A Reflection from Antoine Carter, Director of Neighborhood Partnerships
As he departs for the role of Director of Philanthropy for Milwaukee’s Public Library Foundation and his time at Imagine MKE comes to a close, Antoine Carter gathered reflections about Milwaukee, how this role has shaped him, and the way forward for the next person who steps into the position as Director of Neighborhood Partnerships.
Since 2019, Antoine has attracted dynamic collaborations, and supported community building around arts and culture in neighborhoods from Metcalfe Park, to Muskego Way. We at Imagine MKE celebrate all the positive, generative energy that he has infused into everything from public art projects, to celebratory community convenings, to the micro-community within the organization of Imagine MKE. Antoine was the original employee of Imagine MKE, and has been instrumental in its development. His reflections serve as a mirror and as template for how the work of community organizing around arts and culture in Milwaukee will continue to evolve from here.
"When I started at Imagine, I was waiting. I had waited on this job for over a year. I was part of conversations around the vision and formation of Imagine MKE. As those conversations unfolded, I knew I wanted to do this job, to be aligned with Imagine, and how they sought to broker partnership in the community. I had always enjoyed art—I'm not an artist, by any means, but I’ve hung out with artists since I’ve been a kid. When I traveled, I always loved to take pictures of murals before I got involved with their creation. Truthfully, when I took this job, I was still new to learning how cool Milwaukee’s arts and culture scene really is. Now, I have seen firsthand the impact it makes. I was in a frame of mind coming into my time at Imagine where I could sense that there was a fire here in our city. I learned through this experience that the people, the art and culture they build—that is the fire of this place.
There have been so many highlights over the years in my work. One of my favorite projects was Summer Sprays, in 2019-- a graffiti festival in Amani and Metcalfe Park. Imagine brought Damaris’ taco truck, a truck located on 20th and Capitol, to give tacos to residents and artists. Launching Gallery Nights in Amani and Metcalfe Park was another standout project in my eyes. That was an awesome experience, where we were able to expose and connect neighborhoods and artists.
The Center Street and Atkinson Libraries hosted Gallery Day, which would lead into Gallery Night at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society. The events were so fun, and the goal was to expand to more library branches with every Gallery Night, but then the pandemic hit. I learned that artists really want to showcase their art in the community, and residents are interested in deeply engaging with art. There’s definitely an opportunity there for something to be reinvigorated.
Another huge win during my time at Imagine was the Moody Park Basketball Court project. That was a really awesome example of trying to reimagine and rebrand a space that had a bad experience associated with it—we infused it with some love and some paint and some togetherness and turned it into something dope.
Metcalfe Park Painted was yet another highlight: what started as a mural idea turned into a summer-long program. We had fun all season, and gave out food and other resources.
When I travel outside of our city, I find that attitudes about Milwaukee are uninformed and underwhelmed. People talk about the Bronze Fonz, and that’s kinda it. But it’s because people on the outside don’t know the REAL Milwaukee. You’ve got the big stuff like Summerfest that people are aware of-- but have you ever tried to explain to people from out of town what the Riverwest 24 is? That kind of exuberant, elaborate creativity is Milwaukee. And places like Sherman Phoenix and new developments like the Creative Corridor—this active, vibrant reformation and collaboration in action: that’s the Milwaukee that needs to be highlighted.
At the same time, I’ve noted that any time people who are from out of town come here, and I show them around and we enjoy the city, they LOVE it here. Milwaukee is a revelation to outsiders when they get to experience it. So, my takeaway is that we may need to step into our greatness more, or buy a bigger bullhorn!
Today, as a result of my work at Imagine MKE, I am upgraded. I’ve been through a lot during my time here: health wise, life experiences, the pandemic. But I was able to grow, and show that growth through my work at Imagine. I’m very proud of how Imagine has evolved during these last few years. Before the pandemic, we were thinking about the sheer critical mass of art—and how to increase the public’s access to it. We came out of that time, not only doing that, but seeing a broader scope. The relationship between a city and its art and culture is deeper than aesthetic beauty. Public safety, workforce development, youth development and civic engagement: all those elements came into focus from the pressure of the pandemic. I believe that Imagine is now in the perfect spot to blossom into something greater.
I have laid a good foundation for whoever replaces me. I hope that they can strive to expand upon it. Like I tell my son, “you gotta be better than me.” The next person in this role will need to make sure that the resident and community voice is the first voice they move towards in this work. In my role, I never brought ideas—I just connected the ideas that others expressed.
This job is very fulfilling. Our role is convening, connecting and amplifying, and it’s a high touch job. When your role is at a place called “Imagine,” when you bring that energy of imagination—it's contagious. So whoever steps into this role has got to be ready for that.
One challenge that I’m proud to have progressed through during my time was the creation of the Partner Neighborhoods Strategy Guide. I didn’t want to just be a “counter of things...” I wanted to be a connector of things. I knew that just counting how many murals went up wouldn’t tell the whole story of positive impact. I was seeing that sparks were starting to generate, and that trust was being built between arts and culture groups and neighborhood groups. Early in my time at Imagine, it was a struggle to prove that what I was seeing was happening. The strategy guide allowed us to root our work in the neighborhoods, making our goals the same as their goals. It reassured our partners that we were in it together. It was a start, and it led to new conversations and meaningful questions: what is vibrancy, and what does it look like? How do we measure vibrancy with actual data? Allowing society to settle for art just being beautiful is not enough. To complete the picture of the whole ecosystem and how it benefits from art and community, you need data. And that is what Imagine is striving for now.
As I step into my new endeavor as the Director of Philanthropy at the Milwaukee Public Library Foundation, what I will carry forward most of all from Imagine is a genuine sense of joyful abundance. I’m a positive person, but Imagine MKE has taught me about the “abundance” part. A lot of times at work, you don’t get to smell the flowers. At Imagine, we are encouraged to enjoy, to celebrate. It’s part of everything we do. Being a positive person is seeing the cup as half full. Joyful abundance is knowing that it is overflowing. "
-Antoine Carter, Director of Neighborhood Partnerships