By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jan 03, 2020 at 8:26 PM

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An unexpected sight greeted me as I recently walked into Art*Bar: no art. 

The Riverwest tavern, found at 722 E. Burleigh St., had just finished its latest gallery: a popular showing of miniature art pieces, in its aftermath leaving tiny pinholes where tiny art once wallpapered the bar. Sure, there's a flashing 2020 sign with some paper snowflakes near the front – but other than those small echoes, Art*Bar was mostly artless.

For some, it may look a little sad or empty, but for Don Krause, who’s owned the bar for 16 years, it’s a thrilling image: a blank canvas.

"I always look forward to pulling a show down, getting a clean palate, fixing all the walls and coming back a new show," he explained. "It’s part of the magic that makes this work so well."

Few bars in Milwaukee can shapeshift like Art*Bar, always a comfortable place for all to meet for more than a decade and a half while, at the same time, constantly transforming and turning into something new – ironic considering change was a part of the building’s identity prior to Krause’s arrival too, albeit in a significantly less positive way. Before he bought the building in 2002, the space had seen its fair share of business casualties, from Lava Java to Sage and Sweet Black Coffee – all short-lived.

"I was at a house party down the street on their balcony, and I asked, ‘What’s going on with that building down there?’" And they said, ‘You don’t want that building; it spits out businesses all the time.’ They’d say it was possessed or something like that," Krause chuckled.

At the time, Krause was just retiring from his career as an interior designer for Ethan Allen and eyeing a new direction. Calling Riverwest home since 1989, he wanted to make something for his neighborhood – specifically, a place for creatives to hang out, and possibly hang their work. An art gallery, however, wasn’t a particularly enticing choice; the internet was already beginning to take over the art-selling business, and even without that, the market violently fluctuates with trends and the economy. 

"Waiting for a customer to walk through your door and buy a piece of art would be suicidal," Krause noted. "When people have disposal income, where are they spending it? Can you afford to buy a $300 piece of art, or is it more important to pay your rent this month, you know?"

Meanwhile, Krause was checking out bars in the neighborhood and realizing that he felt either too old or too young for most of them. So the idea clicked to combine these two ideas into one: a gallery and a bar. Now he just needed a space – but originally, Krause’s eyes were on the former Albanese’s location at 701 E. Keefe Ave. that had closed in February of 2009. He even made on offer on the building, only to be turned down. Even though he was disappointed, he moved on to a new spot: the seemingly possessed, business eater tucked away on a neighborhood street, bordering on hidden. 

But 16 years, Krause and Art*Bar proved all of that – and even his past self – wrong. 

"I had done the business plan and all the research (for the Albanese’s location), but even though it was a letdown, it was a godsend that it didn’t happen," he reflected. "It didn’t have the façade that this building has. It didn’t have the southern exposure. It didn’t have a big church across the street. Also, this was twice the square footage for less money than that project was. So some things do happen for a reason. And I was really embittered by the whole process, because I spent a whole lot of money and time on it, but I also took that lesson and moved it right into activating this process and acquiring this building."

Since its debut in 2004, the once-dead walls of the space now breathe new life with regular showings, gallery exhibits and purchasable pieces rotating in from various artists and groups – not to mention small concerts, performance art shows and other live community events. Krause started by reaching out to UWM and MIAD, curating shows with artistic friends, and filling out the calendar with themes and events. Many have also become Art*Bar traditions, such as its successful tiny art gallery or its "Fear" show that’s haunted the walls around Halloween since the bar’s first year – and evolved significantly over that time.

"Fear is a lot of things. It’s not just goth-y pumpkins and bloody things," he noted. "It’s war. It’s gun violence. It’s things happening right in your own neighborhood. The interpretation’s gone deeper than just about witches and goblins; it was people communicating fear in a lot of different languages and a lot of different inspirations. They took it and ran with it – and made it a better show than I would’ve come up with."

Just about anything can be seen on Art*Bar’s walls – and just about everything has, from tiny art to more traditional works and some significantly less traditional pieces. Krause recalled one particularly memorable show that featured a combination of male nudes and clowns that drew customer reactions ranging from selfies to obvious embarrassment to even some neighborhood concern that kids walking past might see something unexpectedly uncouth. 

