The Bronzeville Center for the Arts, which leaders hope will be a transformative community and center for the arts in Milwaukee, could get a boost in state funds under Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed capital budget.
Evers set aside $5 million for the project in his $3.8 billion capital budget, which he announced Tuesday. These funds will help build a planned 50,000-square-foot building to replace the former Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources office on King Drive in Milwaukee.
On Wednesday, Evers toured the Bronzeville neighborhood and met with project leaders. Kristen Hardy, chairwoman of the center’s board of directors, said she is thrilled the state is willing to partner with them on the project.
“We think it’s going to be a huge driver of jobs and we also see art as a tool to bring the community together, empower young people and encourage entrepreneurship and then teach about the rich history, not just of African artists, but also the history of Bronzeville,” Hardy said.
The $50 million project is still in the planning stages. The building will likely include a gallery of black art from across Milwaukee and the state, as well as program space that can be used for youth. It may also have an artist-in-residence program and be used as an event and teaching space. Leaders also hope it will be a community gathering space in the Bronzeville neighborhood, which has been at the center of a decades-long revitalization effort.
“We truly believe that BCA (Bronzeville Center for the Arts) has the opportunity to transform not only the Bronzeville neighborhood into a destination, but also become a state asset for Wisconsin, driving tourism not only from Wisconsin, but from around the world,” said Hardy.
A 2020 survey found that 36 percent of all travelers ranked black heritage as “very important” or “somewhat important” when choosing a destination.
Isaac Menoli, president of M&E Architects and Engineers and lead architect on the project, also met with Evers Wednesday during a roundtable discussion.
“For me, this project is about exploring, presenting and preserving African-American art and culture,” Megnoli said.
Deshea Agee, the former executive director of the King Drive Business Improvement District, is also part of the project’s planning team. He said construction could be completed in 2026. His hope for the space is that it will train the next generation of black artists in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.
“We want to make sure it’s not just a tourist opportunity, but an opportunity for people to educate themselves about black magic,” Agee said.
Bronzeville is home to many black-owned businesses, as well as the Black American Holocaust Museum and the Wisconsin African American Chamber of Commerce. The New York Times included Bronzeville on its list of “52 Places to Change the World.”
Evers said he believes in the goals of the project.
“To me, telling a story is really important, and there’s a great story here,” Evers said.
“Being able to bring in business, vibrancy and a great art scene is a great way for me, as a former teacher, to tell a story about Milwaukee and Bronzeville and the success they’ve had,” he added.
The capital budget must be approved by the Republican-led Legislature. When asked if GOP lawmakers would approve his budget and specifically the arts center, Evers said they could come to Bronzeville themselves to talk to the people involved in the project.
“But Republicans, generally speaking, are about economic development. I’ve always heard that,” Evers said.
The capital budget also includes other investments in Milwaukee, including $12.5 million to renovate the existing Cream Puff Pavilion at Wisconsin State Fair Park, which was last renovated in the mid-1990s.
It includes $10.75 million for “construction of various upgrades” to Marquette University’s School of Dentistry. Allocates $78.4 million for a Type 1 Juvenile Correctional Facility in Milwaukee County.
Also included in the capital budget is $9.3 million for Milwaukee’s Iron District, the site of a new soccer stadium and entertainment district.