The Bronzed Fonzie and Threats of Being Shived in the Shower

The last year my art gallery, Hotcakes, was open, there were a number of significant yet manageable setbacks, but when Milwaukee’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau got into the business of public art, I drew a line in the sand.

My nonprofit art service organization, the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network (MARN), had been working with Milwaukee’s Eastside Business Improvement District (BID) for a few years trying to build an arts incubator. We got grants to hire a number of different consulting firms and went though a feasibility study, did program development, and completed an architectural analysis of all the available properties in the neighborhood. The BID got a line on a $150,000 incubator grant from the state of Wisconsin, and found an investor willing to buy a gorgeous 30,000 sq. ft. building and lease it to us at a very reasonable rate. Then the consulting group we hired to write our business plan came back NOT with a business plan but a warning. They had apparently spoken with all the major funders in the city, and were told nobody was interested in funding MARN’s arts incubator. Why? Because another arts service organization in Milwaukee, founded after MARN but with all the right old men on its board of directors, had gotten hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding and had been totally unsuccessful. Their past had destroyed our future, and any hope of me ever getting paid a livable salary for running MARN.

Around the same time, Hotcakes was invited to show in Miami during Art Basel Miami, the second largest art fair in the world. There is big business done that first week in Miami every year. It’s a who’s who of the international art-buying world, and it was growing exponentially. I saved for over a year to come up with the roughly $10,000 it cost to cover all the expenses of exhibiting at one of the thirty-seven art fairs for four days. I showed twenty-six Milwaukee artists at the Aqua art fair, but ended up only selling $6000 worth of art; this meant after my commission that I had lost $7000. Based on my experiences doing Art Chicago, I knew it would take a few years of doing fairs in Miami before I could expect to make any money, but I had hoped to do much better.

Pretty soon after I returned from Miami, a project was launched to raise $85,000 to erect a life-sized statue of Arthur Fonzarelli, aka The Fonz. The committee decided that the corner where Water Street and Wisconsin Avenue meet would be the perfect location. This corner is not only the busiest intersection in the city, but where Salomon Juneau establish his trading post in 1818. To top it off, I had been sitting on a committee of museum directors and city engineers for five years trying to get a piece of public art installed on Wisconsin Avenue.

The community came together like never before. The $85,000 for the Bronze Fonz was raised in less than two months. A bunch of private donors offered sacks of cash to get the ball rolling. OnMilwaukee.com sold Fonzie t-shirts. Culver’s donated $1 of every turtle sundae sold to the project, and a woman in the suburbs who owned a bakery even made cookies in the shape of Fonzie’s famous thumb to help support the cause.

For eight years, I had worked tirelessly to intellectually elevate my hometown, and now they were kicking me in the intellectual nuts. I sent out a press release saying that I was fed up with the lack of support of QUALITY arts projects in Milwaukee, and that the city’s “leaders” were moving us backward. With far too many exclamation points, I ranted that if the Bronze Fonz was placed at the corner of Water and Wisconsin, I would close my gallery and resign as Executive Director of MARN. I declared Milwaukee culturally bankrupt, stating that I was tired of Wisconsin being known for nothing more than Happy Days, the Green Bay Packers, and Jeffrey Dahmer. A few days later, I got my first death threat.

Below I’ve included a handful of the messages that were left on Hotcakes’ voicemail as well as a few remixes done by local artists. Article continues below remixes.

Mike Brenner with his little buddy, the Bronze Fonz

Homophobic Green Bay Packer Fan
click here to listen

Self-Righteous Canadian
click here to listen

The Fonz Calling from Antigo, WI
click here to listen

“Harbinger”
click here to listen

Bored Dad on a Snow Day
click here to listen

Phone Message Remixes

Death Threat Remix (feat. Ellen and Nancy)
by Mark McInerney
click here to listen

Ode to Milwaukee Art (Harbinger Remix)
by Jonathan Maki
click here to listen

Canadian (Remix)
by DJ Oral B
click here to listen

After the convention and visitor’s bureau received bids from three vendors (artists) and decided to go with the cheapest one, I announced I was following through with my threat. Despite all the moral support I received from artists and friends, and public statements of support from the local arts critic and the CEO of the Milwaukee Art Museum, I was burned out. So on September 30, 2008, I locked the door to Hotcakes for the last time. I just didn’t have the energy to fight the good fight anymore. Well… at least not until the Wisconsin Avenue project I WAS supporting came under fire, and I threatened to defecate on an Alderman’s lawn. You’ll have to buy me a couple drinks to hear THAT story, but I will also include a link to the remix of the message HE left on my voicemail.


  1. You could totally kick Fonz’s ass, look at that little chump. No matter what, you are a local hero, Mike.

    Reply

  2. Fred says:

    I wish this absurd story was fiction. Unfortunately, I know all too well that it’s not. Given the increasing unreliability of public funding, it’s even more important that people in the arts community support each other. Milwaukee has a long way to go in this respect. If you don’t act professionally and take your trade seriously, it’s very hard to convince others to invest in it.

    Reply

  3. Raji Sohal says:

    “a woman in the suburbs who owned a bakery even made cookies in the shape of Fonzie’s famous thumb to help support the cause”. Really?! Wow. Simultaneously amused and disheartened by this story.

    Reply

  4. Glenn says:

    What a wonderful read! My experiences owning art gallery mirrors yours pretty well. Every artist that is trying to get into a profession art gallery should read this. If I had a nickel for every time I was approached with someone claiming I must see their Grandmothers work because she started painting 3 weeks ago, I’d be a rich man. Good job!

    Reply

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