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Following big money to strange places

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

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MICROTONES by Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher

In the time I’ve lived in Madison and covered arts and culture here, I haven’t much concerned myself with the lives of local arts philanthropists. True, if someone is making multi-million-dollar gifts to cultural organizations in Madison, it’s going to touch all of us in some way—that’s the nature of big money in a society where the economic infrastructure of the arts largely depends on charitable giving. 

But if you’re paying attention at all, you also can’t help but realize how much culture is created well outside of the philanthropic and business’ establishment awareness or support, by people who struggle with the brutal economic conditions that allow a relative few people to become super-rich in the first place. You look at what’s in the beneficent sphere of big money and what’s outside of it, and you figure that people are already spending enough energy praising very rich people’s efforts and telling the stories that very rich people want to tell and reinforcing the air of inevitability that surrounds their choices. You watch our own city government struggle to come up with adequate public arts funding, and realize that even a big chunk of that is going to support the Overture Center—which started, after all, as a gift from very rich people, Pleasant Rowland and Jerry Frautschi, whom we are apparently still tripping over ourselves to thank.

Whether you’re browsing the galleries at the Chazen Museum of Art, strolling on the Monona Terrace Rooftop, or of course seeing a show at the Overture, or doing any number of other civic or cultural activities, you can’t miss the imprint of Rowland, who launched the popular American Girl doll brand and sold it to Mattel in 1998 for $700 million. Rowland even has a pipe organ in Overture Hall named after her which is honestly kind of cool in a megalomaniacal capitalist way? More recently, Rowland put up $20 million to support the new Madison Youth Arts Center, which began construction this week, as Madison365 reported. The name and the still Middleton-based American Girl are familiar enough, but until this past week I was as ignorant as a fish about Rowland’s activities outside of Madison.

Twitter thread from writer Frankie Thomas has sent me down a wormhole, reading up on Rowland’s exploits in the town of Aurora, New York. Thomas summed it up this way: “she bought…a real town…and turned it into a dollhouse version of itself…even though there were REAL PEOPLE LIVING IN IT.” Rowland graduated in 1962 from the upstate town’s liberal-arts school, Wells College. She returned to Aurora, located in the scenic Finger Lakes region, in the early 2000s. This time, Rowland pounded tens of millions of dollars into the town, renovating buildings, setting up a group of upscale hotels, and turning a local dive bar into a spot that wouldn’t scare off the ritzier locals.  

The overall story doesn’t stack up to, say, the twisted saga of Lisa Frank, but a 2018 Vogue story portrays it as an almost unilateral remaking of a whole town according to Rowland’s tastes: “She renovated the local watering hole, The Fargo Bar & Grill. She built a market. She bought MacKenzie-Childs, the eccentric home decor company in town, reorganized it, and brought it from bankruptcy to profitability. She buried the power lines and redid the sidewalks. She brought in elm trees to line Main Street and then redid the stores on it as well.” 

While plenty of Aurora residents welcomed an economic shot in the arm, as captured in a short documentary called A Pleasant Aurora, the swift change pissed off a lot of neighbors. “Her plans were no more historically authentic than her dolls,” one opposition leader told the Associated Press in 2007. In a New York Times story that same year, one of the aforementioned dive’s regulars proclaimed “I hate change, and nothing changed till Pleasant came.” The battle for the town’s character also inspired a 2006 satirical novel, Happyland, by J. Robert Lennon, so I guess I have even more reading to do on this now.

You can’t avoid change forever, but it’s an incredible illustration of the role of wealth and philanthropy that a whole town, even a small one, can essentially become one person’s pet project. Madison’s bigger and more complicated than that, of course, but it’s useful to remember that the names on our buildings have stories behind them.

(Organ photo via Overture Center for the Arts)

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New this week:

East-side venue The Winnebago has announced plans to change its name.

Filmmaker Zia Anger spoke with Grant Phipps about her multimedia project My First Film, which screened Wednesday at MMoCA.

On our podcast, hear the audio version of our recent interview with Madison electronic duo Klack.

Elsewhere on the Madison internet: DJ Ben Silver shares a new mix. Willy Street’s Prism Dance Club is closing. So is Pegasus Games, as the Wisconsin State Journal reports.

This week’s Madison calendar: UW-Madison’s Hamel Music Center holds its grand opening celebrationNear Dark screens at UW CinemathequeAnd more.

Upcoming Tone Madison Events!

December, date TBD: Tone Madison Best of 2019 Listening Party

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