By Meredith Melland Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Mar 01, 2024 at 5:01 PM

Textile artist Rosy Petri believes the right home for her art piece commemorating Milwaukee’s historic Open Housing Marches is a space not too far from her own Harambee home: ThriveOn King.

Her piece references Black Milwaukeeans’ fight for fair housing in the same part of the city over 50 years ago.

“I think it should stay in the neighborhood, and it will be appreciated by the community here,” Petri said. 

ThriveOn King
A rendering depicts the final design for the ThriveOn King redevelopment at 2153 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Over 20 artists with connections to Milwaukee are preparing works for the ThriveOn King redevelopment, 2153 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, which will reflect Bronzeville’s past, present and future.

Tapping local artists "to tell our stories"

The first floor will feature artwork and installations celebrating Milwaukee’s Black community, the history and culture of Bronzeville, a historic Black commercial district, and the neighborhoods of Halyard Park, Harambee and Brewers Hill.

Petri layered fabrics on printed canvas to create a mixed-media piece inspired by a photo from the Milwaukee Open Housing Marches of 1967-1968.

It depicts four members of the NAACP Youth Council Commandos carrying then-Alderwoman Vel Phillips on their shoulders as Father James Groppi speaks.

“I think that it is significant and important to tap into the local artist resource to tell our stories, to represent ourselves and to remind the folks that come into the building that they belong, too,” Petri said.

Project organizers plan for the building’s first floor to open in the second quarter of this year.

ThriveOn King makes progress

The ThriveOn Collaboration, made up of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, or GMF, the Medical College of Wisconsin and Royal Capital, is restoring the former Gimbels-Schuster’s department store into a community hub.

The mixed-use building will include offices, community gathering spaces, a food hall, a parking garage and approximately 90 units of mixed-income housing.

The art exhibition represents one way the project’s team has tried to incorporate neighbors’ perspectives in the building’s design and support local businesses and artists in the process.

Since the project’s neighborhood visioning sessions in 2019, Bronzeville community members have expressed interest in using art to commemorate the community’s culture and heritage, according to Jeremy Podolski, GMF’s director of public relations and editorial strategy.

“I hope that we have fulfilled the needs that the community wanted to have art in the space,” said Sande Robinson, a member of the project’s Art Review Committee.

Project receives over 40 submissions

Darlene Russell, Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s director of community engagement, and others led four public visioning sessions in the fall of 2022. Themes were developed and used in ThriveOn King’s call for art in early 2023.

Robinson said the project received over 40 submissions through the call, which the Art Review Committee discussed and evaluated. 

The committee is made up of community members with art backgrounds and others involved in the ThriveOn Collaboration. 

Greenwood Park Gallery and Framing, Inc., 4233 W. Fond du Lac Ave., is framing the art pieces for ThriveOn King, and Guardian Fine Art Services, 1635 W. St. Paul Ave, is working on the installation. 

The art and the artists

Many new works were commissioned through the call, but some existing works, like Petri’s “Vel n’ Em” piece, were chosen because they tied into the project’s themes

Petri included hand-carved block prints of actual houses in the neighborhood, as well as the Harambee neighborhood symbol, in the background of “Vel n’ Em.”

The focal point is Phillips, with swirls of yellow sun rays radiating around her head, beaming as she is supported.

Multiple generations of local Black artists, including some with direct family connections, such as father and daughter Ammar and Adjua Nsoroma, will have art on display. 

“I think any Black artist working in the city can in some indirect way trace their excitement, some of their experience and their opportunities to a handful of these artists who are in this project,” Petri said.

In case you missed it: A series on the 50th anniversary of the Open Housing Marches.