"I remember the pastor came over from the church across the street and said, ‘Just so you know, I didn’t say anything about this show, in case you’re hearing rumors,’" Krause chuckled. "No one really reached out to us and said, ‘It’s not art; it’s pornography,’ or anything like that. It was art. It was tasteful. But it’s also everyone’s own interpretation of what’s tasteful."

And that, according to Krause, wasn’t even one of the more graphic shows they’ve posted. 

"There is a kind of ‘anything goes’ attitude over here," Krause said. "Not all art is pretty flowers. 

"That seems to be the temperament of the day: always walking on broken glass and not wanting to ruffle anyone’s feathers. But how are we going to communicate anything anymore if it’s going to bother someone? There are a lot of subject matters to go and to be discussed and shown, and if you come away with an impression or a reflection or your own meaning, then that’s what art’s supposed to do: to create a conversation, not always just be scared to do something different."

That accepting and open-minded perspective – combined with the fact that Art*Bar only takes a 20 percent commission on sold art, as opposed to 50-60 percent at most lone galleries – has led to Art*Bar becoming a hot gallery space, its walls currently booked into middle of 2021, according to Krause. 

"There’s no shortage of ideas – and if we don’t have any ideas, people are approaching us with ideas," he noted. 

As for the bar part of Art*Bar, the inclusive approach to the walls and atmosphere – where gallery room meets rec room, complete with pinball machines, pool and fun bar accents sharing space with thoughtful artwork – has similarly taken residence at its stools and tables, as the Riverwest locale draws a diverse crowd: people of all ages, genders, colors and beyond. That result was Krause’s goal from the beginning – and part of the reason why he says he didn’t want to open Art*Bar as specifically a gay bar.

"I wanted a place that was all-inclusive, that the community could come together," he added. "I think we were getting away from calling bars ‘gay bars’ or ‘straight bars’; that was already starting to happen on the East Coast and West Coast back then in the early 2000s. I knew I didn’t want to go there; I wanted a bar that would include everyone."

Thus far, his plan’s worked – and then some, as the small tucked away revolving door of a space has evolved over the years into Krause’s own small district in the middle of Riverwest. In 2008, he turned the Hop Inn next door into Two, an intimate cocktail lounge, and most recently, he transformed the former West Bank Cafe on the other side of Art*Bar into Wonderland, an old school diner with some new tricks thanks to manager Nick Westfahl, formerly of Comet Café, and chef Matt Mudler, also formerly of Comet as well as  Company Brewing and Fuel on 5th. 

All three are very different spaces – and Krause notes there are no plans to serve Wonderland’s menu in Art*Bar – but all share a similar, eclectic yet comfy vibe.

"It’s my first time dabbling in restaurants … but I didn’t know anything about bartending when I opened a bar either," Krause said. "I didn’t know anything about it. What I knew is how to create atmosphere – and you can see that crossover when you go over there. This restaurant can hug you in a way that this bar does and make you fall in love with it.

"The atmosphere, the ambiance, the surroundings are the only things that are different about a bar. If you think about it, the PBR and the whiskey are about the same in any bar you go to. The only difference is the atmosphere."

One of the few decorations still around when I visited (though don’t panic: They’ll be filled again with a gallery of mosaics coming up shortly on the schedule) was one of Art*Bar’s most popular and permanent attractions: a wall collage of various paint-by-numbers pieces. It’s one of Krause’s favorite parts of the space, one he wanted to include from day one since paint-by-numbers was where Krause’s creative journey began – even if, he admits, staying within the lines, coloring where one is told and finishing a product that thousands of others have also made is a loose definition of creative.  

However, while searching for these pieces, with the help of a paint-by-numbers society – really – he united with a collector with guidance to offer and thousands of works in storage, including duplicates of a design painted by different people. Looking at those copies, Krause noted, you could notice the variations, the personalities and the unique artistic fingerprints in each one despite using the same template and the same colors. And that made them secretly special. 

Hearing that story, I suddenly realized: Those paintings were Milwaukee’s hidden gem bars – like Art*Bar. As Krause said, they all essentially serve the same things, but it’s the humanity, the personality, the quirks and the drawing outside of the lines, that make them unique and essential. 

Look at that: Even with blank walls, Art*Bar gets you thinking. Oh, and of course, drinking.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.