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Madison on track to avoid brutal arts cuts in 2021 city budget

Funding proposals include some reductions, but also some boosts and new initiatives.

Photo: One city-funded project places art, like this piece by Kim Charles Kay, on utility boxes around Madison.

In an austerity budget year, the already modest funding the City of Madison provides for music and arts programming might not take such a bad hit. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s 2021 city budget proposals, which the Madison Common Council will take up in a series of meetings on November 10, 11, and 12, does make some reductions to some arts programs, but also boosts a couple of key funding items and provides city funding to seed two studies of Madison’s music economy. 

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Unless the Common Council pushes for major changes to these funding items—which is unlikely as the debate gets down to brass tacks over bigger-ticket items like infrastructure, policing, and city debt—the city’s contribution to public arts funding could be spared some dreaded cuts.

Rhodes-Conway’s roughly $350 million proposed operating budget for 2021 includes just over $2.8 million for things directly connected to the arts, and that’s not a big change from the city’s previous two adopted budgets. The funding items on which that number is based totalled up to $3,020,375 in the budget the Common Council adopted for 2020, and $2,888,227 in 2019. Granted, those 2020 funding numbers came down this summer due to a large shortfall in hotel-room tax revenues. Another new funding item will provide $45,000 to seed studies that will look at the economic impact of and barriers to equity in Madison’s music community, conducted by Madison’s Urban Community Arts Network and international consulting firm Sound Diplomacy. Read more about that in a companion story published alongside this one.

In the proposed capital budget, Rhodes-Conway would allocate $150,000 to the city’s Municipal Art Fund, which supports the acquisition and creation of new public art that’s meant to be more or less permanent. That’s a boost from the 2020 budget’s allocation of $100,000, though the city also allocated $150,000 to the fund in its 2019 budget. The biggest single budget line dealing with the arts in the city budget is a subsidy for the Overture Center for the Arts, which would come down to $1.5 million. (It was $2 million for 2019, and just over that in the adopted budget for 2020, but the 2020 subsidy was reduced this summer to $1.2 million, again because of hotel-room tax problems.) Two different allocations that fund the Madison Arts Commission’s annual cycle of arts grants stand to remain flat at $79,000 and $80,500, respectively. Several music initiatives the city has funded in recent years—including Make Music Madison (a city-wide day of free music on the Summer Solstice), Dane Dances (a concert series on the Monona Terrace Rooftop), and the Between The Waves festival and music-industry conference—will take a hit, in part because it’s not clear how much they’ll be able to do in 2021. 

“It’s not as bad as I thought it would be,” says Karin Wolf, the city’s Arts Program Administrator. Wolf is the one full-time city staff member whose work centers entirely on managing and advocating for publicly funded arts initiatives. While the City of Madison’s funding for the arts has never exactly been lavish, the COVID-19 pandemic has put arts funding at risk, disrupting the tax revenues that pay for public arts programs and giving private philanthropists cold feet. 

Even if the numbers aren’t huge, the way Madison’s city budget deals with the arts is complicated. There’s no one pot of money or coherently organized set of funding items that make up the city’s arts budget. There’s no one document in the city budget that groups all the arts-related items nice and neatly. Instead, they are spread around several different parts of city government and depend on several different funding mechanisms. 

One is the budget for the Planning Division, which employs Wolf. Planning’s Capital Budget includes the Municipal Art Fund, and its Operating Budget includes the Annual Municipal Arts Grant Program that pays for the Madison Arts Commission’s grants to arts organizations and individual artists (yes, this terminology is already confusing), the BLINK program for temporary public art installations (staying flat in this year’s budget proposal at $10,000), and the city’s Poet Laureate Program (also staying flat at $1,500). 

Then there’s the Room Tax Fund. This money comes from taxes on hotel-room stays in the city. The city’s Room Tax Commission has ultimate control over this part of the budget—and can amend it, even after the Mayor and Common Council have signed off on it—and under state law, largely has to use it to promote tourism. Room Tax is where Overture’s subsidy comes from, as well as money for the city’s music initiatives, including Make Music Madison, Dane Dances, and Between The Waves. All three of those stand to get $10,000 in 2021, down from subsidies that have usually ranged between $20,000 and $30,000 in recent years.

