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Local government needs to feel more pressure from Madison’s arts community

Public arts programs are vital, but not enough people get involved in shaping them.

Public arts programs are vital, but not enough people get involved in shaping them.

Photo illustration by Scott Gordon, stock image via P.R.R. on Pexels.

Local government meetings in Madison have transformed over the past couple of months. It’s been one of the more heartening developments of recent times to see people pile onto those video calls and hold their elected officials accountable, mobilizing to change the debate on police, race, and our city’s budget priorities. Because of the urgency of the moment and possibly also because of the ease of accessing online meetings, it’s a generally younger crowd than who usually gets heard at these things—politically savvy Madisonians in their 20s and 30s, and sometimes their late teens, have helped to create a real sense that local leaders are under pressure to make real changes, whether they’re speaking out in public comment or just tracking the proceedings on social media. 

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Among other things, they’ve held the city to its word on creating a new civilian oversight body for the Madison Police Department, and prevented MPD from sneaking off with an extra $50,000 to buy extra “less-lethal” weapons. Firing up Zoom, slogging through infernally dull hours of parliamentary procedure, and excoriating your alders for three minutes makes a difference, especially when combined with direct action. Madisonians will keep pushing the Madison Common Council to defund the Madison Police Department and demand that the Dane County Board of Supervisors defund the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, in addition to reversing course on a new jail. Both agencies have an operating budget of about $85 million in 2020. Elected officials should start spreading that money around to areas that meet neglected human needs, including housing and mental health. 

We should treat increased arts funding as part and parcel of the effort to make our local governments’ budgets more humane, holistic, and just. I’d like to see more of our localized political enthusiasm at work when leaders are making decisions about arts programs. 

For that to happen, artists and musicians need to act like a political constituency that local government has to take seriously. Summer and fall, when both the Madison Common Council and Dane County Board debate and pass their budgets for the next year—usually without much substantive debate about arts funding—is the ideal time to start. I hear a lot from musicians and artists who are unhappy when the city or county funds a program that doesn’t reflect their interests, or who simply feel that the world of public arts grants isn’t for them. These are the very people who need to be at the table when local governments are crafting programs, policies, and budgets that deal with the arts. 

As I explained in a story this week, public arts funding is a minuscule piece of both the City of Madison and Dane County’s annual budgets, and cuts are already happening. As we head for what will no doubt be a season of austerity budgeting, the arts community must mobilize to ensure that local government doesn’t set a lower bar. If there are massive cuts this year, it will be incredibly hard to push Dane County and the City of Madison’s arts funding back up to their meager pre-COVID levels.

We’re told that valuing the arts is a huge part of our civic identity, that our wealth of creativity draws people to visit Madison, move here, and do business here. When people are running for office, they offer up a lot of lip service to the arts and sometimes even talk about arts policy in a substantive way. But local governments’ actual investment in all that creativity is puny. The budget numbers, year after year, indicate that local government largely takes the arts and the attendant benefits for granted. City officials have also done very little to act on a 2018 report that lays out 31 specific proposals for making access to music and the arts more equitable.

The county and city each have one full-time arts administrator. They do impressive work with scant resources, within the hilariously over-complicated conditions of local government. Federal and state-level arts funding programs make a difference too, but they don’t have the same opportunity local government does to tailor their work to our community’s specific needs. Otherwise, the arts are left to the ravages of the market and the whims of private philanthropy. 

More Madisonians need to engage with the way public arts funding actually works at the city and county level. I say this as one of very few journalists in town who actually dig into the nitty-gritty of arts items in the city budget from year to year. The approaches and funding amounts largely stagnate from year to year. Local government misses opportunities to be more responsive to a wider variety of creative people working in Madison. When something surprising and dynamic happens, it’s because over-extended staff and their community partners went above and beyond. There isn’t enough money and there aren’t enough voices and ideas in the mix.

Take for instance the city’s Room Tax Commission. Under state law, this body gets to decide what we do with most of the money that comes in from taxes on hotel room stays. It’s required to focus on promoting tourism, thus stewarding that tax revenue to boost the tourism industry. State law dictates that at least two people who “represent the Wisconsin hotel and motel industry” serve on the commission. It’s very much at the intersection of public policy and private boosterism. 

But the Room Tax Commission is also a major source (not the only one) of city funds for arts programs, including the city’s Overture Center subsidy, money for individual arts grants, Make Music Madison, and the Between The Waves conference and festival. Thanks to the pandemic, revenue for hotels in the Madison area is down almost 80 percent, by one measure. The Room Tax Commission has far less tax money coming in than expected. Earlier this month, the commission cut nearly $1 million in arts funding from the city budget, alongside even bigger cuts to the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau and Monona Terrace. The cuts are understandable and they seem pretty fair under the circumstances. 

