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A time of fear and flexibility for public arts funding in Madison

County- and city-level arts administrators brace for cuts and look for ways to change up their approach.

Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

During the pandemic, Madison’s public arts funding agencies have learned how to work faster and secure emergency support from their partners in local government. They’re also heading for a time of great uncertainty, because they depend partly on tax revenues that are falling short, and partly on private funders who expect to cut down on their giving.

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Officials at both the City of Madison and Dane County are expecting large cuts as they prepare their budgets for 2021, and are telling local government departments to shape their expectations accordingly. Both already have just one full-time staff person who oversees arts grants and shapes the overall agenda for public support of the arts. At the city level, that’s Arts Program administrator Karin Wolf. At the county level, it’s Dane Arts director Mark Fraire. Neither is the only person in their unit of local government whose work touches on the arts in some way—for instance, Dane County operates the Alliant Energy Center, and the Madison Public Library’s Bubbler program is a compact dynamo of arts residencies, gallery shows, and hands-on workshops. But they’re the only people on staff who concentrate entirely on using local government resources to nurture the arts.

Dane County was able to come up with extra funds this spring for the new Dane Arts Need Grant (DANG) program. The program gives individual artists small grants of a few hundred dollars as a form of emergency relief. The City of Madison has not allocated any new arts funding since the crisis hit. In fact, there have been cuts, thanks to the arts funding items tied to hotel-room taxes the city collects, though the Madison Common Council has been able to move some existing arts funding around with an eye toward helping artists during the pandemic, and Wolf has been able to work with people who already received grants to negotiate deadlines and expectations so that they can hold onto their funding and keep working.

“I’m basically looking for nickels and dimes to do my work, which is not that different from pre-COVID, but slightly,” Wolf says.

The public art funding that comes from local governments alone in Madison (not factoring in federal funds or state funds) is still very modest overall. The budget the City of Madison adopted for 2020 was about $514.6 million overall. About $3.2 million of that would have touched upon the arts in some way, by a generous accounting, and thanks to the drop-off in hotel-room taxes, it will now be closer to $2.3 million. A big subsidy for the Overture Center still accounts for $1.2 million of that. Only about $184,500 goes toward grant funding for which individual artists, arts organizations, and event planners compete. Dane County’s 2020 budget totals up to about $654 million. Dane Arts’ budget is $550,523, of which about $257,000 goes into arts grants. Dane Arts does get just shy of $300,000 in actual direct support from the county’s general fund, but also relies a great deal on private funds, especially to support spin-off programs like Dane Arts Mural Arts, Dane Arts Dance Arts, and Dane Arts Buy Local.

“Outside of the two grant cycles projects, for arts organizations and individual artists, I have to raise funds for all other Dane Arts projects like DADA and DABL, by knocking on doors and asking,” Fraire says.

The arts funding world is rarely so simple as just giving artists money to make art and live. Usually writing grant applications is a daunting process, requiring details about budgets, audience demographics, and an explanation of why the work fits within a particular funder’s mission. Most grants in the arts world depend on the artist pitching a specific project—rarely do grant funders just want to pay people to keep on doing what they’re already doing. 

There are real barriers to the conventional process: It’s just inherently going to be easier for artists who have a support structure around them, whether it’s a development staff to help raise those matching funds and write grant applications, relationships with wealthy people, or the free time and resources to play the funding game while also working on art and paying the bills. People with experience in the academic art world or established arts non-profits might have better access to contacts and know-how. Scrappy arts organizations and individual artists can and do get grant funding, but just getting that funding—really, just asking for it—takes a great deal of work and perseverance. Dane Arts and the Madison Arts Commission support a great deal of very worthy programming every year, but everyone who spends time around the arts in Madison knows there are haves and have-nots.

By comparison, the Dane Arts Need Grant application is a snap. Applicants are asked for their basic personal info, links to a work sample, a bio, a few words on how the grant would benefit their art, and that’s basically it. Most of the time arts grant money comes with the expectation that the artist will complete a specific project, raise matching funds, and report back to the funder with an evaluation. In contrast, Fraire sums up the spirit of DANG as: “Here’s $500, pay a bill, feed yourself.”

A radically simplified grant

The DANG program’s simplicity and the desperate times have brought out people who don’t usually think of grant funding as a way to support their work. Fraire says the vast majority of DANG applicants were people who’d never applied for Dane Arts funding before. For instance, Dane Arts grants rarely go to individual musicians (though many go to organizations that pay musicians, from the Madison Symphony Orchestra to the Madison Music Collective to the Four Lakes Traditional Music Festival), but almost 90 musicians received DANG funds. Dane Arts’ twice-yearly grant cycle usually focuses on funding arts organizations—and even big arts organizations are hurting too—but DANG deliberately focused on individual artists. As bad as things are in the arts world and as fast as this money will spend for people who are struggling, DANG has had a welcome impact of bringing more artists into the discussion about public arts funding.

