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A conversation with Jenie Gao: “the arts are consistently a predictor and a barometer for our social and cultural values”

The artist and advocate reflects on the state of the arts in Madison as she prepares for a move and MFA.

Artist, creative director, and entrepreneur Jenie Gao was born and raised in rural Kansas by her parents who immigrated to the U.S. from China and Taiwan. Ever since she can remember, she has been drawn to arts and culture.

Gao is deeply immersed in the arts in Madison, whether she’s creating murals, building her own studio business, working on disrupting patterns of gentrification, or building better practices in the arts centered on labor rights, equity, and removing systemic barriers for artists

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She has focused on using her East Side-based Jenie Gao Studio as tools to help BIPOC, women, and queer artists in Madison, with an understanding that art serves a society’s cultural and social values.

Gao’s understanding of art as something more than just for the elite is a result of years of working in very different industries. While obtaining her BFA in printmaking and drawing at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, Gao worked as a floor manager at an art museum. After obtaining her BFA, she moved to Milwaukee, where she worked as an arts programs specialist within the public school system and then as a project manager at a manufacturing company where she oversaw lean methodologies. 

As project manager, Gao was relocated to Madison, the city she has been living in for the past seven years and where she created her art business about seven years ago. She will be leaving this fall to pursue her MFA at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, Canada. 

On a calm morning in April, I sat down and spoke with Gao about the state of the economy of the arts in Madison, her efforts in the past years to improve the conditions for artists, and what lays ahead for her in the future.  

Tone Madison: How did working jobs in different areas that were not related to art help you?

Jenie Gao: I’ve been working since I was 17. I’ve seen end to end how so many different industries work. I have this bigger ecosystem picture of how they all end up feeding into each other.

Then at the public school system, I was working at a poorer school. The students were predominantly kids of color. When Act 10 happened and there were statewide budget cuts for the unions and specifically targeting the schools, I saw how the wealthier white suburban schools preserved the art. Art was seen like a path to enlightenment.

Meanwhile, things like the arts, gym, music, and all the extracurricular activities got cut at schools like mine because art was seen as a path to poverty. You have to wonder: why is art a path of enlightenment to the rich but a path to poverty for the poor?

[And then in] the manufacturing field, you get to see who’s working in the office and who’s working in the plant. You really see that dichotomy of who gets to be where and it all comes back to who has access to creative autonomy and ownership of what they do and who they are.

For me, that was the connection of all these things: from the arts to the public school system to manufacturing, how we make everything that we use, and who gets to make decisions and who gets to control the processes. 

Tone Madison: What was the process like when you created your business?

Jenie Gao: It’s been a really long building process. Early on I probably was like a lot of people who would take any opportunities that I could find. A very fundamental shift for me to actually make this work was to be uncompromising of what I actually want to do as an artist. I will not work for free. I will not work for cheap.

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Also, this project has to be good for the community. It has to make things better. I think about how I hold a standard for myself. I should also be advocating for the community and conditions should be better for other artists.

Lastly, how do I remove systemic barriers so that the next person after me doesn’t have to deal with the same stuff? It shouldn’t be challenging in the way that it is. There are always going to be challenges, but in terms of exploitation in artist labor and BIPOC people’s exploitation, that shouldn’t exist.

Tone Madison: How did you conceptualize your business and what has been the main purpose of it for you?

Jenie Gao: I wanted to prove that it was possible to be an artist full-time and for it to be possible without reinforcing the same problematic structures that already exist. I also wanted to prove that I can be ambitious in doing it.

People will think it’s great that I’ve built a six-figure arts business in Wisconsin since there’s so little arts support here, but the ceiling is much higher for businesses in other industries. The ceiling should be much higher for people in the arts to grow here, too. We’re living in Wisconsin, which ranks 49th in the nation for [public] arts funding. We have no public infrastructure in the state for the arts and in general, people don’t take artists seriously. 

Tone Madison: What does it mean for Madison that Wisconsin is ranked so low?

Jenie Gao: It means that on the state level they’re not taking the arts seriously. It means that on the city level and the county level they’re also not taking it seriously. It goes for the private funding side too. In the private sector there are different funds that artists can apply for. Maybe only two artists get it a year: a $10,000 grant here and $15,000 grant there.

And the thing is that they don’t increase year by year. There are so many different fellowships that I’ve seen, in the 11 years that I’ve lived in Wisconsin now, that are the same exact amount of money as they were a decade ago. We’ve had inflation. That money is not worth the same amount as it was 11 years ago, but we don’t increase these grant amounts and we still require artists to go the same amount of trouble to apply for them. 

Tone Madison: Overall, what has your experience been like as an artist and business owner here in Madison?

