An arts booster’s guide to Satya’s first budget as mayor

If you’re looking for bold new moves in city arts funding, this isn’t your year.

If you’re looking for bold new moves in city arts funding, this isn’t your year. (Photo by Jon Hain Photography.)

Back in January, before Madison’s mayoral primary thinned out a wide field of challengers hoping to unseat Paul Soglin, five of the candidates participated in a forum on city support for the arts at the Barrymore, organized by Arts + Literature Laboratory and Tone Madison. Satya Rhodes-Conway, who would go on to win the election, was among those who shared their ideas about how city government should fund and nourish our creative economy, and though nobody on stage that night offered a lot of specifics about funding, it was good to hear that all the candidates took the arts seriously. Rhodes-Conway and other candidates did say that the city needs more arts staff, correctly pointing out that City of Madison Arts Administrator Karin Wolf single-handedly does an incredible amount of work without any additional arts staff to lean on. 

But if you really want to test a mayor’s support for the arts, look at the budget said mayor proposes to the Madison Common Council. Rhodes-Conway has now rolled out her proposed capital and operating budgets for 2020, and as the alders and the Mayor debate the particulars, I hope as always that we’ll keep an eye on the parts of it that touch on public art, music, and of course the Madison Public Library. Focus in on these parts of the budget for a few years and you begin to feel like a broken record: New initiatives and funding items do slowly emerge over time, but the city also tends to fund the same things over again, sometimes increasing allocations for those things without seeming to wonder much if there are better ways to use that money. And in these austerity-prone times, with fears of another recession ahead, it’s sometimes a relief if arts funding just stays flat. Not that it’s all bad: City funding does end up supporting some really valuable stuff!


Rhodes-Conway’s first budget proposal is looking pretty routine as far as arts funding is concerned, and District 14 alder Sheri Carter has offered an amendment, which the Council will consider as the budget process continues, that would add $60,000 for the Municipal Art Fund, which supports public-art projects. Rhodes-Conway’s own budget proposal calls for putting $40,000 into the Municipal Art Fund for 2020, so Carter’s amendment, if adopted, would bring that up to $100,000.

The nuts and bolts of arts funding in the City of Madison are generally found in a few specific parts of the budget: 

  • The Room Tax Fund (money from taxes on hotel-room stays, mostly earmarked for tourism-promotion purposes but it’s complicated

  • The Planning Division (which is technically where Wolf works, and where funds for the Madison Arts Commission live)

  • The Madison Public Library (public libraries are doing all sorts of innovative things in the arts these days, and MPL’s Bubbler program, film screening series, and management of the annual Wisconsin Book Festival are prime examples)

Those aren’t the only parts of the city budget where something might happen that impacts the arts. City programs and funds that even aren’t explicitly arts-related can end up making a big difference in this area: Before taking up the budget, for instance, the Common Council approved using $500,000 from the Madison Capitol Revolving Fund to help Arts + Literature Laboratory’s planned move into a city-owned space on East Main Street. The budget also can’t necessarily tell us about the impact of a new program called Percent For Art that will kick in during the city’s 2020 fiscal year. For each city capital project of $5 million or more, the city will set aside one percent of that project’s budget will be set aside to fund public art projects. A Madison Magazine story published in June got into a little more detail about Percent For Art.

But the aforementioned three budget areas do set the agenda in important ways, and they say a lot about city leaders’ priorities. They’re also areas where we’re just not seeing a whole lot of change. We’ll get into it a bit more below, with links to the relevant city budget documents. Note that all the funding figures discussed for 2020 are proposals from the Mayor’s office for the time being, and could change by the time the Common Council passes a budget and Rhodes-Conway signs it. Funding figures discussed in previous years reflect what the city allocated in its actually adopted budgets. 

