Backspace Gallery, Vital Signs, Whitewater Music Hall – Vol 28

NEW: On the Rise

About On the Rise

On The Rise is a column that features emerging art spaces from around Wisconsin. It highlights the up-and-coming galleries, artist-run, and alternative spaces that organize contemporary programming within the visual arts; especially ones that are paving their own trajectory and beginning to make an impression on the artistic community in Wisconsin. Through interviews and research, On The Rise will call attention to the spaces in our community that are starting to unfold their full potential. 

Written by Rachel Hausmann Schall

Backspace Gallery, Madison

Cutting In by Artist: Tamsie Ringler. Photo courtesy of of Backspace Gallery.

Housed in a previously unused loading dock, Backspace, aptly named for being the “furthest back space” in the Art Lofts building on the UW-Madison campus, is a newly opened exhibition and project space. After a renovation in 2018, the huge, warehouse-like gallery opened for its first exhibition, Syntax Error, featuring the work of Milwaukee based artist Shane Walsh in January 2019 under the direction of Mariah Tate Klemens, James Pederson, and Abrahm Guthrie-Potter. The gigantic, raw space is equipped with two garage doors, a polished concrete floor, and exceptionally high ceilings – allowing artists to create large-scale installations or showcase large sculptures – although those are not the only types of work exhibited in the space. One would understand why the large space was once used for storage, but many are pleased that it has been given new life as a gallery. In its inaugural year, Backspace aimed to operate as a professional gallery, full with a proposal process that graduate students took advantage of in order to showcase their work or curate exhibitions. Faculty wanted the newly opened gallery space to be student lead, so Mariah, James, and Abrahm became the committee that took on maintaining and programming the space. They engaged communities beyond just the UW student body by inviting artists from outside the city to exhibit work. According to Mariah, “What I found to be most impactful to Madison was Backspace’s ability to bring artists from outside of Madison into dialogue with the local community.” At the conclusion of their MFA programs, the huge gallery would be turned over to a new group of curators to organize.

Backspace also exists as one of the few spaces on campus for both MA & MFA students to exhibit their work for longer periods of time in an industrial, contemporary, unique venue. The gallery provides a larger sheer volume of space (over 2000 sq. ft.) that is difficult to find elsewhere on campus, thanks to the extremely high ceilings and walls that are over 20 ft. high. Because of this, Backspace can accommodate performances and 4D work. Currently organized and operated by MFA students and Interdisciplinary Artist Research Fellows, Barbara Justice and Keith Kaziak, “Backspace serves as an “idea” space for local, national, and international exhibitions in addition to hosting events that benefit both the students on campus and greater community.” The duo co-curated their first major solo exhibition Cutting In, which opened in November 2019 and featured work from UW-Madison alumna Tamsie Ringler, an installation and cast iron artist. Still working out the logistics for a formal proposal process, Barbara and Keith have partnered with a local curator to assist in jurying proposals for exhibitions to be held in Spring 2020. They are excited for some potential, future upgrades to the space and have discussed ways to give the gallery a street presence.

For all current and previous organizers of Backspace, the ability to curate and program exhibitions during their academic studies has created many learning and networking opportunities on the regional, national and international levels as well as valuable experience that will carry forward into their artistic futures.

Learn more about Backspace Gallery at

Vital Signs, Milwaukee

I NEED A VOICE NOT A BODY: Mel Cook. Photo Courtesy of Jamie Leigh Pitts

Opened in spring of 2018, Vital Signs rests on a busy street in the Bayview neighborhood of Milwaukee. Operated by co-founders Jamie Leigh Pitts and Reid Sancken, the building acts as both a gallery and their living space. While the traditional gallery go-er may raise an eyebrow at the alternative nature of viewing work in someone’s dining room, Vital Signs provides a platform for emerging artists to showcase their work. No need to worry about interrupting dinner, however. The furniture is moved aside and living area sectioned off during opening or closing events at the space, creating a clear separation of domestic and exhibition territories. Jamie relocated to Milwaukee from Normal, Illinois after finishing studies in Visual Culture, focusing on artist-run spaces and intersectional feminism. Because of her interest in the roles of non-commercial and alternative spaces and their ability to create opportunities for emerging artists not readily available in all commercially focused galleries, Jamie knew she wanted to open her own unique space in Milwaukee. The first step was finding a viable location, one that could serve as both a living and work space, in order to keep costs affordable. The historic building that is home to Vital Signs boasts intricate woodwork and architecture, including a large bay window that usually displays vinyl text for the exhibitions. The window overlooks into the main room of the gallery, bringing in wonderful, natural lighting. The woodwork and architecture holds a presence in the space, giving it a homey feel and challenging the traditional convention of experiencing artwork in a “white-cubed gallery.” Jamie shares that Vital Signs “reinforces the ideals of living with art and thinking about where art lives by presenting work in an everyday setting which allows connections to be built and accessible to all audiences, not just the elite.” In addition to being approachable and welcoming, especially during its busiest times like Bayview Gallery night, Vital Signs proves to be an affordable solution to operating a gallery space, void of additional rental or maintenance costs that an offsite property might require.

