The East Wash space has played an important role for local music amid a rapidly changing landscape of venues.
Art In, a gallery, venue, and bar that has given Madison musicians a much-needed platform for nearly five years, will close at the end of February, owner Jack Chandler announced on Wednesday. The space at 1444 E. Washington Ave. will get a rousing send-off: Madison black-metal outfit Tubal Cain is planning to play an album release show there on its final night of operation, February 29. There are still some other events scheduled at Art In for January and February.
Chandler says Art In’s business has been dropping sharply, probably because so many other venues and entertainment options have jumped into the void that Art In used to fill. “The simple answer is lack of patrons,” says Chandler, who owns the building. “We are roughly 40 percent off from last year. The plan is to try and sell if someone is interested, or just lease the space.” For the time being, the Parched Eagle taproom will continue to operate in the building, and Chandler will continue to rent out artist studios on the second floor.
Art In opened up as a gallery in 2012, and in 2015 it began to experiment with live shows under the banner of the “Evening At Maria’s” show series, the brainchild of Wendy Schneider and Ted Putnam. Over time more local bands and promoters started booking the space, during a period where large promoters gradually consolidated control over many other local music venues. (Tone Madison also hosted several events there over the years.) Chandler, often tending bar himself, filled the space with art (including Scott Shapiro’s massive neon installation in the front window) and mismatched furniture, and a rotating selection of pinball machines from Madison Pinball. Artist Dawn Marie Svanoe added mischievous blacklight paintings on the walls of the bathrooms. The place was a welcome, ramshackle refuge from the rapid march of gentrification down East Wash.
“What I’m most proud of, without a pause, is the music,” Chandler says. “I got to see some amazing acts—[Tatsuya Nakatani Gong Orchestra]! Electric Six, just unbelievable to see. The too-many-to-name local acts that supported the space, and in the same thought, the opportunity for brand new acts to have a shot. Getting to know the various Madison scenes, like going from experimental electronic music, to hip-hop, to punk, all in one weekend, and learning the style and wants of each, was an amazing education.”
Chandler’s openness to a whole range of genres made Art In more a product of a pluralistic music community than of any one booker’s vision or one audience’s demands. The venue’s openness to hip-hop in particular may have played a role in its dispute with the city in late 2018 and early 2019 over occupancy limits, and attracted police attention. “Coming under the eye of the city was a tough lesson, going from no complaints of any kind to having four to six officers showing up every weekend to ‘check out’ the venue,” Chandler says.
Art In’s role became especially important when The Frequency closed in summer 2018. “If you think back after The Frequency closed, I was close to the only independent venue in town,” Chandler says, exaggerating a bit—Arts + Literature Laboratory was up and running by then, as was North Street Cabaret, and Williamson Magnetic Recording Company was still hosting occasional shows, in addition to the stalwart local and regional booking at places like Mickey’s Tavern and the Crystal Corner Bar. Communication (Tone Madison‘s partner organization) was just beginning its run when The Frequency closed, and Café Coda was in limbo, having closed its downtown location. Still, Art In was carrying a lot of weight at that time.
“I did some of my best attended shows there. There was a freeness to the space that I appreciated,” says Chris Joutras, who has played in many local bands (including Momotaros, Coordinated Suicides, Dharma Dogs, and Dumb Vision), put on many shows for his own and other bands at Art In, and currently books music at the Tip Top. “It was a venue that trusted the bands and artists to do what they wanted with the space. Jack first and foremost is a fan of music and would run sound for free, so the venue didn’t have to charge out of the door take for such things… which can be a burden at more rigidly run spots of a similar size trying to throw smaller local shows.”
Art In hosted its share of non-music events, including comedy nights, readings, and the occasional theater performance. “Art In was the first place I was able to try stand-up comedy, something I incorporate into my storytelling frequently, but hadn’t ever been given the opportunity to perform in a more ‘purist’ form, until that point,” says storyteller, host, and self-described “occasional comedienne” Muirrieyah de la O, who also frequently went to punk shows at the space. “And as a show attendee somewhat known for dancing in the front row in heels and extravagant outfits during many a punk show, it brought me a great sense of satisfaction that the first music-related show I helped book, happened at Art In.”
De la O also points out that even though Art In served alcohol, it managed to not quite feel like a typical bar venue: “Art In was one of the venues I felt safest and most welcome at in this city. I am sober by choice, so I often feel out of place at regular bars and other nightlife venues. Art In wasn’t like that. It bridged an interesting gap because it did have a bar (with the same name as me!), but it wasn’t the same old ‘bar scene.’ It was, to me, one on a short list of places I could go where I could more or less guarantee running into a couple of my friends, but without having to worry about some sleazy older guys leering at me because they were just there to drink.”
The rotating fleet of pinball machines at Art In offered not just a good way to while away the setup time between bands, but also an opportunity to build community. Art In served as home base for the Madison chapter of Belles & Chimes, a worldwide organization of women-run pinball leagues. Jessica Kent, who co-founded the Madison chapter, credits Chandler for taking a chance on the group and being a generous host. “It became one of my favorite spots in general, as well,” Kent says. “I would pop in on non-league nights to drink whisky, play pinball, and chat with Jack about the latest pinball news. Jack let me host a couple of charity tournaments out of the space, didn’t mind when I moved machines because they were slanted or too close to each other, and trusted me enough to lock up the place with myself inside, pinballin’ away, if I got there early and he needed to run to the store. When I wasn’t traveling for work, I was usually there.”
Over the past year and a half, independent venues have been springing up at an exciting pace in Madison, which means lots of options for artists and audiences and way more competition for Art In. Crucible opened on New Year’s Eve 2018, the new Café Coda opened on Willy Street in September 2018, The Venue on Winnebago Street opened in February 2019, BarleyPop Live opened in April 2019 in the old Frequency space, and plenty of existing spots have stepped up their role in booking local music, including Bos Meadery, Robinia Courtyard, and the Tip Top Tavern. Arts + Literature Laboratory closed up its Winnebago Street space in December, but will be re-opening this spring in a much larger new spot on East Main Street. The Sylvee, while in a much bigger league, still represents more competition for nightlife dollars in the area. In a sense, Art In’s closing is an unfortunate consequence of a lot of otherwise positive developments.
I’ll be gathering reactions from Madison’s music and arts community to update this story later. If you’d like to share your thoughts, reach out.