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Behind Cactus Club’s drive to make the historic venue accessible to all

An exterior photo of Cactus Club, a white two-story building in Milwaukee.

It’s barely been a month since the crew at Cactus Club announced their beyond-worthy cause of making their 150-ish year-old home more accessible (ADA-compliant, to be exact). The historic Bay View club that’s already centered around bringing accessible and broad programming (art, music, film, life skills and beyond) to their community has its heart set on those offerings being literally accessible to all folks, not just the able-bodied, making its mission as expansive as possible.

An easy-to-reach example of the beat from this particular heart are the live-show-loving people who depend on wheelchairs to get around. The live concert experience, in particular, can be challenging for them — beginning at the front door. Steep steps leading up to a building described by owner Kelsey Kaufmann as “on stilts, kind of like New Orleans-style; about three feet off the ground” is the exact opposite of wheelchair-friendly. That’s where Kaufmann and her team started the process of resetting the space.

I sat with Kaufmann right before the club’s first big fundraising event this week — a sure-to-be-epic show with indie rocker Bully — to talk about that show and the ones to come (including with seminal indie dance-punks ESG and a film festival), as well as where those first funds will go starting next year to put their dream of true inclusivity for all into motion in a very tangible way.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

For folks joining us from across the country, maybe new to Milwaukee, the Milwaukee scene or even watching from around the world, can you give us a synopsis of the recent history and changes at Cactus Club over the last decade? Where did things start, and what have things morphed to under your leadership?

Cactus Club is a storied, artist-run music venue in Milwaukee. It's a small-cap club run by a bunch of folks that are really passionate and believe in not only multi-genre programming, but also multimedia programming. It has a history that dates back to the 1950s, but the last owner Eric Uecke kind of put it on the map as a seminal indie rock punk/hardcore club in the early-’90s.

Starting in about 2016, we kind of brought in the lens and expanded it in more directions from dance parties to drag shows to film screenings and formalized these more multimedia, not generally income-generating efforts through a new nonprofit called Cactus+. So that's kind of a little synopsis.

Can you give everyone a bird's-eye view of the motivation behind your new initiative?

What Erin’s referring to is the Cactus+ Accessibility Initiative. It's a kind of multi-pronged approach to improving the space, both programmatically and physically, for folks of all abilities. Our building is about 140, 150 years old, depending on who you talk to. I used to think it was like 100 years old, then someone recently did an article, and it was like, “Oh! It really does date back then!”

So the building’s kind of on stilts, like New Orleans-style, about three feet off the ground, and so there's three and a half stairs that lead to the front door. And when you think of dive-y, disgusting bar bathrooms, that's what we have. They're basically like closets, so they're not wheelchair accessible. They're not comfortable or usable for many folks of varied abilities.

Brian Radmond; Radmond Media

The accessibility initiative transcends physical disabilities and kind of looks at it like: How do we make our space affordable for folks? How do we make it comfortable for folks that aren't drinking? What are these different variables that sort of inform people's levels of comfort in different spaces?

But with that in mind, the barrier to entry in the most literal sense is our physical accessibility, so we've launched this new program called the Cactus+ Accessibility Initiative, where we're working to raise money and awareness to get a ramp to the front door, as well as do a building expansion that centers accessibility, such that artists can also get onstage. The novelty of that — like being able to get onstage if you have some sort of disability or access the green room — are these things that able-bodied people really do take for granted in so many ways.

And lots of folks will ask me: Why do you care? Did something in your life inform this? It's not even like that. It's just the sheer reality of knowing that everyone deserves the opportunity to enjoy live music as artists, as performers. So in these conversations about inclusivity, to me, it was just this very stark, humanizing reminder of what we're all responsible for and invested in.

I think if you are able-bodied, maybe you've never even given thought to these things, all the freedoms you enjoy: being able to walk around, go up stairs, go into small spaces without any issue …

Get on a stage? Yeah, totally. Or even be able to see the stage from where you're standing or located. Sight lines are another thing that, in small-cap rooms, it's really historically difficult to accommodate because lots of these spaces that are legacies haven't had code updates. It might be something that's inherited from many generations past.

So what we're looking to do is really model that it is possible to do what is generally prohibitively expensive: retrofitting an old space, knowing that we're championing a bright future for many generations yet to come.

And it's hard when you want to hang on to the history of a space and try to make it work.

I think a lot of folks initially were kind of concerned about the idea of, like, “What does that mean?” But everyone that's involved in the project understands the near-and-dearness of Cactus Club to so many different types of folks.

