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Madison’s stagnant model for arts funding

Tying it to tourism is holding us back.
A city staff presentation slide from a Room Tax Commission meeting shows a textured brown background, with text over it reading: "September 1, 2022 Room Tax Commission Meeting: Discussion and adoption of 2023 Room Tax Commission Budget: 2023 Budget Motion."

Tying it to tourism is holding us back.

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A 2021 report on the economic impact of music in Madison, partially funded with city dollars, cited a “Lack of community support for arts in general, limited public funding” as one of the city’s weaknesses. 

Madison paid for this advice. As of the 2023 budget cycle, though, this key observation has yet to prompt the city to make any significant changes to the amounts and mechanisms of its modest outlays for the arts. And a good chunk of the city’s 2023 arts funding is already more or less a settled matter. This is because Madison’s Room Tax Commission approved its 2023 budget during its Thursday, September 1 meeting. Madison’s Common Council will take it up for final approval as the city’s budget process moves ahead this fall. The full Council isn’t likely to meddle with it or even discuss it much in the final stages. State law gives the Room Tax Commission more or less the final say over this money.

Anyone who wants to understand the intersection of the arts and public policy in Madison might rightly ask just what the Room Tax Commission is and why they would need to look under this particular rock for arts funding. 

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The Room Tax Commission decides what the city does with the taxes it collects on hotel-room stays. State law requires the commission to spend at least 70 percent of that money on “tourism promotion and tourism development”—which can include arts funding. This is one of the main revenue streams the city relies on to fund the arts, including larger items like the Overture Center’s annual city subsidy, and smaller allocations like support for Madison Arts Commission grants and programs like Make Music Madison. 

This means that a big portion of public arts funding (a big portion of not very much) in Madison is tied to tourism. I believe this is a major structural weakness, and it’s going to continue to limit Madison’s support for art until the city gets serious about finding another way to raise and allocate arts funding. 

Building up a tourism economy doesn’t always have to be at odds with building up quality of life for the people who actually live and work in Madison, but there’s always that danger. Advocates for arts and music funding making their pitch to Room Tax are often in the position of justifying their work in tourism terms. This is maddening, because the value of an arts program really shouldn’t hinge on whether it entices people to book a hotel room, and in a lot of cases the whole argument is a bit of a stretch. And of course, when there’s a pandemic or other large-scale economic shock that keeps people from traveling and they aren’t staying in hotel rooms, that puts all this tourism and arts funding at risk.

The 2023 Room Tax budget totals up to about $21 million. Of that, about $12 million goes to the city-owned Monona Terrace convention center and Destination Madison. Overture gets $2,095,000 (but initially asked for $2.36 million). 

There’s also $79,002 to help fund the grants the Madison Arts Commission awards to individual artists and arts organizations; $25,000 for Dane Dances; $30,000 for Make Music Madison; $25,000 toward the ongoing studies of Madison’s music economy (building off the one cited at the beginning of this article); $17,500 to fund “fairs/festivals/summer concerts” and $30,000 for “Downtown Temporary Art Installations” under MAC’s BLINK program.

Add it up and the 2023 Room Tax budget allocates about $2.3 million total toward the arts. Of that, all but $206,502—less than one percent of the overall Room Tax budget—goes to the Overture Center. 

The City of Madison does not contribute much money to public arts funding in its annual operating and capital budgets. Still less of that goes toward helping individual artists (and musicians, writers, what have you but let’s just call everyone artists for simplicity) fund their projects and pay their bills. Things don’t change that much year to year. Funding increases that would seem insignificant or incremental for other parts of local government—$45,000 for the aforementioned study, for instance, or the 2020 implementation of the city’s Percent for Art program, which I’ll detail later—can feel like big victories for the arts. Just about every year, that Overture subsidy is the single biggest line item in the city budget that has anything to do with the arts. 

This is not all the arts funding the city puts up, because why put it all under one heading where people could easily follow it and make sense of it? Other chunks come from the Planning Division’s sections of the city’s capital and operating budgets—arts administrator Karin Wolf, the one single full-time city employee whose entire job focuses on this stuff, is technically an employee of the Planning Division. You’d think a city arts administrator in a city that supposedly loves arts and culture would have a support staff of some kind, but in Madison that adds up to less than one full-time employee. Another Planning Division staffer, Neighborhood Planner Angela Puerta, devotes a portion but not all of her work hours to arts issues—which is cool because Puerta is also a musician. 

The Madison Public Library’s budget plays a key role in city arts funding, especially in terms of staffing and support for the library’s art- and maker-centered Bubbler program. Another important piece of local funding functions a bit differently than your typical line item in a city budget. That’s the Percent for Art ordinance, which puts aside one percent of the total budget when the city spends more than $5 million on a public works project. The report estimates that Percent for Art generated a total of $132,000 between 2020 and 2021, which is a bright spot—it’s a relatively passive and painless way for the city to set that money aside. It represents a sizable increase in city arts funding, but again, only because we’re talking about such a small amount of money to begin with.

