Breaking old ground: How Arts@Large is resurrecting the old Polish Arts Center in Milwaukee

The nonprofit Arts@Large isn’t so much breaking new ground as it is breaking old ground. Its new headquarters – which will nearly quadruple its previous square footage in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood – is located in an 1890 historic building with deep connections to the city’s artistic history.

Co-founder Teri Sullivan explains: “In the 1930s, it was a Polish Art Center – a community space that brought in children and families for artmaking. What’s really crazy is we didn’t even know this until after we had bought the building. I don’t think we have any control over how this stuff happens – there’s something bigger at work here.”

The Polish House occupied the first floor of the new Arts@Large building from 1938-1940, offering classes in drama, photography, puppet building, painting, sketching, and more. One of its most famous teachers was Edmund Lewandowski, a nationally known painter and muralist who was the director of the nationally-renowned and Milwaukee-based Layton School of the Arts until the 1970s.

Like the Polish House, Arts@Large opens its doors to community groups almost every night of the week and has a core focus on arts education, having served more than 15,000 students from the Milwaukee area just last year.

“Our model is a partnership model, so everything we do is in collaboration with other organizations or the nearly 100 artist-educators that we contract with and provide meaningful work for every year,” Sullivan said. “Expanding our space allows us to expand our role. This will be a fully functional community center, as well as an incubator space for like-minded arts groups.”

The 11,000-square-foot, three-story facility will house a café and gallery space on the first floor; training, professional development, and event space on the second floor; and nonprofit co-location spaces on the third floor. Most parts of the building will be available as affordable rental facilities to community groups.

IFF provided a $1.7 million loan as well as $5.7 million allocation of New Markets Tax Credits (NMTC) to help transform the blighted building. PNC Bank was the NMTC investor, providing approximately $2 million in gross equity.

IFF has invested more than $100 million in the Milwaukee metro area, and nearly $10 million in the neighborhood immediately around the new Arts@Large facility.

“Nonprofits like Arts@Large play a vital role in our society, but too often nonprofits are denied access to the capital they need to create beautiful, modern, mission-centered spaces. IFF’s mission is to change that,” said Dana Lieberman, IFF Senior Vice President for Capital Solutions. “Arts@Large is benefiting the whole community by removing a long-blighted building from the block, providing community-based programming spaces, and co-locating with other nonprofits to create even greater impact.”

According to co-founder Kimberly Abler, the idea to share so much of their new space came out of their own origin story. “When we first started out in 2001, Teri and I worked out of our cars. Finding places to meet and have events and activities was very challenging. We even struggled to find a small place to rent where we could maybe share computers and copiers. So we know what we’ve struggled with as an organization that serves the community, and we are trying to be mindful of that.”

Construction is proceeding quickly, and the organization expects to gain occupancy before the end of 2018. They are planning for a soft opening in April 2019.

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