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In Madison arts funding, $1 million should not be a big deal

Putting the newly announced Dane Arts grant program in context.

Photo: Detail from “Thrive,” a Dane Arts Mural Arts project at the Dane County Job Center on Aberg Avenue. Photo courtesy of DAMA.

The $1 million art grants program Dane County announced on Wednesday, April 21—applications open on May 1 through Dane Arts—might be the most significant move in public arts funding to hit the Madison area in years. The program draws on federal COVID-19 relief dollars, creating a sharp contrast to the levels of funding local governments usually offer to artists. It’s significant for its scale and for the simple fact that it offers money directly to artists with relatively few strings attached. Independent working artists can apply for grants of up to $2,500 each through the program, meaning it will reach at least 400 applicants.

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The money that comes through actual local governments is, of course, only one part of the overall public arts funding picture. Artists in the area can also apply for Wisconsin Arts Board grants, and funding from federal agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts has a huge impact in Wisconsin, as my colleague Liz DiNovella and I showed in a 2017 story. That said, Dane County and the City of Madison don’t really invest that much money in the arts. The fast infusion of $1 million is a laudable, positive step, but the fact that it’s so shocking says something about the state of affairs here. 

Dane Arts, the county agency that administers the grants, basically never has this much money to spend in a given year. In the county’s 2021 operating budget, for instance, the entire outlay for Dane Arts—grant funding, staff, etc.—is $485,949. Dane Arts and its one full-time staffer, director Mark Fraire, do have some flexibility to raise private funds in addition to the money the county provides from tax revenues. In a normal year, Dane Arts will run two annual grant cycles that parcel out the money to individual artists and arts organizations. In 2020, the second of those normally budgeted grant cycles awarded $133,583 in grants. The county’s overall operating budget for 2021 totals up to $615,596,386. In that context, the amount of money that goes to the arts is downright miserly.

The situation is really only slightly better in the City of Madison’s annual budgets. For 2021, the city adopted an operating budget just shy of $350 million. When you add up various funding items that deal with the arts—scattered throughout different portions of the budget in a way that’s way more complicated than it should be—it totals up just shy of $3 million. 

The good news is that these programs, at both city and county levels, didn’t take the catastrophic cuts they very well could have in a tough year for local government budgets. Madison’s city budget even included $45,000 in support for a new program that will carry out a first-of-its-kind study of the economics and equity problems at work in Madison’s music community. The city’s percent for art ordinance, enacted in 2019, will gradually bring in more money for the arts as the city embarks on large construction projects. The non-profit Friends of Madison Arts Commission group launched in 2020 to augment city-funded projects with private funds. And as for this latest $1 million grant rollout, Dane County officials didn’t have to spend part of the federal relief money on the arts. That was a choice, and a laudable one. We should ask high-level county officials, including County Executive Joe Parisi and our County Supervisors, to make more choices like that in the future. We should ask the same of Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and our Alders.

The problem is not with Fraire or with City of Madison Arts Program Administrator Karin Wolf—they both do tenacious, resourceful work to advocate for the arts within flawed government structures that give them too little money and too many constraints. They have to be diplomatic and fight a constant uphill battle to “educate” elected officials about the importance of the arts. An extra $45,000 should not feel like a landmark outlay. Neither should an extra $1 million. 

Swing a dead cat at a local government meeting, and you’ll hit someone who can go on and on about the importance of the arts in Madison. They’ll probably use the word “vibrant,” in which case you should swing the cat again, harder. But when it’s time to craft a county or city budget, will this person be advocating loudly and persistently for us to actually spend more money on these things? Will they take a serious look at the way this funding is structured and distributed, and try to find ways to make it more flexible and equitable? Because when push comes to shove, I don’t really see many of our local elected officials working to shake this up, and they seem to experience absolutely no political consequences for it. 

This emergency we’ve endured over the past year has given us an opportunity to re-think how we approach all sorts of public policy areas, and the arts can definitely be one.

This new $1 million grant program will essentially be a massively souped-up round two of last year’s Dane Arts Need Grant (DANG) program. DANG used a mix of private and federal funds to provide about 230 artists with grants of up to $500 each. Fraire told Tone Madison last summer that the majority of people who applied for (and received) DANG grants had never applied for a Dane Arts grant before. 