The Madison Public Library’s entire budget arguably has an impact on the arts, given all that public libraries do to give people access to books, music, and film. But for our purposes we’re going to focus on the much smaller piece of its budget related to the Bubbler, an exciting and nimble program that offers everything from art shows to “makerspace”-type activities. (The library also gets a big private boost from the Madison Public Library Foundation, which picks up almost the entire tab for the annual Wisconsin Book Festival. In 2019, the Foundation reported spending about $2.3 million and pulling in more than $3.3 million in revenues.) The Bubbler falls under the library’s “community engagement” budget lines, though not all the money in that category goes directly toward the Bubbler.

Then there’s the Percent for Art ordinance, passed in 2017, which requires that whenever the city takes on a public works project costing more than $5 million, it sets aside one percent of the project budget for public art. Percent for Art didn’t officially take effect until 2019, so it’s still hard to get a sense of its impact. This money isn’t even reflected in the city budget itself; it’s simply set aside as the bids for major construction projects get firmed up. Wolf did come up with some projections in February about what funds the city can expect from Percent for Art in the near future, but that’s still up in the air.

OK, so there’s where the money comes from. How sure can we be that this money actually gets spent on arts projects, once the Common Council has passed an annual budget and the Mayor has signed it? 

The funding items for the Planning Division and Library budgets mostly come either from the city’s General Fund or from money the city plans to borrow, so in theory they’re fairly solid. But the Room Tax-funded items are subject to change, because they depend on the city bringing in enough revenue from hotel-room taxes in the coming year. We saw the weakness of this approach in summer 2020, when the Room Tax commission adopted a slate of mid-year budget cuts as hotel stays plummeted due to the pandemic. The Percent for Art money, meanwhile, depends on the city approving expenditures on major construction projects.

And what about the actual staffing for this work? We do have Rhodes-Conway on tape stating that Wolf deserves more support staff. That hasn’t happened yet, and doesn’t in this budget. However, another City of Madison Planning Division Staffer, Neighborhood Planner Angela Puerta, is currently devoting 20 percent of her work hours to music issues specifically, and working closely with Wolf. In addition, the proposed Planning Division Operating Budget would set aside $3,000 to fund an internship, which would allow Wolf to hire someone to help out with at least a project or two per year. Though this seems small on paper, Wolf says it’s “life-changing for me.”

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This spring and summer’s mural project along State Street, in the wake of riots and brutal police action, demonstrates the unmet need for arts staff at the city level. Wolf, who does a great deal of work by herself on slim resources, says the city made some other staff available to help out with the logistics, but no one with particular expertise in the arts or in the incredibly fraught social and political context of the project.

“Everything was a tinderbox, and I’m like, ‘I don’t get why you sent me these guys [from Fleet Services]?” Wolf says. “I need someone who gets the whole thing, like a teacher or a social worker or librarian.” The internship, Wolf says, is a stepping stone toward getting her some more actual staff. It grew from a 2019 project called Phoenix From The Ashes, for which Wolf received Madison Community Foundation funds to hire artist Dakota Mace.

“What I really need is a Carlee to my Trent,” Wolf says, referring to Bubbler coordinator Trent Miller and Bubbler Program Assistant Carlee Latimer.

The Bubbler project—again, part of the Madison Public Library—is in good shape in this year’s proposed city budget, at least on paper. The Bubbler falls under the library’s “community engagement” budget, and this year the proposed budget would devote $929,282 to that, up from the $528,186 in 2020’s adopted city budget. However, this increase reflects the fact that the Bubbler hasn’t spent all the money allocated to it for 2020, and that the relationship between the Bubbler and other areas of MPL is becoming far more porous. 

That change is something Miller and Latimer embrace, and they say they feel the library as a whole is committed to maintaining the Bubbler program’s staff of six people, who work on a variety of projects from organizing gallery shows to teaching young Madisonians in the library’s Media Lab.