The only reason we survived the pandemic was because of this sentimentalism, whether it was seminal punk folks or folks that related to us because of vegan pop-ups that we've done or NARCAN-awareness trainings. So there's lots of different inroads that people kind of relate with Cactus, but I think what's so important is that the through-line for this is a continuation and broadening of it. We're not going to get some gentrifier, ugly siding and paint everything gray. That's not the agenda.

Interpol and Death Cab for Cutie are just two of the high-profile shows hosted by Cactus Club over the years.
Brian Radmond; Radmond Media
Interpol and Death Cab for Cutie are just two of the high-profile shows hosted by Cactus Club over the years.

I didn't think so [laughs].

I mean, yeah, no, no, I know you weren't worried about that [laughs].

I'm wondering, too, in the process of planning this initiative, have you connected with any other like-minded projects or venues across the country to either incubate ideas or collaborate in the process?

Yeah, absolutely. So NIVA — which is the National Independent Venue Association that formed in the beginning of the pandemic — they're the ones responsible for the Save Our Stages campaign. They've been a huge champion of these ideas and what we're talking about and trying to connect us with different venues that I've approached, different types of facility improvements. But there's very much an underscoring of accessibility being a priority for the organization.

Then they also have a foundation that works in tandem with them that's responsible for a bunch of really neat workforce development trainings and internship programs and just general education information workshops.

As an accessory to that, they work with lots of other national organizations, like RAMPD (Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities) that does mapping and information access for venues across the country for folks that are wheelchair users to just sort of like outline in a cohesive place, like, this is what it requires, this is what the accommodations can look like. Because, so often, websites don't even list that kind of thing.

Going into it, you're not an architecture major or anything surrounding that, so I'm sure you need the assistance and collaboration of entities like that.

For sure. We're very much “bumper-bowling” our way through this process and learning a lot as we go.

So where are things at in terms of progress so far? Where did you start, when did it start, and where are things at right now?

I guess a lot of folks that work at Cactus kind of clocked the importance of this as early as people started working there, where folks would show up and a group would help get somebody in the front door. But a few people pulling somebody in a wheelchair up is super dehumanizing and the opposite of what we're trying to do.

So conversations have always kind of existed, but it wasn't until I bought the club in 2020 (in February) that it was like, “OK, what's the roadmap going to look like? What does this all entail? What are the expenses?” ’Cause, yeah, my impression was very, very distorted — where I thought, “Well, my friends build skateparks. Of course we can do this ourselves, no problem.” Then learning that you need licensed and bonded contractors and what the implications of that are.

The real story here is, there is a ramp that's going to be like 24 feet long and probably cost $80,000 for cement and powder-coated railings, which is bonkers. But also that's the cost of skilled trades and what we're looking at. If anyone listening has a connection, our friends that are in the welding industry or cement industry, don't hesitate to reach out because lots of times I'll say this number, and folks are like, “That's insane.” But we've gotten many different bids about it.

That's kind of the first phase of the accessibility initiative. With the second phase, we're looking at a more substantive building addition that includes bathrooms, better sight lines, a lowered part of the bar for ordering and a stage that's accessible. So instead of having a ramp to the stage, we're looking to kind of do a sunken pit in front of the stage so the rest of the room is at the same grade as the stage.

A performance space at Cactus Club.
Brian Radmond; Radmond Media
A performance space at Cactus Club.

There have been other venues that have done it, but there's nothing in Wisconsin that I'm familiar with that's a good point of reference. We’ve been working with a few different architecture firms, we've completed a feasibility study and aren't totally in love with the floor plans yet, but it's something that we're working on with a lot of different community stakeholders, as well as the disabled community. So that's part of the process, too. That feels really important to underscore that wheelchair users are a part of this process.

Just like real human feedback is what you need, to make it user-friendly.

Yeah, 100% that part. So as far as what's the timeline, looking ahead, that's to be determined. We're still finding our footing as far as what grants are available, what programs are out there. But the ramp to the front door will definitively be done in April of next year, so that's really exciting that we're working on permitting for that.

That's a big first step, but it's probably the most useful first step, right?

Yeah … or at least in symbolic terms.

I want to talk a little bit about these fundraising events you've got going on. You just dropped the number that this ramp is going to cost — $80,000, right? So you need to fundraise. You've got two events set up right now, two shows: one with Bully in July and one with ESG in August. Can you tell me a little bit about why you chose the two artists you did? What do these artists mean in terms of the history of Cactus Club and also the folks who support it right now?

We've been talking about this fundraising series for the better part of the year, and I've been talking with different booking agents, and folks have generally been warm to receive the idea. But nobody wants to be first. No one wants to be first in anything, and that's true in so many environments and sectors.

