November 26, 2007

Madison Arts Incubator: Building a Home for Madison’s Arts Community

Erin Zwaska

The frame is there—boarded up and shut off from the outside world, but it’s there. The bricks are piled dutifully, arranged in neat walls, waiting patiently for something worth enclosing, worth protecting.

The shuttered windows of the Garver Feed Mill let in no light, and the rooms inside are dark. But soon they could produce their own light, radiant with creative activity. Soon they could nurture local artists and foster the exchange of aesthetic ideas—a welcome change for a building that has lay silent for more than 10 years. The Garver Feed Mill is in need of a community, and community is what the Madison Arts Incubator is all about.

picture of a building and flowers
Erin Zwaska/Curb
Click on the image to view photo gallery.

“For 25 years, we’ve been wanting to see an arts incubator come to Madison,” said Anne Katz of Arts Wisconsin. Fine arts incubators have cropped up in several U.S. cities, including Beloit, Wisconsin, offering artists low-rent studio and gallery space, as well as art-related business guidance. In the last few years, interest in an arts incubator in Madison has solidified, and it now seems increasingly likely that the incubator idea will hatch.

Awaiting a Renaissance
While the building currently lies dormant, many hope the Garver Feed Mill will soon become home to a Madison arts incubator. The Common Wealth Development, which owns and operates two small-business incubators in Madison, as well as a few dozen low-to-moderate rent apartments, is spearheading the project.

Sarah Hole, the Common Wealth Development’s Madison Arts Incubator project manager, believes the Garver Feed Mill is an ideal spot for an arts incubator. “Madison is unlike most other urban areas in that there are very few old factory buildings like the Garver building available,” explained Hole. “Also, the Garver site provides a lot of potential for the incubator to coordinate with the nearby Olbrich Gardens. The incubator’s close proximity to the gardens could help transform the entire area into a Madison destination spot.”

In addition to an appealing location, the Garver Feed Mill also boasts a rich history, making it the ideal spot for an arts incubator. Built just a few decades into the Industrial Revolution, it was owned and operated by the United States Sugar Beet Company from 1906 to 1924. When the sugar beet business took a dive in the 1920s, the building was sold in 1929 to James Russell Garver. After spending untold money renovating the building into a granary and feed mill, he ran the mill himself until his death in 1973. Ultimately, the building was sold to Olbrich Botanical Gardens in 1997, which quickly deeded the property to the city. Since 1997, it has sat vacant, waiting for an idea, a plan to come to fruition.

And if it does, history may repeat itself. More than 70 years ago, James Russell Garver used the building to feed livestock. Now, the Common Wealth hopes to convert the old mill into one that feeds artistic appetite.

Providing Structure
Right now, the Garver Feed Mills’s connection to the arts is limited to the graffiti that decorates its exterior, but the buzz about the possibility of an arts incubator has Madison artists thrilled. Creating a low-cost home base for start-up artists would provide the much needed foundation to spur growth in the arts community.


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