Room Tax Fund

(Document: Executive Operating Budget Proposal for the Room Tax Fund)

Some of the most-debated city arts funding items come from the Room Tax Fund, including the city’s annual subsidy for the Overture Center for the Arts and grants for music initiatives like Make Music Madison and the Between The Waves festival/conference. This year’s executive budget proposes bumping Overture’s subsidy to $2,095,000 (up from $2 million in 2019) and keeping city funding flat for both Make Music Madison ($30,000) and Between The Waves ($25,000). 

The city’s 2019 budget also introduced a new category of funds to support fairs and festivals via the Room Tax Fund. Organizers can compete for grants from this allocation by applying through the Madison Arts Commission. The 2020 budget proposal would increase that category from $15,000 to $17,500. Another new Room Tax Fund item last year was $20,000 to support temporary public art installations in downtown Madison; this year that item increases to $30,000. Room Tax would also put an additional $79,000 into arts grants in 2020, and did the same in both 2018 and 2019. 

Wolf says $20,000 of the aforementioned Room Tax funding for art installations will likely be used in part to support an arts event or art installations at the site of the planned Madison Public Market at the corner of First and Johnson Streets. That site is currently the city’s Fleet building, so before renovations get underway, the city may host an event where artists take over the building with a slew of temporary installations, similar to the 2016 Municipal event at the Madison Municipal Building or 2012’s Bookless event at the old Central Library building. 

Planning Division

(Documents: Planning Division Executive Operating Budget; Planning Division Executive Capital Budget.)

Roll the tape: At our mayoral forum on the arts in January, Rhodes-Conway name-checked City of Madison Arts Administrator by name and said: “I have thought for a long time, since my service on the Madison Arts Commission, that we don’t have enough staff working on arts and culture in the city…[Wolf] does an amazing job for one woman. I think maybe she has a twin that we don’t know about, given how much she accomplishes, but she needs help, and so I do think that we need more staff. Exactly where that staff should live and what they should do, I think we need to have a conversation about it…”

But Wolf isn’t getting another staffer to share the load in 2020 if Rhodes-Conway’s budget passes. The Planning Divisions’ operating budget would still include Wolf as a full-time Arts Administrator, but isn’t adding any new positions in that area. This part of the budget would also stick to 2019 funding levels for the city’s Municipal Arts Grant Program ($80,500)—intended to support projects that will last 10 years or more—BLINK temporary art installation grants ($10,000), and the Madison Poet Laureate Program ($1,500).

The Municipal Art Fund, mentioned earlier in this story, lives in the Planning Division’s Capital Budget. Again, Rhodes-Conway proposes allocating $40,000 to that in 2020, and a budget amendment would bring it up to $100,000. 


Madison Public Library 

(Documents: MPL Executive Operating Budget, MPL Executive Capital Budget)

Public libraries have such a wide-ranging impact on our access to and relationship with the arts that it’s impossible to break it down to just one funding item or program. Rhodes-Conway’s Operating Budget Summary proposes boosting MPL’s overall operating budget from $17,703,565 in 2019 to $19,163,603 in 2020. That increase includes adding two full-time and two part-time staff at the new Pinney Library branch on Cottage Grove Road, slated to open in 2020.

In Rhodes-Conway’s proposed operating budget, MPL’s “Community Engagement” programs, which includes things like the (multi-faceted in its own right) Bubbler program, would get a funding increase from 480,784 in 2019 to 528,186 in 2020; admittedly, from the figures I have, it is hard to break down how that would impact specific parts of the Bubbler and other programs.  

The proposed budget would also increase the amount of money the city pays to the Dane County Library Service—from $392,200 in 2019 to $502,500 in 2020—which helps people with MPL library cards access libraries elsewhere in the county.

Again, this is just a set of starting points for people hoping to learn more about city arts funding or get involved in the process. It might not cover everything but hopefully offers a window into some of the important parts of all this. If you want to participate more deeply—and people in the music and arts community in Madison really should make local government answer to them a bit more—keep your eye on the Common Council’s meeting calendar and talk to your dang alders!

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