One recipient, Madison-based musician Julian Lynch, is probably best known around town for his solo work, but also plays guitar in the New York band Real Estate. He recently finished up his PhD in ethnomusicology at UW-Madison and was counting on Real Estate’s spring tour dates.

“The plan was for 2020 to be my first-ever year as a ‘professional musician,’ in the sense that I would live off of money earned from touring,” Lynch says. “That fell apart extremely quickly, obviously.” 

Lynch says he has applied with a few organizations offering emergency relief grants for artists. DANG is one of just two programs that actually got back to him. “The grant is helping me pay the bills in a situation in which I’ve lost my entire income and haven’t been able to work since early March,” he says. We actually haven’t received the checks yet—they are in the mail, I believe—but when it arrives it will go a long way towards helping me out in that regard.”

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Emili Earhart, a Tone Madison contributor, classical pianist, and member of projects including Woodman/Earhart and Cave Curse, applied for and received a DANG grant. Earhart says she’ll use that for an audio interface for recording, though lost income from shows and teaching lessons has been a concern as well.

“Honestly, I never apply for grants and maybe just should, but I make very little money from actually playing piano, so I never felt like those were for me,” Earhart says. “I had ‘gigged’ a bit more this fall and winter, and was hoping to get into that more, which is a bust in the pandemic.” 

Earhart adds: “I thought it was pretty cool that [Dane Arts] were awarding money to help people out. Like, you don’t need a grand opus to get a grant during a pandemic to encourage you to keep making art.”

Dane Arts announced the DANG program on Friday, April 17, with an initial budget of $15,000. By that Monday, Fraire says, enough applications had come in to exhaust that money and then some. Fraire was able to cobble together public and private funding to bump it up to $22,500. “I didn’t feel I could deny an artist who submitted an application two days after it was announced and say, ‘Sorry, we don’t have any money,'” Fraire says. In May, County Executive Joe Parisi approved moving an extra $100,000 in federal CARES Act funds into the DANG pot. (At the state level, the Wisconsin Arts Board also used CARES Act funding to roll out about $500,000 in emergency grants to arts organizations around the state.)

The simple fact that DANG is distributing no-strings attached money to about 200 artists—across a range of disciplines, ages, and levels of name recognition—raises an obvious question: Why can’t it always be this way? Fraire explains that the private starter funds for DANG gave him a lot more flexibility than he’d have when awarding grants from Dane County’s general fund. “As a government office I’m under a lot of constraints in terms of using public dollars,” he says. Private funders want to know where the money’s going, of course, but governments usually call for extensive processes and documentation, and the public has a right to transparency when it comes to any sort of government spending. So, don’t necessarily expect Dane Arts to dispense with the more complex application requirements of its usual grant cycles. “With grants being public dollars, you just have to go through those steps,” Fraire says.

Fraire does hope that the sheer number and variety of artists using DANG funds gets more people in the community, including business owners and potential private donors, to appreciate just how many creative people we have in Dane County and how much they enrich our lives. There’s a cautiously optimistic case that programs like DANG will inspire the business community to get a bit more serious about providing meaningful support to artists, but who knows. At the very least, it has brought people some relief and provided an affirmation that the arts will press on even under terrible circumstances.

As of this week, all $122,500 allocated to the DANG program is spoken for. Fraire isn’t sure what to expect from this year’s county budget cycles, though he says the general attitude is that things will tighten up. He’s also hearing from Dane Arts’ private funders that they might cut back their giving. One of Dane Arts’ large sources of private money is the Evjue Foundation, the charitable arm of The Capital Times. Usually, he says, the Evjue Foundation gives Dane Arts about $75,000 a year, and sometimes extra to support the Dane Arts Mural Arts project. This time around, Fraire says, Evjue’s gift to Dane Arts is down to $10,000, as the foundation tries to spread its giving around to other causes.

Fraire acknowledges that he has the flexibility to pound the pavement for more private donations, but says, “I have to be careful because everybody’s asking for support. I don’t have any answers in terms of what next steps are.”

There’s also the parallel worry about how many arts organizations and individual artists will even be able to carry out big projects in the near future. 

“I think it’s a real opportunity right now because of COVID and because of all the social injustice and unrest in our community, to show how the arts are incredibly important as an economic driver and [addressing] social ills in our community, but I’m a one-person office,” Fraire says. “Karin’s a one-person office. And it’s just really hard to keep beating the drum.”