DANG worked because it was a dead-simple response to an economic crisis, and usually public arts grants are very complicated and intimidating. On a typical grant application for an arts project, you have to provide a great deal of detail about a specific project, a budget breakdown, demographic information about the audience you hope to reach. Once you get the funding, you generally are expected to raise matching funds to go along with it. You also have to follow lots of rules about what you can and can’t spend the money on. Once the project is complete, you have to follow up with the granting agency about how it went, providing financial reports and sometimes reports from outside evaluators. 

DANG required none of this. The application was just enough to establish that applicants were in fact working artists, and once recipients had the money, they could spend it on whatever they chose, from their creative projects to just paying down bills. The payments were direct, rather than filtering through third-party arts organizations to be spent as part of a larger budget. Fraire plans to keep this bare-bones approach as Dane Arts parcels out the latest round of relief money.

This approach seems pretty rational and obvious, but it is eye-opening in the context of arts funding. Suddenly, we see that arts funding can be about meeting human needs, not necessarily about completing a specific project or supporting a specific organization. One of the biggest problems facing the arts in the Madison area right now is that artists (like most other people) increasingly cannot afford to live and work here. Long before the pandemic, we all knew very well that most artists out there exist in some state of ongoing financial crisis. The support structure for the arts, in this community that supposedly cherishes the arts so much, sucks. So why not get at that directly? Why not just give artists some money, while also working on the bigger and more unwieldy policy issues that impact everyone’s ability to survive here, especially our housing crisis?

The structural factors of arts funding are all important too—where that money comes from in the first place, who allocates it, who ultimately spends it, and on what terms. There are certainly good reasons for asking people to fill out detailed grant applications and follow-up reports, making sure they spend the money how they promised to spend it, understanding the impact of a given project, and so forth. The trade-off is that an artist or organization has to take on a lot of complex, time-consuming administrative work in addition to the artistic work, all with very little support, to secure a modest amount of grant money that will likely cover only a portion of a given project’s costs. This is a huge barrier for an independent artist who’s also working other jobs (sometimes multiple other jobs) to get by. 

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As a consequence, a lot of city and county grants end up going to organizations with at least a little infrastructure and professionalization, often in the areas of theater, visual art, dance, and classical music. All well and good, but not enough of the money reaches people creating art outside of these more established structures. Madison is fortunate to have a lot of people like that, and without better support they’ll keep leaving or burning out. 

At the city level in particular, funding mechanisms create ridiculously complicated pathways for relatively modest amounts of money. If you want to understand this, consider subjecting yourself to the somnolent wonders of a Room Tax Commission meeting. More than half of the City of Madison’s arts funding comes from taxes on hotel-room stays. The city’s Room Tax Commission decides what to do with it. Under state law, the commission has ultimate authority over its budget, not the Common Council, and has to spend most of it on things related to tourism. To secure some of that money for an arts project, you essentially have to convince a group of hotel owners and tourism boosters that it will be good for their bottom line. Wolf has argued for the Room Tax Commission to take a broader view of the relationship between the arts and tourism—i.e., a city that supports the arts is one that more people will want to visit—rather than a narrow mentality of “butts in beds.” 

Either way, being an artist is not a tourism job, and treating it that way puts artists in yet another precarious economic position. When people can’t travel and stay in hotels, the money dries up. A really successful, robust approach to public arts funding needs to prioritize the relationships between local artists and local audiences (and if that relationship is strong, the out-of-town element will follow). If we depend on the room-tax approach, we will always struggle to close that loop. We also need to place less emphasis on funding institutions and programs, however worthy they may be, and more on directly funding individual artists. City and county arts grants do some of each, but we need more balance there. On the city side, there should be way more funding for the grants the Madison Arts Commission awards to artists, including through the lean and effective BLINK program, which gives artists grants to create temporary installations around the city.

People who advocate for public arts funding often stress the economic impact of the arts—that when you fund arts programs, it stimulates all kinds of other spending and boosts local business and supports jobs. It’s an important argument with a whole lot of evidence to support it, even if justifying the arts in primarily economic terms makes most of us uncomfortable. But maybe arts boosters should modify this argument a bit. Instead of making broad numerical statements about jobs and the all-important “economic activity,” put more emphasis on the role that arts funding can play in improving a community’s quality of life and helping people survive. Build up deeper, more active grassroots support for arts funding by making it more easily accessible to a more varied range of artists, and make local governments more accountable to their arts communities. Make the process of arts funding less complicated, so that artists can prepare for crises rather than cry out for crisis relief. 

Changing the big picture will be tough, but this latest Dane Arts announcement offers us a model, and local governments should make it the norm. Just give artists money.

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