So I feel really fortunate that we've worked with Bully for many years, and Alicia is wonderful and somebody that's super inspiring and gets what we're about and who we are and what we're trying to do. She took a chance on it and was like, “Yeah, let's do it. Let's see what happens.” There's no worst-case scenario, and that's the reality … because we're raising awareness. We're raising funds, whether or not it sells out in totality here or there, it’s moreso demonstrating due diligence that this is a grassroots effort, and we’re trying to figure it out.

That’s the first one, and that's on Wednesday, July 10, and it's coming up real quick. Support for that will be Scarlet Demore from the Chicagoland area, so I'm really excited about that. Then, the second group is ESG, who are seminal dance-punk legends who I've looked up to forever and ever.

They never played Wisconsin before, and they self-produced a documentary — I want to say about two years ago. So when they had announced that, I reached out and asked, “Hey, would it be possible to do something in Wisconsin?” At the time, it didn't make sense financially given our constraints and whatnot, but then I reached back out with this proposal in mind, and they were so receptive and onboard and like, “Sign me up, tell me when, let's go.”

That's a little synopsis of who they are — who, what, where and why. For lots of folks, they think that they haven't heard ESG before, but then there's so many samples across genres, across the last 40 years, where it's absolutely incredible that so many of your favorite artists’ favorite artist were ESG.

I know you talk about ESG to a lot of Milwaukee folks, and they get really nerdy and excited. The love is thick for them. So, yeah, that first show is coming up really, really quick. If folks want more info on how they can support by maybe checking out a show or in any other way, where do they find information, and where do they find ticket links and stuff like that?

We have our website, and we also have an accessibility-specific page, too, if folks are just more curious about present conditions. Then, within that, the nonprofit called Cactus+. So there's a number of different landing pages to find out about the spectrum of programs that we're doing that interface with these efforts.

One thing I did want to shout-out that I meant to include earlier is that our friends at Music Go Round are super generously providing 50% reimbursement for the Bully tickets. The Bully show is a hundred dollars, which is bonkers for Cactus Club. We've never had a show that’s even been $50, as far as I'm aware of. But with that, 50% is going to the artist, and the other 50% is going to the accessibility initiative.

So with Music Go Round, if you use discount code “music go round forever” on the ticket link, we'll reimburse 50%, which feels like a really exciting offer and a new sort of experiment in corporate sponsorships or community business sponsorships.

Props to Music Go Round. That's very cool.

Yeah, big shout out, Music Go Round.

That show's coming up really soon, July 10 with Bully. After these shows happen, though, what are your next steps? You mentioned the ramp, but what happens as you keep climbing upward towards your final goal?

We may have a few more fundraising concerts in the works that have yet to be announced. We're still experimenting with that model. We also have the Cactus Club Independent Film Festival coming up next year, the second weekend in August. So there'll be many conversations about these efforts happening vis-a-vis films and discussions after the films.

Additionally, we're going to be launching this new series called “Ground Level,” which is an artist empowerment series. That will have conversations that kind of span the gamut of understanding a performance contract or understanding performance rights organizations or understanding disability in the arts, and they’ll feature folks that have different experiences in those ways — so kind of like community conversations. Those will also be livestreamed for folks that don't necessarily live in Milwaukee or for folks that do live in Milwaukee where accessibility is a present barrier to entry.

All really exciting stuff.

Yeah, there's a lot going on all the time, so we just encourage folks to stop in, ask questions, email us. The whole intention of the space is to be participatory and kind of cast the net in different directions to draw in intergenerational growth and participation. I mean … everything sucks right now, and to me fulfillment is derived through nurturing those relationships of consequence.

So lay it down one more time. Where can folks go to help if they want to find more information, get in touch with you if they want to pitch in and help? What’s the main spot?

From our main landing page, you can donate via PayPal. You can donate once or with recurring donations. There's also a Patreon that I kind of use as my “dear diary” for behind the scenes of what's happening at Cactus, and that's really neat where there's about 75 people that are monthly subscribers of that.

But if you're curious enough to email us, there are links all over the website for that, and most of them lead back to me or a number of other super qualified, wonderful humans. That's kind of the best point of reference. Or, just like I said, showing up at the club. The bartenders are all in the mix with our programming, and most of them are participating in various capacities.

Kelsey of the Cactus Club — a Bay View institution, looking to expand accessibility for all — I’ve gotta give you kudos, props. I hope everything goes off without a hitch. You can catch Bully at the Cactus Club coming up soon July 10, check out the Music Go Round initiative that's paired with that. Then also the show with ESG is August …

Friday, Aug. 30. And clickbait from Chicago will also be direct support for that!

Thanks for talking to me. I'm very excited to see how this blossoms and am really looking forward to seeing you meet your goal. Making music accessible for everyone is such a crucial and worthy cause.

Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and appreciate everyone tappin’ in.

88Nine Music Director / On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee