If you were involved in the arts ten years ago, you may have heard of Madison’s renowned art scene. It used to be a town ranked high in arts funding, up there with bigwig cities like Minneapolis and San Fransisco.
Today, it’s 50th in the nation for government arts funding. Creative programs have suffered greatly from recessions, political cycles and overall disregard for the past decade.
But even in crisis, the Madison Arts Commission has adapted and persevered, doing what they can to support the local artists and programs that give the city its special flare.
Cities are often judged by a certain “it” factor, a quality of life that separates the boring from the visit-worthy. The arts play a significant role in that decision, and it’s up to local governments to determine that importance.
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The Madison Arts Commission is the Capitol’s main government arts initiative. With the power to allocate funding, the commission is comprised of eight appointed citizens, one Alder and an administrator.
Their job is to advise the city on matters of arts and culture, making recommendations to the Common Council based on their expertise.
“If something is going through the wheels of city government and it’s related to arts and culture, they usually touch it,” MAC’s Arts Program Administrator Karin Wolf said. “They try to create a healthy ecosystem for the arts to thrive and for everyone to have balanced access.”
Wolf has worked on the commission for 14 years and believes in the importance of advancing civic goals through the arts. Her job is to staff the commission, connect artists with the resources and help them showcase their art throughout the city.
This used to be an easy process.
Before 2010, Wisconsin had a thriving Percent for Art Program, which means a certain percentage of a building project’s cost goes into public art installment.
The University of Wisconsin received many of these benefits, and thus, Madison altogether began to flourish in its funds.
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But when Gov. Scott Walker was elected in 2011, his administration slashed the program. The state’s arts committee, the Wisconsin Arts Board, was broken up and downsized into the tourism department. As for money and grants, there were slim pickings for local governments.
Michael Velliquette is an artist that recalls these changes.
“The Madison Arts Commission picked up a lot of slack in terms of helping local artists,” Velliquette said. “They’ve done amazing work considering that government support was really devastated by the loss of that program.”
Velliquette is known in Madison for his work in libraries and utility boxes throughout the downtown area. He was there for the rise and fall of Madison’s art scene, but he still believes in the resources MAC has to offer.
As a faculty member of the university, he still works with the commission and encourages his students to do so as well. Even in their underfunded state, Wolf appreciates that artists are still coming to MAC for help.
“I could go on and on about how those cuts affected us,” Wolf said. “From diminished funding to diminished professional support, it was something that will take a long time to recover from, and that recovery hasn’t started yet.”
These days, MAC does what they can with the little resources they are given. Their current way to support artists and programs is through connections and networking.
Wolf has proven her vitality to the commission and Madison’s art scene in this matter. She goes out in the community, showing up for meetings and working on initiatives to help people with creative endeavors that benefit the city.
She brings different people of Madison together to commingle through art and culture, and though it’s not as possible with funding, she believes in the power of networking.
“It’s more in helping artists make connections,” Wolf said. “We’ve shifted more towards professional development and helping artists get entrepreneurial skills to have their small businesses rather than direct funding support.”
But all does not look too bleak for Madison’s arts. 2020 is the first year the Common Council has enacted its own city Percent of Art program, which the commission hopes will finally bring the recovery the Madison art scene desperately needs.
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Even without funding, the city has proven that art plays a major role in everyday life. Where would Madison be without its sculptures, activities, showcases, concerts and events?
“Madison is particularly smart in understanding that art can add to the rich experience of living in the city,” Velliquette said. “By having a city agency recognize that and try to keep art visible in the community, I think that that’s incredibly important.”
With a possible new boost in funding, MAC looks to the future and sees a bright horizon for Madison’s arts scene.