When arts funding depends on hotels

Some of the City of Madison’s arts funding depends on hotel-room taxes—not the only source of city arts funding, but big enough to make a difference. When people aren’t staying in hotels, that’s a problem. Hotel occupancy in the Madison market through April, May, and June 2020 was down 62.9 percent from the same period in 2019, according to data from Smith Travel Research. Charlie Eggen, a hotelier and former president of the President of the Greater Madison Hotel & Lodging Association, passed on the market research data to me, noting that it also shows a nearly 80 percent drop in revenue—revenue that is supposed to generate the room taxes. 

This has already led to one major arts budget cut in 2020. 

The city’s Room Tax Commission divides up most of the money from said tax, mostly to promote tourism but also to support arts grants, music initiatives, and a sizable subsidy for the Overture Center. (Whether arts funding equals tourism funding has been a matter of some debate.) Like any city body, the commission works within a budget the Madison Common Council and Mayor approve. But the commission also can amend its own budget any time, without the Council signing off. It did just that at its July 7 meeting, with a vote to cut $10 million from its initial 2020 budget of about $19.5 million. About $955,000 of that represents cuts to funding items directly related to the arts.

Commissioners and stakeholders at the meeting all seemed to agree that no one would be happy with the cuts, but that the budget amendment shared the pain pretty fairly as hotel stays plummet. The Overture Center’s $2,095,000 subsidy for the year is now down to $1,200,000. Even before that cut, Overture had already announced a brutal slate of layoffs and furloughs. After the cut, the Overture subsidy still represents more than half of the city’s overall arts funding. Several much smaller arts funding items in the room tax budget took a hit too, including an allocation for arts grants, Make Music Madison, the Between The Waves music-industry conference, temporary downtown art installations, a fund the Madison Arts Commission divides up to support fairs and festivals. (That last item has supported events including the Urban Community Arts Network annual series of outdoor hip-hop shows, Girls Rock Camp Madison, and the LunArt Festival.)

One item was spared: The Commission didn’t cut any of its initial $79,000 contribution to arts grants the Madison Arts Commission awards. 

Granted, a lot of the public events that got money in this budget are not happening at all, or have scaled down or turned to livestreaming. In some cases, Wolf says, the city still plans to provide reduced amounts to pay for planning and administrative work that already happened, including for Between The Waves and Make Music Madison. Some events, like Dane Dances, had non-refundable hold fees for performers they’d booked (it’s not uncommon for musicians and promoters to agree on a fee like that in the event of a cancellation). “This is how much it costs for these events to not happen,” Wolf says.

The Room Tax cuts weren’t necessarily surprising. Travel and tourism have obviously been obliterated since mid-March. Pretty early into quarantine Wolf, speaking on the Conduit livestream series, predicting a coming “quagmire” for public arts programs, noting both the dependence on room taxes and the fact that wealthy arts donors have a lot of their money tied up in investments.

There may not be much relief coming from other sources of money within city government. During the Room Tax Commission’s May 29 meeting, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway showed up to let commissioners know that deep cuts were the only option on the table. “There is no magic revenue source,” Rhodes-Conway said at the beginning of the meeting. “There is no hidden pot of money. The general fund is not going to be able to backfill cuts in the room tax.” Downtown Alder Mike Verveer, a bit incredulous, asked if Rhodes-Conway was willing to backfill “not one dollar” of room tax money from the city’s general fund. The Mayor replied that given economic conditions and possibly layoffs and furloughs at the city, it would be irresponsible to use money from the general fund “on anything but keeping folks employed.” Later in the meeting, Verveer again argued that the city should again consider making up some of the room tax losses from other sources, and suggested that Rhodes-Conway didn’t see the importance of the things the room taxes fund. 

As it turns out, the city did pitch in a little from its general fund. The budget amendment approved on July 7 factors in a contribution from the general fund of about $642,000—to make up for cutting the commission’s funding for Olbrich Gardens and the Henry Vilas Zoo. 

I asked Wolf if, in light of these cuts, she thought the city should find a different model that doesn’t stake a portion of its arts funding on hotel stays. “Does it require a total pivot? Do I need to just forget this whole model?” Wolf asked aloud, reflecting on the uncertainty of the moment. The city is gearing up for its fall budget process, and the Room Tax Commitment will be finalizing its 2021 budget in August. People will have to decide whether to make budget requests based on the assumption that life and hotel stays and revenues will be back to something like pre-COVID times by next year. “It’s going to be a harder ask,” Wolf admits.

