Saint Kate: Visual, performing arts hotel in Milwaukee

The artists’ canvas? A room with four walls instead of taut cloth propped onto an easel.

The new gallery? A blend of spoken word, artsy postcards (free to take), photography, film clips and more.

The concierge? He also plays violin. And at least two cocktail servers double as modern dance performers.

This month’s opening of the 219-room Saint Kate – the Arts Hotel in downtown Milwaukee breaks the rules of traditional lodging in scads of ways. The Marcus property is a revamped InterContinental in the city’s theater district.

Pabst Theater and Milwaukee Repertory Theater are just a hallway away. Across the street is the four-theater Marcus Performing Arts Center.

“Our number one goal is to challenge people’s thinking about art and the creative process,” says Greg Marcus, who heads The Marcus Corp. He believes “where there is art, there is change and appreciation,” and he predicts every visit to the new hotel “will be a different experience.”

Inside the Saint Kate – named after Catherine, patron saint of artists – is a new branch of the Museum of Wisconsin Art, whose home base is West Bend. Laurie Winters, museum executive director, says such a hotel-museum partnership is unprecedented.

“Downtown,” the gallery’s first theme, introduces the work of 10 visual artists. At the entrance is the Poet Phone, whose old-time receiver conveys relevant snippets of poetry.

The emphasis, here and elsewhere at the hotel, is on emerging artists. That includes Brema Brema, age 22 and a Sudan native, whom Winters said couldn’t afford to print his photos not all that long ago. Now he uses a drone to capture richly lit, nighttime city scenes.

A window-lit area addresses gender bias through an installation of heeled shoes, umbrellas and mannequin torsos – all covered with leopard prints of multiple colors.

Artist Lon Michels calls it an homage to all women. He uses a similar, stylish overload of color to design, dazzle and saturate one of four art canvas guest rooms (each is matched with a nonprofit organization that gets a percentage of room rates).

“This room is about immersion,” Michels explains, so “you feel like you’re in a painting.”

Nearby, photographer John Grant calls his room design “perfict” because “nothing is.” On wallpaper are artificial peonies. On a mirror that hangs at 5 feet, 6 inches from the floor (“the average American woman’s height”) are a trio of body measurements illusive to most of us.

Rosemary Ollison is a self-taught artist who created a vibrant bedroom from scraps, fabric to beads. “Together, they make beauty,” she says. “All of this is a part of me, something I’ve seen or experienced at one time.” She calls the room “integration.”

A huge contrast is a guest room in hues of gray, created by Reed Skocz, a new graduate of Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He refers to it as colorblind art and approached the work as a set design for a theater.

“Each room is a little stage” in a hotel, as he sees it. He wants people who stay in his room “to think about their role in it.”

In standard guest rooms are unusual twists. On each bed is an artist-designed runner. On walls are photos, sketches or paintings by regional artists. On each butcher block countertop is brown wrapping paper and a hand-carved holder with colored pencils for doodling.

Each room has a turntable, vinyl records and ukulele too – all there to encourage creativity. Soap is shaped like a pink eraser, and artistic flair is evident in sink bowls and shower curtains too.

Add a compact “study room” on the ninth and 10th floors, the Saint Kate’s answer to an executive lounge, only they look more like a cozy family room. At the elevator landing of each floor is themed art, announced in sign language via a photo of the hand of someone who worked on hotel construction.

Jazz musician John Price is director of hotel programming, which encompasses “all the art that moves and has to rehearse.” That includes a 90-seat black-box theater with an artist-in-residence theater ensemble.

Expect dance, comedy, music, film shorts and “physically immersive” theater. Some involves hotel employees, and some begin late at night, after the theater district’s other productions end.

“It’s our job to surprise you, make you laugh, maybe make you feel a bit uncomfortable,” Price says. Pop-up, impromptu performances are a part of the plan too.

Maureen Ragalie, hotel curator, describes Saint Kate’s public-area artwork as “the seed collection” that will grow and change over time. In the lobby is “Big Piney” by Debra Butterfield, a life-sized horse sculpture that began with driftwood and is cast in bronze.

Also in the project are Aria Café and Bar, comfort foods with unconventional twists; The Dark Room, 26-seat dining with adventurous cuisine; Proof Pizza, Italian-style pies and pocket sandwiches; the Bar, for coffee to cocktails; and Giggly, a champagne/wine bar.

Overnight rates at Saint Kate – the Arts Hotel,139 E. Kilbourn Ave., Milwaukee, are as low as $170 online, but paying at least twice that is more likely.

Fifty room nights and invitations to the Saint Kate’s grand opening party on July 19 are being given away. For details, go to

Inside the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend, is a mix of contemporary and historical art. Open since June 1 is “Among the Wonders of the Dells: Photography, Place, Tourism,” featuring eight photographers whose work documents the destination’s history and transformation.

The 100-plus photos represent almost 160 years, and the show is in place until Sept. 8.