The name of the gallery, Vital Signs, is based off of the medical encyclopedia “Vitalogy” published in the early 1900s. The book shares many quirky remedies, offers odd recommended practices and makes mention of how to cure women’s “hysteria.” Jamie’s curatorial agenda of supporting the work of womyn makers under the title, Vital Signs, compliments the history of the space and references the hilariously cheeky medical book. Since its inception, Vital Signs has showcased the work of artists Halieyrose Thoma, Sam Jaffe, Michael Goldberger, Mel Cook, and Cindy Bernhard. Vital Signs focuses on showing work that sparks conversations and concepts around the body, modes of caring and giving, and through its programming, hopes to strengthen regional connections by bringing contemporary midwestern artists to Milwaukee. 

Learn more about Vital Signs at

Whitewater Music Hall, Wausau

Work on display by Mary Robinson, Julia Reising, Diana Budde, Margaret Pagoria, & Bruce Westberg. Photo courtesy of Kelly Ballard

Located in a historical, masonic building in downtown Wausau, Whitewater Music Hall is more than a concert venue, as its name may imply. The huge, multi-purpose space contributes something meaningful to the community everyday: functioning as a craft beer brewery, coffeehouse, gallery, performance space, and artist studio space. Co-owners and operators, Brad & Kelly Ballard and Leslie Patterson, dreamt of opening a combo brewhouse/coffee shop for years, and in May of 2019 after many renovations, Whitewater Music Hall officially opened. Leslie and Kelly, who happen to be sisters as well as business partners, started to encourage local artists to bring their work, ideas, and creativity to the space through organizing exhibitions, workshops, classes, and collaborations. It seemed that the Wausau community was craving change from what could be deemed a gigantic eyesore of a building that sits centrally located in their downtown area across from the Wisconsin River. Once Kelly and Leslie moved in, Whitewater Music Hall began buzzing with artists, musicians, and creatives of all types. The upstairs in the main level of the building, with a brewpub and music hall where bands and musicians perform. In the downstairs level of the Hall lives the newly created Artside the Box, which houses 14 rentable artist studios. “Resident artists have brought colorful and inventive energy to the once boxy, bleak, and unnoticed building,” according to Kelly. Leslie and Kelly embrace the artistic vision and inspiration of the community members and receive proposals and event rental inquiries almost daily. They are discovering new ways to effectively use the multi-functional space and aren’t afraid to favor outrageous ideas – those that will widen the scope of experiences for their visitors.

Artists exhibit work in two areas at Whitewater Music Hall: the front gallery or the hallway gallery with a prime view from the taproom. Although still in its infancy, Leslie and Kelly are currently developing a formal schedule for the rotation of artwork and exhibitions. For now, they are quite fond of their light-hearted art space; one with a mission statement that transforms almost daily. They envision a quarterly rotation of exhibitions from their resident artists and plan to focus future energy on developing Artside the Box by expanding the options for classes, workshops, and specialized events. Additional upcoming projects include a large, outdoor mural to be created in collaboration with the mural painting group Riseup and the Wausau Women’s Community Center. Owners are also looking into creating a lighter fare menu to offer additional food options for visitors. Currently, guests are invited to bring in their own food and picnic during concerts or events while they grab a beer or coffee.

It’s their mission to stay curious and open to all things in order to foster growth and to appeal to all audiences through their diverse range of creative events hosted within. Leslie and Kelly cherish the ability to be accessible to artists and musicians at different career stages and create a memorable experience for those who decide to stop for a coffee, enjoy the tunes, and take in the work. 

Learn more about Whitewater Music Hall at

Rachel Hausmann Schall is a visual artist, writer, educator and arts organizer living and working near Milwaukee, WI. She received her BFA from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD) in 2015 and became co-founder and co-director of After School Special, a satellite artist collective that supports emerging and underrepresented artists through exhibitions and programming. She has exhibited her painting, sculpture, and installation work nationally at many galleries, alternative, and artist-run spaces. In addition to writing for Artdose, Rachel Hausmann Schall is also a contributing writer for the Chicago based arts publication Sixty Inches From Center and works at Pius XI High School in Milwaukee, WI as an arts educator.

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