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Conduit: Karin Wolf braces for a quagmire in the arts world

The City of Madison Arts Administrator joined us on the March 26 edition of our new livestream series.

The City of Madison Arts Administrator joined us on the March 26 edition of our new livestream series.

For the March 26 edition of Conduit, our new livestream series with Communication and UnderBelly, we asked City of Madison Arts Administrator Karin Wolf to discuss how the pandemic is impacting public arts funding. Wolf’s job involves working with the Madison Arts Commission, administrating city-funded arts grants programs, and advocating for funding and arts initiatives in city government. She’s the one full-time staffer at the City of Madison who works on these issues.

Because she talks with so many artists who are looking for funding and trying to figure out how to survive in Madison, Wolf is getting an up-close view of artists’ struggles in the face of COVID-19. “These are creative entrepreneurs. They don’t just rely on one source of income,” Wolf says. “But unfortunately, they’re in the gig economy, for better or worse, and they’re not getting any income right now from any of their sources. They need their landlords to not be wanting rent. They need three months’ [financial relief] at least.”

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The Coronavirus relief bill working its way through the House of Representatives right now does include some additional funding for federal arts agencies, but there’s no telling how long it will take for that money to make its way to individual artists in the form of grants. At both the local and federal level, the pandemic has underscored that our mechanisms of public arts funding tend to work slowly, and aren’t set up to deal with a rapidly escalating crisis. Wolf doubts that any form of emergency relief will come close to making up for the financial losses and instability the pandemic has inflicted upon creative people. “This is going to be a long-term quagmire,” Wolf says.

Wolf also talked about the longer-term damage the crisis will do to major sources of arts and culture funding. The City of Madison gets a lot of its public arts funding (including its $2 million subsidiary to the Overture Center for the Arts) from taxes on hotel-room stays, and a lot of that revenue just isn’t going to come in this year. Many big-wig philanthropists who give to arts organizations rely on investments, so unfortunately the arts aren’t insulated from the ongoing tumult of the stock market.

When and if we come out of the quagmire, it will be time to question some of the basic assumptions that shape the world of public arts funding.

“Whatever comes after this is going to be a completely new slate, and we’re going to have to reevaluate how we’ve been prioritizing and how we do everything,” Wolf says.

Conduit takes place every Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Our next guest, on April 2, will be Morris Ramen co-owner Francesca Hong, who will be discussing her advocacy for the local restaurant industry amid the pandemic. To join in, Venmo $1 to [email protected] and put your email address in the notes. We’ll send you a link to the Zoom call, and the money will all be given to local artists and arts non-profits.

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