Milwaukee might not be the first word when asked to think of an art destination, but the Midwestern city has a thriving gallery scene, a population of world-class artists, and a unique network of spaces—even a hotel—for them to build community and hone their craft. Milwaukee native and local artist Nykoli Koslow, whose vivid works explore gender, sexuality, and agency, took TripSavvy on an art-focused tour of his hometown.
La Casa de Alberto
A no-frills Mexican restaurant, La Casa de Alberto has a limited menu of Mexican favorites, including enchiladas, tacos, and mole. Alberto and Laura Gonzalez opened the restaurant in 2014, which Koslow describes as serving “very, very good authentic cheap food.”
This home-style diner in Milwaukee’s East Side has been open since 1947 and still draws a loyal crowd to this day. “It's a pretty famous diner, but still very low key,” Koslow says. “There are just always characters that eat there.” An added perk: it’s open 24 hours.
Foundation Tiki Bar
In the depths of Milwaukee winter, step into the South Pacific at Foundation Tiki Bar tucked away in an unassuming house in Riverwest. Koslow’s favorite is the Volcano Bowl, a blend of aged rum, Luxardo maraschino, pineapple, pomegranate, and lemon, served in a “ginormous” flaming bowl that’s enough for three people.
A hybrid bar-meets-music venue, Cactus Club has served as one of the Midwest’s premier for almost two decades. It’s the spot for underground or alternative rock shows, bringing through acts like Interpol and Queens of the Stone Age, as well as emerging artists.
This long-running cocktail bar on the Eastside brings in jazz acts of both local and international fame. In addition to the great music, “it’s very comfortable to hang out and sit in there,” says Koslow. The intimate bar is under the same ownership as another popular Milwaukee haunt, Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge.
When Koslow wants to dance, Mad Planet is the spot. “Even now at 29, I go there, and I feel almost too old for the place,” he says. The alt-rock dance club has a ‘90s night and other themes to satisfy audiophiles of all sorts.
Var Gallery & Studios
Var Gallery showcases a good mix of local and non-local artists. Koslow works there and loves the space’s diversity both as a platform for emerging artists and as a bar with regular music, comedy, and other performances. “People just go and get a drink and hang out and it doesn't feel too formal for a gallery,” Koslow says. “It doesn’t make people nervous; it’s approachable.”
5 Points Art Gallery & Studio
Five Points Art Gallery is a newer gallery focused on showcasing contemporary works by artists of color. Koslow lauds the gallery’s diversity compared to competitors. “They're doing a really good job of getting artists that the other galleries aren't necessarily thinking about,” he says.
Portrait Society Gallery
The Third Ward’s Portrait Society Gallery has bi-monthly exhibitions from up-and-coming artists. “They really build a story up around these artists and kind of build them up,” Koslow says.
North Avenue Murals
Wallpapered City, the agency behind Milwaukee’s popular Black Cat Alley, was recently the mastermind behind Wauwatosa’s new mural district, dubbed NoMAD (short for North Avenue Mural Arts District). Seven unique murals make up the district, but it’s Koslow’s colorful, abstract swirls on the exterior of local business Alfa Flowers that will make you want to get your ‘gram on.
Saint Kate, the Arts Hotel
When Saint Kate opened in July 2019, it proudly announced itself not only as a collector and promoter of the arts but also as a champion for midwestern artists. Gallery space shows off work by Wisconsin natives, which translates to the rooms; five rooms were given to artists as completely blank canvases.