Exploring Madison’s New Arts Venues

By Jessica Steinhoff | Photo by Eppstein Uhen Architects

Five years ago, Madison saw an influx of new performance venues. The Sylvee, Frank Productions’ 2,500-person venue, hosted its first concert in September 2018. A year later, the Hamel Music Center debuted, giving UW–Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music a state-of-the-art concert hall. Around the same time, Arts + Literature Lab moved into a sprawling space on Livingston Street, increasing the scale of its music performances, film screenings and literary events.

Then, a pandemic crashed the party.

Existing venues struggled as COVID-19 kept audiences home month after month. Plans for additional venues stalled, too. Momentum is building again, bringing new opportunities to the Madison arts scene.

Obstacles and Opportunities

For Toffer Christensen, head of the concert promotion company T Presents, 2020 was a time of anxiety and opportunity. He became co-owner of The Venue on Winnebago Street early that year, when it needed a new direction.

A prior remodel had already transformed the historic space with exposed bricks, vintage reclaimed wood and a stage inspired by Vienna’s art nouveau movement. It just needed a new name. In June 2020, it became the Bur Oak.

However, touring musicians were canceling shows left and right at the time, and the remaining concerts the 130-person venue could normally hold were tiny due to capacity restrictions. To help offset expenses, the owners rented the kitchen to Asian-fusion eatery Ahan.

“Their takeout business took off, and helped keep the Bur Oak open,” Christensen says.

Today the Bur Oak’s stage teems with musicians, comedians and drag and burlesque performers. Its summer 2023 concert lineup ranged from a farewell gig by L.A.-bound local Mackenzie Moore to a sold- out show by Bay Area hip-hop group Souls of Mischief. The venue also hosts weddings, a revenue stream that indirectly supports local musicians.

“The amount of money coming in is limited when you can only sell 130 concert tickets, but weddings are different,” Christensen says. “I think we’ve solved the puzzle of how to support local artists and keep a good staff.”

In August, Ahan’s owner Jamie Brown-Soukaseume announced they would be moving to the old Eldorado Grill space on Williamson Street, where the business can expand not only in square footage, but serve alcohol. Christensen says there are no plans to replace Ahan with another eatery at this time.

Christensen’s next goal is opening Atwood Music Hall. Built for the Madison Gospel Tabernacle in the early 1930s, it has a lamella roof and space for up to 700 concertgoers. It’s also a short walk from the Bur Oak and Barrymore Theatre.

“The idea is to create a ladder for bands to climb. If a band sells out the Bur Oak, we can put them in Atwood Music Hall, and if they sell out that room, they can move to an even larger independent venue, the Barrymore,” Christensen explains.

Growth is tough for local acts at the middle rung. Some entertainment industry behemoths — Live Nation, for instance — buy venues and use them to book, produce and promote shows by their own roster of touring acts.

Christensen, a former Live Nation employee, strives to create a more inclusive environment, one that promotes both local talent and racial equity. That’s why he’ll launch Students of Live at Atwood Music Hall, an introduction to concert booking, marketing and more for students.

“A lot of kids never have an opportunity to see how the live music industry works, and what kind of jobs are available,” Christensen says, adding, “we have the power to change that. Having the building as a learning tool is really crucial to the concept.”

Christensen says he is “hopeful” that Atwood Music Hall will open in 2024, after facing delays in 2023.

In Madison and beyond, economic challenges have delayed many construction projects, including venue builds and remodels. Supply chain issues continue to be a bottleneck, and the price of building materials has skyrocketed, partially due to inflation.

Susan Gardels, development and communication director for Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), says a few slow-to-arrive HVAC parts could shift the opening date of the brand-new WYSO Center for Music on East Washington Avenue. The building is located on the old site of the Avenue Club and the Bubble Up Bar.

“[The parts] were ordered a long time ago, but there’s something about the manufacturing of these particular parts that’s unusual,” she says. “In any case, we’re assuming the best, which means occupancy in December 2023.”

The 40,000-square-foot facility addresses Madison’s growing need for rehearsal space and boasts teaching studios, a music library and areas for meetings and recitals. Inspired by the shape of a cello, the building’s design features sweeping curves and wooden accents. Amazing acoustics are the icing on the cake.

“Creating a lifelong love of music is part of our vision, so we want this space to be used by people of all ages,” Gardels adds, noting possibilities such as conventions, dance performances and music therapy. “We want it filled all the time, not just when the WYSO kids are here.”

A Youth Arts Corridor

The WYSO Center for Music is about four blocks from Arts + Literature Lab, which offers numerous classes for kids, and a block from Madison Youth Arts Center (MYArts), which has housed Children’s Theater of Madison and Madison Youth Choirs since opening in June 2021. MYArts has also partnered with more than 60 organizations, such as Madison Ballet and Black Star Drum Line, to provide youth arts experiences.

MYArts’ 70,000 square feet includes a 290-seat theater, an adaptable 100-seat performance space, costume and production shops, and the ability to display visual art. Its 14 classrooms and studios can accommodate music, theater, dance and visual art, and one features a sensory-friendly design.

According to Jess Courtier, MYArts’ director of community partnerships, the facility offers stability, safety and community.

“Many of our programming partners were operating out of spaces that weren’t designed for the arts,” she says. “For instance, Black Star Drum Line was practicing outside and storing their drums in a truck.”

Staff from the three youth arts facilities align their visions and collaborate at Washington East Business Corridor meetings organized by entrepreneurship hub StartingBlock. Dane Arts, Madison Public Market and other stakeholders often attend, too.

“There’s lots of energy and excitement surrounding this youth arts corridor on East Washington, and a chance to decide what it means to be an arts district,” says MYArts facilities director Courtney Byelich.

What’s Next

More new performance spaces are on the horizon. Some are in The Center for Black Excellence and Culture, a building that will celebrate the Black experience and provide a safe, welcoming place for people of color to gather. It’s expected to open in 2025, says Dana Pellebon, director of theatrical programming.

“For Madison to stand up and say, ‘We are investing in Black art’ is miraculous,” Pellebon explains. “Many Black artists have been working in spaces where we don’t feel comfortable, and [Center founder] Alex Gee did something about it.”

Pellebon compares the facility’s 250-seat performance hall and 100-seat black-box theater to Overture Center — they’ll host a range of art forms and bring touring acts to Madison. The difference will be the focus on Black artists. Plus, The Center’s West Badger Road location is near the homes of many Black families.

About a mile south, on Fitchburg’s Index Road, Community Organizations Promoting the Arts (COPA) plans to replace its current space with a 70,000-square-foot arts education campus on the site of its current building by 2025. Like The Center for Black Excellence and Culture, COPA aims to help underserved populations reap the arts’ many benefits.

“Community art groups really need to be supported so they can increase participation in the arts, especially by those who have found them elusive or unaffordable,” says Mike Leckrone, who became a COPA board member and community ambassador following his 50-year career as UW Marching Band director.

COPA’s ambassador roster also features Tony-winning singer, dancer and actor André De Shields, musician and record producer Butch Vig and other big-name artists who got their start in Madison.

Campus highlights include a multi-use event center, a 400-seat proscenium-style theater with an orchestra pit, a workshop, and rehearsal and teaching spaces for artists of all ages and skill levels. The current COPA building hosts Madison Jazz Society events and more.

Both COPA and The Center are raising construction funds while searching for artists to use their new facilities. After all, building the audience is just as important as building the building.

New Hangouts for Live Music Lovers

Check out these music-centered bars and clubs, both of which premiered during the pandemic.

Red Rooster

Knuckle Down Saloon didn’t survive the pandemic, but its memory lives on at Red Rooster (above). Launched in 2022 by three local musicians, it has infused the blues club’s old space with rock, funk, folk country and more.

“It’s not a bar with a stage, but a high-end stage with a bar,” says Dave Leucinger, Red Rooster’s entertainment booker.

This fall, the 100-person room welcomed Rockford R&B saxophonist Amanee Avery, La Crosse sunshine-pop outfit Charlieboy, Minneapolis singer-songwriter Joyann Parker and many local acts. The Rooster’s New Year’s Eve is set to feature Milwaukee blues crew Reverend Raven & the Chain Smokin’ Altar Boys and Madison harmonica phenom Westside Andy.

Main Street Music

Big-time talent meets small-town charm at this Brooklyn, Wis., spot owned by future Nashville resident Andy “Mason” Meyer.

“It’s a piece of Nashville in Wisconsin,” says manager Megan Powell. “We have lots of country and rock tours come through, but we don’t limit ourselves. We did a metal festival last month, we had a reggae performer last week, and we have DJs and events like drag queen Bingo.”

The 150-person venue opened in early 2020, as a sort of gift to the community.

“Mason started playing music after he lost his son to a drug overdose, and it was a big part of his healing journey,” Powell says. “When he realized how much music helped him, he decided to share it with the rest of Brooklyn.”

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