a big business plan, searched around for space.
M: It was more like, "Wait-- you like Steely Dan, too? Letís open a gallery!"
M: Seriously. Weíre in here, painting the place, getting drunk, listening to Steely Dan, and were like, "Well, why donít we just open a gallery?"
S: Actually, thatís exactly how it happened.
S: You know, the whole "gallery stigma" thing-- I didnít go to school to be a curator. And there are all these debates about whether artists should become curators, because sometimes they ask the artists to make the work that they want to be making-- which I donít necessarily think is a bad idea. Honestly, as long as you show people interesting things, I donít think it matters.
W: We know the Helnwein family, and Gottfried has some very strong opinions against gallery owners. He dislikes the fact that theyíre usually only business people, and not artists themselves. They have no idea what itís like to make a piece of art. Theyíre only concerned with selling the piece. And I agree. Thatís why I think itís good to have someone involved in the gallery who knows how to make a painting, or how to take a photograph, instead of strictly knowing business things. It helps to have the business thing, but only in addition to a creative sensibility.
M: Yeah. Like I said earlier, thatís important to me, too. There are times where we choose work because we know it will sell. Yeah, weíre going to always show the things that we like, but if itís not going to sell, thatís a few thousand dollars that has to come out of our pockets to put on the show.
S: And the gallery is a necessary evil. A lot of artists canít market their work. They need a venue to show it for a month or two. And as long as the gallery is friendly enough, and does their part in promoting them-- which galleries should do, but have forgotten about. Thatís what gives galleries the bad rap. As long as you promote people, everyone will be happy.
F: Do you find that a lot of artists you approach, or who approach you, make really great work, but canít talk about it well?
M: Weíve been fortunate in that most of the people we work with have gone through art school, so they understand about presenting it, and taking it to that next level; that business side. And thatís the hardest part. Our submission guidelines are very clear on our website, in that we tell people to send us slides and a resume. And a lot of people donít do that. Theyíll send us an email with a link to their website, saying, "Yo, dude. Check out my website!"
S: We, as a gallery, need someone who can obviously hold up their end of the bargain, and thatís what the guidelines are for. If someone just throws me a couple of paintings, I donít know that theyíre capable of talking about their work, you know? I donít even know if theyíre capable of coming up with enough paintings to make an entire show!
M: Right. Everybody wants a show, but if they canít even get ten slides together, will they be able to produce enough paintings to cover 91 linear feet of gallery space?
S: We donít even ask for slides, all the time. You can send a CD. If you donít have much money, itís the same thing.
M: A lot of artists donít even research, you know? Go to our website. Read our mission. If we say we show affordable art, and you come to us with paintings that cost $6,000, itís not going to work.
S: In that respect, you need to realize that, as a gallery, weíre going to be representing you, the artist. You need to make sure weíre the right kind of representation for you.
W: Right. Well, my last question is do you have any words of wisdom for artists out there?
S: (long pause) Can I go have a cigarette?
M: Take your art as seriously as you want everybody else to. You spend 30, 40 hours a week working at a job you donít like. If you spent even half that amount of time on your art, you might be a much happier person, and your work would always be getting better.
F: Youíll also eat a lot more Ramen noodles.
F: What about the dog lips?
W: Oh, yeah. Do dogs have lips?
V: We ask this of almost everybody.
S: Yeah. Arenít they black?
M: I went to high school with a guy I caught French kissing a dog. I donít know that you could do that to something without lips.