Oh, one more wrinkle. The minimum cost of public works projects that generate Percent for Art funds isn’t quite as simple as just an even $5 million. As a May 2022 staff report explains, the threshold is adjusted according to something called the Construction Cost Index. Well, that isn’t helping us right now. We’re in an era of record-high construction costs. The staff report notes: “For 2021, the eligibility threshold was $5,132,371. For 2022, the eligibility threshold is $5,510,202.” Public works projects effectively need to be half a million dollars more expensive in 2022 to create any funds for arts. Future projections for Percent for Art depend on what the city actually ends up spending on planned construction projects, something that’s always subject to change in the best economic climate. One construction project the Percent for Art report looks ahead to is the Madison Public Market, but funding for that is in doubt now.

How much arts funding from the City of Madison would be enough? Well, at the moment we’re in no danger of even approaching an investment that would do justice to the economic impact of the arts in the Madison area, or would help more of the area’s artists and musicians see a long-term, economically viable future here. Wolf told me during the lows of summer 2020 that “I’m basically looking for nickels and dimes to do my work, which is not that different from pre-COVID, but slightly.”

Trying to follow this arts funding—take it from someone who’s worked at it for years—illustrates the wearying complexity that hinders participation in local government. First, we’ve got an obscure commission with an unrelated-sounding name doling out, most years, the majority or at least the plurality of the city’s arts funding. The meeting times aren’t convenient—last week’s was at 4 p.m. at Monona Terrace on a weekday. When you look over the budget documents available at Room Tax meetings or online, you don’t really get a chance to understand the funding items in detail. The breakdown of the budget passed last week, for instance, describes some of the non-Overture arts funding items this way:

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Music—$55,000 ($25k for Dane Dances and $30k for Make Music Madison)  

Art/Fests—$17,500

Blink—$30,000  

Implementation of Music Tourism Economic Recovery Plan—$25,000

If you’re not already familiar with this programming, what can you really do with that information? Even if you’re well-versed in this stuff, you could use a lot more detail about who is responsible for executing different programs, how specifically the funding is parceled out, how the city tracks the impact of that funding, and so on. Wolf and Puerta provided some helpful context in a presentation to the Room Tax Commission in August, but that isn’t intended to give people a granular breakdown of each specific item’s workings. So at the time the commission is making these decisions, there really isn’t much of a way for the public to fully understand them.

It’s not that anyone’s hiding anything or has ill intentions. During last Thursday’s meeting, Room Tax Commission members, including District 4 Alder Mike Verveer, stated that they wished this year’s budget could do more for the arts in particular. When Room Tax revenues started plummeting in 2020, the commission had to cut back that year’s budget and scale back for 2021 as well. This included cutting back on arts-related funding items, but to the commission’s credit, the cuts were not nearly as severe as they could have been.

Room tax revenues are picking back up, but commissioners and city finance staff are likely to stay cautious for at least the next few years, as the Wisconsin State Journal detailed in an August 25 story. If there is to be any kind of large increase to city arts funding anytime soon, it won’t come from this direction.

We’re talking about art, creativity, the deepest human yearnings here, but to understand the city funding aspect of it, we must delve into a realm as dry as toast that’s been left in a blast furnace, and risk inducing states of sleep unknown to science. All of this to keep tabs on an absolutely pathetic, piddling fraction of the overall city budget. It’s hard enough getting your head around it before we even start talking about advocating for more funding and/or different funding approaches. I usually try to convince people that nerdy technical stuff is fascinating, but I confess that I too find this dull and dispiriting.

The problem is that the discussion around Room Tax is not all that robust and that there isn’t much of an effort to bring the public in. Yes, the meetings and meeting documents are public, which is quite a different thing from the public being enthused and engaged. It’s just… insider-y. If you’re in the audience at a Room Tax meeting and have any idea what’s going on, you likely work for one of the programs or organizations that get funding. People who are on Room Tax Commission tend to have clear conflicts of interest. By state law, the commission has to include at least one representative from the hotel industry (in this case the manager of the downtown Doubletree). Most of the current members are on the boards of at least one organization that gets funding from the commission. They disclose these at meetings (see the minutes from August), but I don’t think it’s asking that much to avoid those overlaps in the first place.

Last Thursday’s meeting lasted about half an hour. Two people signed up for public comment: musician Rob Franklin, aka Rob Dz (who also works on the city-funded Greater Madison Music City project), and arts administrator Nick Pjevach. Both spoke in support of arts funding and urged the commission to prioritize equity. 

It would be great to see a process that attracts more people who share their experience and dedication. But that’s also going to require the city coming up with more funding and more political will, and maybe realizing that we are not choosing the right tool for the job.

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