Conduit: Building solidarity and talking about money in Madison’s arts community

Three members of the Equity for Artists group discuss their demands for a better creative economy.

Three members of the Equity for Artists group discuss their demands for a better creative economy.

Photos, from left to right: Photo of Jamie Ho by Jennifer Bastian, photo of Jenie Gao by Latasia Dhami, Photo of Jennifer Bastian by Kennan.


Back in December, more than 200 Madison-based artists and arts supporters signed an open letter to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The letter specifically protested a since-canceled event called Chroma, because the museum wasn’t offering to pay artists who participated, but was charging an application fee and extra fees for installing artwork. The group that organized the letter, Equity for Artists, succeeded in getting the museum to make some changes, but wanted to start a much bigger conversation about how society devalues artists. 


It was a surprising moment of solidarity for artists in Madison, who don’t often talk openly about money matters and their grievances with big arts institutions, at least not in such a forceful and public way.

“We see a behavior that’s exhibited in communities that are fragmented,” says artist and Equity for Artists co-founder Jenie Gao. “That comes from the fact that we’re underfunded, we lack proper infrastructure, that unlike most other careers, we don’t have a lot of large organizations where a lot of artists are going to work together…and then you’ve also got the reinforcement of the stereotype of the solo artist working alone…and fragmented communities are easier to keep from organizing, and as a result institutions maintain power.”

Gao and two other Equity for Artists leaders, Jamie Ho and Jennifer Bastian, spoke with us on the  May 28 edition of Conduit, a livestream collaboration between Tone Madison, Communication, and UnderBelly. (Note: Communication is Tone Madison‘s partner organization. Ho serves on Communication’s board and Bastian is the director and arts manager, and usually serves as a co-host of Conduit; this time around the tables were turned.) For each episode of Conduit, people make a small donation to join us on the call, and the money goes toward either the guest or an organization of the guest’s choosing. This time the proceeds went to Madison’s Bayview Foundation. You can sign up to join us on future episodes by filling out this Google Form.

There are risks to speaking out about how different organizations treat and compensate artists. However, no one has been blackballed for writing or signing the MMOCA letter. Plus, Bastian says, it’s up to institutions to be willing to have these conversations and do better: “I don’t want to be involved with an organization that doesn’t respect me.”

Our conversation covered the often perverse role of non-profits in the arts world, Wisconsin’s low level of public arts funding, and whether Equity for Artists can translate its efforts into long-term change.

“We still have our voices and we can still be heard, so even though it’s going to get worse before it gets better because of this pandemic, we can still exercise our right to say something about what’s going on,” Ho says.

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