I point out these cuts to illustrate that this one seemingly dull and rather unaccountable body has a lot of power over arts funding. Additionally, it ties a big chunk of that funding to the fortunes of the hotel industry, and now we’re seeing the pitfalls of that. The goals of promoting tourism and strengthening the arts community sometimes complement and sometimes conflict, depending on how you look at it

Who shows up to Room Tax Commission meetings? Not a whole lot of artists and not a whole lot of young people were at the May and July meetings where the commission discussed and eventually adopted the budget cuts. City of Madison Arts Program Administrator Karin Wolf and Planning Division staff member Angela Puerta, who is also a musician, spoke at these meetings and made sure the commissioners heard about the importance of the arts. But otherwise, there was not a whole lot of presence or pressure from our city’s artists and musicians, or from the people who support and enjoy their work. 

At these meetings we largely heard from people involved with Monona Terrace and the CVB, people in the hotel industry, and staff and board members of the Overture Center. Overture is an arts organization that does valuable work and it’s struggling too, but its annual subsidy from the city is already the biggest single arts-funding item in the city budget and has been for some years. (After this month’s cuts, it still will get $1.2 million from the city in 2020.) Additionally, several of the commissioners themselves sit on boards or committees at Monona Terrace, Overture (and/or its Overture’s resident companies), and/or the CVB, all of which get funding through the commission. As mentioned above, state law requires that people who are themselves in the hotel business sit on the commission. 

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The commissioners have to follow city ethics rules and recuse themselves for votes when appropriate, but this is absurdly incestuous. It’s not a recipe for a commission that understands the needs of independent, struggling artists. At best, it’s bound to be an uneasy arrangement that treats the arts as an accessory to tourism and as window dressing for the business community. Yes, plenty of good things still come out of Room Tax funding. That’s a testament to the resourcefulness and tenacity of people like Wolf, and to the efforts of individual artists and arts organizations big and small across the city.

The Madison Arts Commission’s membership, on the other hand, includes some good representation for actual artists in city government. The current chair, Kia Karlen, is a veteran of the Madison music community and works as Director of Education at the Madison Children’s Museum. Another member, Faisal Abdu’Allah, is an incredible multi-disciplinary artist and UW-Madison faculty member. Vice Chair Yvette Pino is a versatile printmaker and painter. MAC also has members from the more administrative and fundraising-oriented areas of the arts world. There’s no way for a commission to fully represent an arts community as varied and scattered as Madison’s, but all in all this is a good roster. The difference is that MAC doesn’t have the power of the purse in the same way that the Room Tax Commission or Madison Common Council do. It decides how to divide up its budget among grants and projects, and can of course advocate for more arts funding, but doesn’t have much direct control over how big that budget is.

Similarly, the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission, aka Dane Arts, makes decisions about grant funding, but just how much funding depends on what the County Board approves and what Dane Arts director Mark Fraire can raise from private donors.  

Both the Madison Arts Commission and the Dane Arts commission meetings should be better-attended as well. I’ve encountered far too many artists and musicians in town who have very little knowledge of or connection to what these bodies do. When Dane Arts rolled out its ultra-simple Dane Arts Need Grant (DANG) program this spring, most of the applicants were people who’d never applied for Dane Arts funding before. That indicates that there’s an opportunity here for more artists to pay attention to public arts funding and raise their voices, and ideally for a greater variety of local artists to benefit from this money. Chances are most of the people on Madison Arts Commission and the Dane Arts commission would welcome the added input—even people who are deeply involved and committed have their blind spots. Alders on the Common Council and Supervisors on the County Board will need a harder push to treat the arts as a larger priority.

There’s another crucial reason for artists to get more involved in these conversations. It’s an opportunity to change the way policymakers talk about the value of arts funding. Usually, arts advocates justify public funding in broad economic-impact terms—put x amount of money into a grant or a local arts center, get y return on that investment from people spending on pre-show dinners, staying in hotels, visiting nearby retailers, and so on. 

In the current moment, we should frame public arts spending as a way to advance economic justice, help all members of our community experience more rewarding lives, and address social ills by expanding opportunity and education rather than investing in state violence. Everyone connected to the arts world knows that it offers countless ways to enrich our humanity and create healthier communities. Too few of our local officials have figured that out. Make them listen. 

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