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Milwaukee’s East Side Art Lot: A Creative Dream Supported by AARP WI’s Small Dollar, Big Impact Grant

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This July, AARP Wisconsin awarded Milwaukee’s East Side Business Improvement District #20 a Small Dollar, Big Impact Grant to invest in the East Side Art Lot project. This $1,000 award helped fund the creation of a safe outdoor space for the community. The East Side Art Lot brought together local artists and businesses for a truly inspiring project that made it possible for residents to experience art and culture, safely gather for community-building events, and to support the local economy during COVID-19.

The East Side Art Lot was born from a desire to help restaurants remain open when social distancing became a necessity because of COVID-19. While many restaurants across the country were forced to move to carry-out only to keep their employees and customers safe, some were also able to offer diners outdoor seating options. Unfortunately, this was not an option for the restaurants in Milwaukee’s East Side District. When the East Side BID investigated this problem, they found that there were simply no outdoor public spaces at all in the district. This meant that there was no place for people to safely dine, experience local art and culture, or gather for events. But they also discovered that there was a possible solution to this problem: a hidden and underutilized parking lot within two blocks of 15 restaurants. This space, reimagined, would become the outdoor space that the community desperately needed.

With the help of AARP Wisconsin’s Small Dollar, Big Impact Grant, the East Side Art Lot project kicked off with earnest enthusiasm in July. The East Side BID wanted to do more than simply create a space to eat, they also wanted to support local artists and give residents the chance to experience art and culture. With this goal in mind, the $1,000 was used to purchase picnic tables that would be painted by local artists and placed in the Lot to provide safe, outdoor seating. A jury of East Side business owners and residents selected 12 artists from a pool of 25 applicants and paid each artist a $500 stipend for their work. Winning the Small Dollar, Big Impact Grant helped the East Side BID promote their project and raise additional funds from the community to make this dream a reality.

Today, 10 beautifully painted picnic tables representing and celebrating this diverse community are spread across the Lot. Carefully spaced out to maintain safe social distancing, each table is not only a work of art, they are also an opportunity to enjoy the fresh air, to socialize safely and responsibly, and to support nearby restaurants. But the East Side Art Lot project did not stop after installing the picnic tables. What started as a way to give diners a place to eat grew into a weekly art market, a live music series, a pumpkin painting event, and more. What was previously a nearly empty parking lot is now a thriving space for outdoor dining and community events that safely bring people together. When holding events, attendees were required to reserve picnic tables ahead of time to ensure that social distancing is observed and to give organizers time to sanitize the tables. The creative and innovative thinking of the East Side BID, with the help of the Small Dollar, Big Impact Grant, gave this Milwaukee district a way to continue supporting local businesses, artists, and residents despite the obstacles placed before them.

At a time when socializing has become difficult, the East Side Art Lot project brought people together and sparked connections that continue to grow. Elizabeth Brodek, Executive Director of The East Side BID, was inspired by the community-building she witnessed as artists gathered to work on the project: “We've had nothing but support from artists, community members, surrounding businesses, community organizations, and sponsors. The 14-hour days of being in the Art Lot with the artists was the most gratifying week of my professional life. The community they created among each other in the Lot was inspiring.”

Looking ahead, the East Side BID hopes to continue investing in the East Side Art Lot. Local businesses will be sponsoring and housing the tables starting in mid-November, and a case will be made for the Lot to be taken over by the City to be a permanent fixture. The East Side Art Lot would be the district’s first fully accessible outdoor public space.

Projects like the East Side Art Lot show how even $1,000 can be used to support a community. Buying picnic tables was just the beginning. Bringing together local artists, businesses, and residents, the East Side Art Lot has made a big impact on this Milwaukee district and is an inspiring example of how to invest in our communities to make them better places for everyone to live, work, and play as they age.

To learn more about the East Side Art Lot, and to see images of the painted picnic tables, you can visit their website. The Lot will be closing for the season on November 15th, but there is still plenty of time to take advantage of this gorgeous outdoor space before then!

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