In the year 2000: “Remarkable Milwaukee,” the state of the scene, and the problem of predicting the future
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Tonight, more than a dozen local movers-and-shakers will convene at the Pabst Theater for “Remarkable Milwaukee,” a roundtable discussion of all things, well, Milwaukee. Folks like Milwaukee historian John Gurda, restaurant celebs Joe Bartolotta and Mike Eitel, and former mayor John Norquist will discuss “the future of our built environment and its impact on our culture.” The talk will be followed up—as these sorts of things tend to be—with a dinner/reception/celebration at Turner Hall. It’s an intriguing idea, and the lineup is certainly impressive. But I can’t help wondering: Is it a conversation worth having? Won’t Milwaukee be able to figure out its future without the help of a star-studded roundtable discussion?
I could be wrong. Maybe a friendly chat and a catered reception are just the things needed to jump-start this conversation. (I plan on attending, as should you.) After all, these are folks who have an active role in shaping Milwaukee. But a panel of experts weighing in on the future always makes me wary. It reminds me of Conan O’Brien’s old “In the year 2000” bits, in which the title and song remained the same long after the year 2000 had come and gone.
It also reminds me of the sometimes dicey “state of the scene” think-pieces that pop up every now and then. Just last Friday, OnMilwaukee.com’s Dave Begel—he of “What’s up with the WNBA?” fame—set out to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Milwaukee arts scene. The results were, well, less than insightful. Here he is on something we hold near and dear to our hearts at The A.V. Club, local music:
People often point to Minneapolis as a great town for music. Milwaukee has a long way to go to catch up. If you play in a band in this city it is incredibly hard to make a living, even a sustenance living […] There are a few places with strong commitments to local music, but not nearly enough. Our music scene has a long way to go.
And here he is on something he admits he knows little about, the visual arts scene:
I don’t pretend to know a great deal about visual arts […] We have a number of museums, led by the Milwaukee Art Museum, that have interesting collections and exhibits. But this is one area where we could stand a real infusion of effort and publicity.
Begel has a right to his opinion, of course, but (and I’ll tread lightly here) I suspect he may be a wee bit out of his depth. The Minneapolis reference is downright bizarre, and his overall faint praise suggests he hasn’t been to a local music or art show in, oh, 20-plus years. (How ’bout those Violent Femmes!) That’s not to say those scenes are super-duper and the bestest in the whole wide world (regular readers will know I despise that kind of mindless cheerleading), but if you’re going to claim we have a “long way to go,” you should at least show your work.
Frankly, I have mixed feelings about these kind of pieces. I tried my hand at one years ago for the now-defunct Vital Source, and was rightly ripped a new one—by fellow Vital Sourcer/A.V. Cluber DJ Hostettler—for my less-than charitable assessment. (DJ’s piece, “The Milwaukee Music Scene: a Well-Intentioned Rebuttal (Or: Oh! Matt! Gimme a Hug!)” is absolutely worth reading.) These days, I’m perfectly content with the state of our “scene.” To borrow a phrase I detest, it is what it is. When it’s good, it’s gold. When it’s not, it’s not. I do suspect that the Milwaukee music scene is ready to explode, though not in the way most people would expect. (More on that next week.)
So is the “Remarkable Milwaukee” discussion worth having? Can anyone predict the future of a city? Can anyone accurately sum up the present of a city? Beats me, though it’s always interesting when the right people give it a shot.