In 2004, John Riepenhoff, an artist recently graduated from college in Wisconsin, started the Green Gallery with some help from his brother Joe, in an attic in Milwaukee. The Riepenhoffs were outsiders in a city that is best known for its beer, but in the last decade they’ve expanded to two spaces in Milwaukee and a third in Oak Park, Illinois, and helped turn Milwaukee into the epicenter of contemporary art in the Midwest. Along the way, they’ve caught the eye of the international art world.
“There’s really never been anything like the Green Gallery in Milwaukee,” said Nicholas Frank, who ran the city’s Hermetic Gallery from 1993 until it closed in 2001. “And I say that, you know, having run a contemporary gallery here that originally showed many of the artists on the Green Gallery roster.”
The evolution of the Green Gallery started in 2005, when the Riepenhoffs moved into a significantly larger space in a warehouse a few blocks away in Riverwest. The new space, which was destroyed by a fire three years ago, retained the spirit of the attic. “To this day,” John Riepenhoff told me, “we have a more expansive idea of what art can look like or how art can perform or behave because of that initial gesture. The actual role of the gallery is about bringing people together and making connections.” They rented sections of the warehouse space to artists, subsidizing rent for everyone and creating a kind of artists’ colony. Projects in the gallery included art fabricators American Fantasy Classics (Riepenhoff called them “artist assistant as art form”) and the first iteration of brothers Tyson and Scott Reeder’s 8-by-8-foot Club Nutz, also known as “the world’s smallest comedy club.” Riepenhoff rented to the Reeders for around $50 a month; for Club Nutz’s first event, the brothers brought in a Christmas tree. “It was attached to the ceiling, it was upside down. It took up most of the space, you could barely move,” Scott Reeder said.
The Riepenhoffs are Wisconsin born and bred. Their father was the former editor of the outdoor section of Milwaukee’s daily newspaper. John Riepenhoff has long dirty-blonde hair and an agreeable upper-Midwest temperament. When I met with him over the summer, he rode up to our interview on a motorcycle. That he has decided to deepen his roots in Milwaukee when many of his peers have left shows a certain dedication to his community; his presence in the city has been a constant.
He spoke to me inside an exhibition of photographs by Dan Torop that was on view at the Green Gallery East, the more formal of the gallery’s three spaces. John admitted that he “borrowed some of the vocabulary of New York Lower East Side art galleries” when constructing the space on Milwaukee’s East Side. The gallery is in a building that used to house, among other things, a pizza place and a BBQ joint. “When we first took over this space, all the cabbies would come by and say, ‘Oh yeah, this was just a drug front,’” he said. “That skylight was just a hole and pigeons were coming in here and dying. It looked like a murder scene.”
In 2008 Riepenhoff brought on his cousin Jake Palmert as an official gallery partner. (Joe Riepenhoff now runs the Green Gallery Press, a publishing imprint.) Prior to running the Green Gallery, Palmert worked at a cattle ranch in South Texas. He had recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a degree in philosophy and had no professional experience in contemporary art.
Palmert was initially hired to help renovate the then-new Green Gallery East, but his role quickly changed. “It was really through the physical space and John needing help with it that we started taking on the project together,” Palmert recalled, speaking over the phone from Barcelona.
Riepenhoff and Palmert showed an increasingly impressive mix of local and out-of-town artists at both Green Gallery East and their Riverwest warehouse, Green Gallery West. Many names familiar to the New York art world staged exhibitions there, including Spencer Sweeney, Michael Williams, and Anicka Yi.
There was also Milwaukee International, the “curatorial think tank” Riepenhoff founded with Frank and the Reeders in 2006. Their first project was an art fair at the Polish Falcon Hall, a bar and bowling alley in the Riverwest neighborhood.
The fair, which had its second edition in May 2008, inserted some contemporary-art heavy hitters (Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, Canada, Swiss Institute, White Columns) into this unlikely corner-bar atmosphere. The opening featured a performance from local polka legends Vern and the Originals.
“The character of that thing would have been impossible without all of those five different personas, but to me the pure stroke of genius for that fair was Tyson bringing in the polka band,” Frank said. “To have this polka band playing, and little kids jumping around dancing…” It was, he said, “a celebration of local culture instead of trying to apologize for it.”
The fire that decimated the Green Gallery’s Riverwest warehouse location in 2012 was a five-alarm blaze that started in the morning and quickly enveloped the building. Many artists living in the space were still asleep and rushed out. The fire destroyed galleries and studios, and a lot of irreplaceable art.
“We lost this super-vital hive,” Riepenhoff said. “When it first happened, I was really private about it, and obviously whenever there is a spectacle, the media wants to talk to somebody, and I just didn’t really want to talk to anybody, because it was a time of contemplation. Obviously, I was really happy that none of my friends died or got hurt too badly in the fire, and that was the main concern.” The gallery opened in a different location in the neighborhood but, he said, “we never totally recovered from that fire, and every time I go by that site I’m just like, ‘Oh god I wish I had a warehouse in Riverwest,’ and I still don’t have that.”
It was also in 2012 that Palmert moved to New York and became the director of Reena Spaulings Fine Art; to this day, he continues to co-run the Green Gallery remotely. “The Green Gallery doesn’t need to operate like a normal gallery,” he said. “New York galleries, based on my experience there, are very territorial. And I realized that the Green Gallery doesn’t have that confinement, because of our geography,” he said.
This freedom has allowed for singular projects. Last year New York gallerist Gavin Brown, a retired artist, mounted his first solo show in two decades at the Green Gallery East. “They asked me and I trusted them to not make my re-emergence as an artist into a spectacle,” Brown said over e-mail. “And being in Milwaukee I would in some ways be making an exhibition for myself—to see it exhibited outside of the glare. And recently I have come to believe more in the power of the margins.”
Through expansions and setbacks, the Green Gallery has maintained a reputation as an artist-friendly gallery with a welcoming attitude toward experimentation. “It’s a place you can try some weird stuff, and if it works, that’s great, and if it doesn’t work, not that many people see it because it’s in Milwaukee,” Reeder joked.
But the gallery has changed Milwaukee in subtle ways. The artist Bjorn Copeland, the guitarist of the band Black Dice, showed at the Green Gallery with American Fantasy Classics in 2014. The last time he had been to Milwaukee was in the late ’90s for a punk show, after which some audience members decided to slash the tires of the band’s car.
“My last memory of Milwaukee was us getting thoroughly pummeled by a bunch of straight-edge guys while we were playing,” Copeland said. “It was funny to leave the city in ’98 with this really sour taste in your mouth and then come back and have exactly the opposite experience—it almost felt more like a vacation.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 32 under the title “The Power of the Margins.”