“There’s a lot of silos being broken down within the library system… as far as the budget, it’s more morphing together, and we’re trying to listen to the community and what they want to do,” Miller says. “It’s not as clear cut as it has been—Bubbler this, community engagement this, adult programming this—it’s a little messier, and I do think we’re gonna do some really important work in the community because of it.”

What this looks like is very up in the air, especially after a year that has upended the Bubbler’s offerings of face-to-face, highly interactive artist residencies, adult-oriented “Night Light” parties, and gallery shows. Since its founding in 2013, the Bubbler has operated as a fairly autonomous and unusual unit within city government, enjoying a great deal of flexibility and spontaneous creativity. Over the past year, it’s been melding a little more deeply with other areas of MPL.

“If we lose some of what Bubbler’s been, we can kind of justify that and be OK with that because of what’s come out of it, both internally and in our own structure of the library and the Bubbler, but also within the city, looking at other arts orgs that indirectly have been influenced or inspired by being involved with us through Bubbler to begin with,” Latimer says.

The Madison Public Library’s budget as a whole is headed for a reduction, but not quite as much as library leaders expected.

“In our proposal, we had cut programming contracts and supplies by 50 percent, but that funding was restored in the Executive budget,” says MPL spokesperson Tana Elias. “That said,  we’ve only used about half of those funds this year, and may not be able to hold many of our usual events and exhibits for much of 2021.” The only staffing cuts will be for positions that are already vacant, though there will be reduced hours at MPL’s Monroe Street and Alicia Ashman branches and in its Youth Services department at the Central Library. The Wisconsin Book Festival budget won’t be affected, again because it largely depends on private funding anyway.

Another change this coming year, though you won’t see it reflected in the city budget, is that private funding might start to play a bigger role in the work of the Madison Arts Commission. A separate non-profit group called Friends of the Madison Arts Commission got started in February 2020, aiming to help out city-funded arts projects in specific areas where the rigidity of city funding creates problems. Wolf explained to me in a story published this summer that because of the way city funding works, she couldn’t get funding for coolers at some outdoor art dedications. Friends of MAC exists to plug gaps like that, both in terms of the mundane details of events and in complementary components of art projects that get MAC grants. One focus, at the moment, is getting funds for a sign to accompany the Mildred Fish-Harnack Memorial in Marshall Park on the western shores of Lake Mendota. The six-foot black obelisk by artist John Durbrow pays powerful tribute to Fish-Harnack, a UW-Madison alum who was beheaded by the Nazis for her political resistance—but right now there isn’t a sign up in the park to explain what it is, and MAC hasn’t been able to pay for one. 


The Mildred Fish-Harnack Memorial in Marshall park.

The Mildred Fish-Harnack Memorial in Marshall park.

FoMAC also hopes to raise money to expand a MAC program that puts local art on utility boxes around the city, and plans to develop a “Social Justice and Racial Equity Fund.” FoMAC president Bobbi Schrank admits the latter project is “nebulous,” but aims to build on the State Street mural project, which promoted multi-layered debates about who gets a platform and who gets monetary support for artistic expression in Madison.

Schrank says one of FoMAC’s first projects will be to study MAC grants over the past five years and survey artists and community members about their needs. “By doing the analysis of where the money has gone, and who has not received it, and what might some artists need in terms of receiving money either from the city or from other projects, hopefully we’ll get information back from the survey that will help us better define that,” Schrank says. “That’s really important, so we’re not shooting in the dark. It’s not like we’re following the city per se, but we want to take a look at what’s been done and see where some of the strengths and weaknesses are, and actually where the opportunities are.”

Friends of MAC isn’t quite sure yet how ambitious it wants to be in terms of fundraising. It also hasn’t yet thrown itself into the discussion over city funding for the arts, says board member Tim Gruber, a former 11th District Alder.

“I wouldn’t rule it out in the future,” Gruber says. “Right now, having the level of funding for the arts continue at [roughly] the same level is actually a big victory, given that a lot of things potentially can be cut.”

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