Kelsey Kaufmann named one of Milwaukee Magazine's Betty Award recipients
Kelsey Kaufmann, owner and operator of Cactus Club, was named one of Milwaukee Magazine’s 2022 Betty Awards recipients. The awards honor extraordinary women doing great work in Milwaukee.
Kaufmann first started off as a bartender at Cactus Club and started to help run its operations "as an accident" in 2016, but didn’t think it would lead her to buying the club. However, three years later it seemed like the right choice, and Kaufmann officially took ownership in February of 2020 — one month before the pandemic shut it down.
"So it's funny, as things 'normalize' post, or still on the tail end of the pandemic, I don't have any real footing for what was normal beforehand. So we're all just still making it up as we go, but it seems like it's going OK," jokes Kaufmann.
Since then, Cactus Club has more than survived — its expanded its programming and community outreach significantly. While the venue still hosts concerts, it also hosts book clubs, film screenings, makers markets and more.
"Part of what we try and cultivate here at Cactus is a space where folks from all creative disciplines, whether it filmmaker, musicians, poets, whatever; feel welcome and intergenerationally, whether you’re 15 years-old or 75 years-old, we want a space that feels welcoming and positive to be a part of," explains Kaufmann.
Kaufmann says that she's been inspired to create inclusive spaces since she started playing music and went to festivals such as Fed Up Fest and Black and Brown Punk Fest in Chicago when she was younger. "Both of those spaces, it was a first experience and exposure to an intentional space," she notes. "I felt like folks were able to come as they are, and that's so rare."
Outside of offering more inclusive programming, Kaufmann is also working on launching Cactus+, a nonprofit to promote arts education and fundraise to improve the building's accessibility by adding an entry ramp and updating the bathrooms.
"I want this place to be a springboard for everyone to learn more about themselves and what they want."
Despite her position, Kaufmann says she never wanted to identify as "a manager" and isn't totally comfortable with the label of leader either.
"I didn't believe in leaders— I was a bit contrarian," she admits. For Kaufmann, she's in service of others with the goal of empowerment for all people who come through the door, whether they work at Cactus or not. "I want this place to be a springboard for everyone to learn more about themselves and what they want," she says.
Kaufmann adds that no matter what role she's held at the Cactus for over a decade, her favorite part has always been working with artists and other creatives.
"At this level, the folks that are involved are doing it because they feverishly believe in what they're doing and have to do it — whatever that may be," she says.