The Bronzeville Center for the Arts, which leaders hope will be a transformative community and arts center for Milwaukee, could get a boost in state funds under Gov. Tony Evers' proposed capital budget.
Evers allocated $5 million for the project in his $3.8 billion capital budget, which he announced Tuesday. Those funds would help construct a planned 50,000-square-foot building, which will replace a former Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources office on Milwaukee's King Drive.
On Wednesday, Evers toured the Bronzeville neighborhood and met with the project's leaders. Kristen Hardy, the chair of the center's board of directors, said she was excited the state is willing to partner with them on the project.
"We think this is going to be a huge driver of jobs, and also, we look at art as a tool to unify the community, empower the youth and foster entrepreneurship, and then teach about the rich history, not just of artists of African descent, but also the history of Bronzeville," Hardy said.
The $50 million project is still in the planning stage. The building will likely include a gallery for Black art from across Milwaukee and the state, as well as a program space, which could be used for youth. It could also have an artist in residence program and be used as a space for events and teaching. Leaders also hope it'll be the community gathering space for the Bronzeville neighborhood, which has been the focus of a decade-long revitalization effort.
"We really believe that BCA (Bronzeville Center for the Arts) has an opportunity to make not just the neighborhood of Bronzeville a destination area, but also become a state asset for Wisconsin, driving tourism not just from Wisconsin, but from around the globe," Hardy said.
A 2020 survey found that 36 percent of all travelers ranked Black heritage as either "very important" or "somewhat important" in their choice of destination.
Isaac Menyoli, the president of M&E Architects and Engineers and lead architect on the project, also met with Evers Wednesday during a roundtable.
"This project to me is about exploring, presenting and preserving African American art and culture," Menyoli said.
Deshea Agee, the former executive director of the King Drive Business Improvement District, is also part of the planning team for the project. He said construction could be completed in 2026. His hope for the space is that it'll train the next generation of Black artists in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.
"We want to ensure that it's not just a tourist opportunity, but it's also an opportunity for people to get educated about Black art," Agee said.
Bronzeville is home to many Black owned businesses as well as America's Black Holocaust Museum and the African American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin. The New York Times featured Bronzeville on its list of "52 Places for a Changed World."
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Evers said he believes in the goals of the project.
"For me, telling a story is really important, and there's a great story to be told here," Evers said.
"The opportunity to bring businesses and vibrancy and a great art scene is a great way in my opinion, as a former teacher, to tell a story about Milwaukee and Bronzeville, and the success that they're having," he added.
The capital budget must be approved by the Republican-led Legislature. When asked if GOP lawmakers will approve his budget, and specifically the arts center, Evers said they can come to Bronzeville themselves to speak with the people involved with the project.
"But the Republicans, generally speaking, are for 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 remodeled in the mid-1990s.
It includes $10.75 million to "construct various upgrades'' to Marquette University's School of Dentistry. It 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.