Jenie Gao: It is tough. It can be simultaneously inspiring, but also really difficult and frustrating. I think that people who are willing to build an art practice here have a lot of conviction and courage.

Community-wise, there are a lot of amazing people here and people who are willing to do that extra work, the grassroots-level work to make things happen. The frustrating side of it is that it feels like the city has just been insistent on keeping the ceiling really low for us.

My biggest concern about this city is that we repeatedly see individuals who are able to disprove the myths [of artist representation], but we don’t actually see any systems in place to guarantee our ability to plant our roots here. 

Tone Madison: Why do you think these things happen here in Madison in regards to the arts?

Jenie Gao: I think that no one is willing to put real money into the arts. I think that that’s the biggest piece of it and when you think about the public sector of the side.

Dane County just added a million dollars to their arts budget, which is very laudable in terms of what people like [City of Madison Arts Program Administrator] Karin Wolf and [Dane Arts Director] Mark Fraire are doing on advocating on the inside for all of us. 

And at the same time, a million dollars is one-tenth of one percent of the county’s budget and it’s not a lot of money when you break it down into 400 $2,500 grants for artists. At the same time Dane Buy Local, which [administers] Dane County’s small business grant, business owners have been able to apply for $15,000 of grant money that they don’t have to pay back.

So, why are we OK with giving artists $25,000 [editor’s note: this refers to a separate project on which Gao is an advisor, which will hire a few artists at $25,000] when other businesses can apply for tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars? I’m advising on one project right now where one of the things that some folks are hung up on is going to be like $25,000 for an artist who gets this. We think that $25,000 is so much and we’re trying to get it to the exact right person instead of figuring out, how do we make more of these opportunities?

Tone Madison: How would you define the relationship between art and the economy?

Jenie Gao: The arts are consistently a predictor and a barometer for what our social and cultural values are. So you think about what we envision in the arts is often later what we build. On a cultural value, it’s about what our societal values are. 

You look at the United States and here we are in the most powerful nation in the world. You look at the systemic problems that we have now that are killing the nation, killing the people that live here, and shortening their lifespans. We have a country that’s built on racism that forces people to culturally assimilate and lose connection with their roots. 

Also, in the 1800s we invented the starving-artist archetype. That is when we divorced the idea of artists making money from their work. We romanticize the idea of the artist who does it purely for the love of the art and so now we live in a society that believes that paying for artist labor isn’t important.

Tone Madison: How would you define the relationship between art and the economy here in Madison?

Jenie Gao: I would define it as exploitative and gaslighting. Madison and a lot of the Midwest struggles with talking about topics that aren’t positive. Even when we are doing projects in the communities that are talking about things like racial equities and like the Black Lives Matter murals, we have to frame them as a celebration.

There’s not a lot of room for critique for the problems of some of these things. We tend to uphold any project because our opportunities are really rare. We celebrate every single one that happens and we don’t look at them more critically. 

Tone Madison: How do the private sector and public sector coexist here in regards to the arts?

Jenie Gao: The private sector, not everyone, reaps more significant benefits than anybody else in this. Think about the Black Lives Matter murals that happened on State Street. The beauty of that project was that it was an opportunity for predominantly Black artists to reclaim a lot of space that’s occupied by white business owners and white wealth.

That was the beauty of that project: having the reclamation of that space and having that much space dedicated specifically to Black Lives Matter. But some of the problems with that were that the city spent public tax dollars to hire artists that were underpaid to paint murals for downtown on all the boarded-up buildings.

Immediately after these riots, it becomes a tourist spot and an attraction because everyone wants to go downtown, see the murals, and then shop.

With the culmination of a project like that, a company like American Family Insurance comes in and funds the book [Let’s Talk About It]. The most relevant historical record of what happened was funded by a private multibillion-dollar company and they’re the ones who wrote that history.

If you think about the benefit for AmFam’s brand for doing that, the benefit for the private businesses that became a tourist spot because of the murals, the benefit to a multibillion dollar company to give away this book, and now they look like they’re on the right side of history.

At the end of the day, we have to ask: economically, were any of the artists or people who participated in that project better off?

Tone Madison: Lastly, what are your plans for the near future?

Jenie Gao: I’m moving to Vancouver. Here, I’m still going to continue to work with my clients. I’m keeping my business open after I move, but I’ll just be working at a reduced capacity with all of my clients.

I’m planning to move to Vancouver in August. I’m pursuing my masters of fine arts and I’m specifically going out there to expand my research and work in the relationship between art and gentrification, and how to disrupt the pattern in how the arts get weaponized for gentrification.

Essentially, what I want to be able to do in these next two years in my MFA is to distill these practices that I built, look at what works, look at what could be different, and then also test the relevance in different places.

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