The other major chunk of arts funding Wolf and the Madison Arts Commission work with comes from the Planning Division’s operating and capital budgets. This year’s Planning Commission operating budget includes $80,500 for the Annual Municipal Arts Grant Program, $10,000 for the BLINK temporary art program, and $1,500 for the city’s Poet Laureate Program. This part of the city budget also pays Wolf’s salary. The Planning Commission’s capital budget includes $100,000 for the Municipal Art Fund (not to be confused with the Annual Municipal Arts Grant Program!). And as of 2019, the city also funds public art through the Percent for Art program, which requires that “1% of the total budget for certain City public works projects exceeding $5 million be set aside for public art.” The Planning Division projected in February that Percent for Art would net about $117,000 in 2020, as a result of construction of the Madison Public Market on First Street and work on Madison Metro’s facility on East Washington Avenue. That’s up in the air as well.

Rhodes-Conway is asking most city departments to prepare for five percent budget cuts for 2021, in anticipation of a $30 million shortfall. “There’s no way we’re not gonna get cut,” Wolf says. “There’s cuts across the board. Five percent is easier to weather than 63,” she says, referring to the roughly 63 percent cut that music-related items took in the Room Tax budget amendment.

Looking for new approaches

Like Fraire at Dane County, Wolf is thinking about ways to find flexibility outside of the usual grant-funding cycles she oversees. In May, the Madison Common Council freed up $80,000 in existing public-art funds to allow Wolf to focus on commissioning pieces from artists who’d lost income during the pandemic. Wolf also wants to look for more opportunities to collaborate with people in other city agencies, who might be interested in using some of their own budgets to commission art projects that tie in with their work. 

In the wake of the city’s State Street mural project, Wolf believes that elected officials in town are gaining more appreciation for the impact of the arts, and she says she’s heard from people in other parts of city government who might be interested in collaborating. “Whether I have the budget or not, I feel like people have seen the effectiveness so that they may be willing to use funds that they would have used on something else to have the arts be part of their strategies,” Wolf says. “They’re calling me, so that’s a hopeful indication.”

At the behest of Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Ald. Sheri Carter, Wolf was able to redirect some Room Tax money, initially earmarked for planned events that won’t happen this year, from other planned arts projects to pay artists for their work on the State Street murals. The project’s economics and cultural ramifications have drawn some criticism as well. Most of the artists received $250 for their work, and I’ve heard from artists who netted very little after spending their own money on art supplies. One way or another, there’s little doubt that it’s gotten people talking, and captures the power of art to respond to the historic moment we’re living through.

“I hope it’s not lost on policymakers and people who do arts funding that this project was effective in transforming dialogue from people being bewildered about what happened to understanding why this was happening,” Wolf says.

Dane County and the City of Madison also locate their arts-grant programs in different parts of government. The distinctions may seem dry and bureaucratic, but they’re important, especially in a crisis. Fraire and Dane Arts are technically part of the County Executive’s office. Dane Arts is of course subject to the budgeting power of the County Board and Fraire has to work with an arts commission and grant-review boards. But overall, Fraire has a fair bit of autonomy to raise money from private sources (including major gifts from foundations and philanthropic individuals) and try different approaches without jumping through too many extra hoops. The tradeoff is that he has to spend a lot of time raising private funds, and has to cover a bigger geographic area. 

Wolf works for the city’s Planning Division, and serves as the staff coordinator for a body that reviews grant proposals and discusses arts policy, in this case the Madison Arts Commission. But if Wolf wants to take a private donation to fund city arts programs, or start up a partnership that wasn’t already laid out in a city budget, she has to ask the Madison Common Council to pass a resolution signing off on it. That can take a while, which means Wolf has fewer options for adjusting quickly when situations change. The budget the Common Council provides for the arts also doesn’t provide for things like advertising events or, say, buying snacks for an art opening.

The recently formed non-profit Friends of the Madison Arts Commission is in part an answer to that problem. As a private group, it can complement city-funded arts efforts with private funds and move a little faster to fill in gaps and make simple purchases. 

Wolf used one absurdly simple example to illustrate why she needs Friends of MAC.

“Last year I couldn’t get funding released to me for two coolers,” Wolf says. “Every time we had a summer unveiling and I wanted to have cool water so people wouldn’t pass out, I had to go to a friend’s house and ask to borrow a cooler.” Now, Friends of MAC can just buy the coolers with minimal fuss, and provide them for Wolf’s use at city arts events.

But if local governments are rigid with their budgets and processes over the next couple years, the fallout for the local arts community will be much bigger than just a couple of coolers.

“Some things that make sense in non-crisis times don’t make sense right now,” Wolf says.

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