Can bipartisan support save arts funding in Wisconsin?

By: - May 2, 2023 6:00 am
Images from A Little Night Music performed at Peninsula Players, photo by Len Villano | via Wisconsin Arts Board

Images from A Little Night Music performed at Peninsula Players, photo by Len Villano | via Wisconsin Arts Board

Salvation for the arts in Wisconsin may yet be delivered by an unlikely partnership between non-profits, Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and the former head of the state Republican Party.

Right now it doesn’t look good. What a state arts coalition terms a “generational” opportunity to endow the arts in Wisconsin will be nixed on Tuesday, just one among 545 of Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposals to be cancelled by the Legislature’s Republican-led Joint Finance Committee.

The timing is swift. Joint Finance’s actions were outlined in a memo to committee members from co-chair Sen. Howard Marklein on Friday. The last of the committee’s three listening sessions around the state was just two days before that. 

Early last week, Marklein’s chief of staff, Katy Prange, told Wisconsin Examiner, “Sen. Marklein does not have a comment on this particular [arts] funding request at this time. The Joint Finance Committee is looking at all of their options and will consider all spending as part of the full budget plan.” That consideration was wrapped up three days later with the Friday memo. .

“It doesn’t mean that it’s over. We just have to figure out how to finish,” says Anne Katz, executive director of Madison-based Create Wisconsin, an advocacy non-profit that helped organize the “creative economy coalition” of 134 member organizations from across the state (see sidebar). They include the Wisconsin Counties Association and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

Reince Priebus and Joe Fadness
Can the arts in Wisconsin be saved by Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus and Joe Fadness, respectively former heads of the Republican Party at the national and state levels? (Republican Party of Wisconsin Facebook photo)

Wisconsin ranks last among the 50 states for public arts funding. Badger arts groups had hoped the Legislature would set aside $100 million of the state’s record $7 billion surplus for one-time financing of the Wisconsin Artistic Endowment Foundation. Created in 2001 with bipartisan support under Republican Gov. Scott McCallum, the foundation was never funded.

Its proceeds were to be used by the state’s arts agency, the Wisconsin Arts Board, to leverage a larger federal funding match from the National Endowment for the Arts. In recent years, state funding levels have sometimes been less than required to claim the full annual NEA grant. Wisconsin spends 14 cents per capita on the arts. Illinois spends $5.04 and Minnesota spends $7.34.

The legislature could still craft a bill to separately fund the endowment. “We’re in this for the long haul,” vows Katz.  For now, though, Joint Finance’s position is a sharp disappointment for the coalition members assembled to back the proposal, most of them rural arts non-profits.

It’s a disappointment, too, for their lobbyist, Michael Best Strategies, a firm with impeccable conservative credentials.

The lobbyist is  an affiliate of the Milwaukee-based law firm Michael Best & Friedrich, LLP, whose president and chief strategist is Reince Priebus, formerly chair of the Republican National Committee and White House chief of staff for President Trump. Priebus serves as chair of the board of advisors for Michael Best Strategies, which engineered the arts coalition’s public face. Katz credits the firm for the coalition’s branding.

Though it had been in the works for months, “Wisconsin’s Creative Economy Coalition” was announced by Michael Best Strategies on April 20. Michael Best Strategies came up with the name, put together the coalition’s website and wrote the press release, which named  principal and senior strategist Joe Fadness as public contact. (Fadness has not responded to repeated requests for comment.)

The relationship between players is an example of politics making strange bedfellows. As a political party, Republicans tend not to favor funding government agencies that award arts grants, for a variety of reasons:

“As the U.S. Congress struggles to balance the federal budget and end the decades-long spiral of deficit spending, few programs seem more worthy of outright elimination than the National Endowment for the Arts,” argues a 1997 report from The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank. 

The National Review, which calls itself the magazine that “defined the modern conservative movement and enjoys the broadest allegiance among American conservatives,” agreed in 2017 — kind of: “The case against the NEA is not that abolishing it will save the federal government a tremendous amount of money. It won’t. The NEA’s budget is, relatively speaking, chickenfeed.” Rather, “the case against the NEA is that it is bad for art and bad for artists.” 

The National Review  argues that most NEA dollars go to “community-development programs with an arts component,” which it characterizes as  a bad thing.

But some Wisconsin heavy-hitters involved in the coalition for the arts  have strong GOP credentials. Fadness, campaign manager for former Gov. Scott Walker during his unsuccessful 2015-16 campaign for president, eventually became executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Earlier he served as director of external relations for Gov. Walker. In his 2013 book “Unintimidated: A governor’s story and a nation’s challenge,” Walker credited Fadness as “part of that great team that did more than win – we laid out a roadmap for reform.”

One of those reforms hit the arts in Wisconsin hard. In 2011, after just three months in office, Walker announced plans to cut the Wisconsin Arts Board’s budget by as much as 73 percent, eliminate its staff and remove its agency status. He was largely successful.

Similarly, after just three months in office, Preibus’ boss, Donald Trump, attempted to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. He was not successful.

These are not arts fans of government support for the arts. But that’s exactly why the arts groups chose Michael Best Strategies.

“We shopped for the lobbying firms that had ties to the majority” in the state Legislature, says Katz. “And for those connections, Michael Best is a great fit.” Notably, Preibus’ roommate at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater was Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

“Michael Best provides an opportunity for the discussion to happen fully,” says another of the coalition organizers, Patrick Rath, president of Milwaukee’s United Performing Arts Fund (no relation to the writer). “That’s what we appreciate.”

The contract with Michael Best Strategies runs through mid-June. Katz says they’ve been working with eight of its staff. “They’re working pretty hard.  They’re pretty engaged,” she says. 

The cost of the firm’s retainer was covered  by the coalition’s largest and most financially robust members. “Let’s just say we’re paying them a considerable amount,” says Katz.


Members of “Wisconsin’s Creative Economy Coalition” and their locations include:

Acadia Theatre, Hales Corners

Milwaukee Artist Resource Network, Milwaukee

American Players Theatre, Spring Green

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Milwaukee

Arts + Literature Laboratory, Madison

Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Milwaukee

Arts Alliance of Greater Lake Mills, Lake Mills

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee

Arts Council of South Wood County, Wisconsin Rapids

Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, Milwaukee

ArtStart, Inc., Rhinelander

Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee

ArtWorks for Milwaukee, Milwaukee

Next Act Theatre, Milwaukee

Bel Canto Chorus, Milwaukee

Northern Arts Council, Rhinelander

Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass, Neenah

Northern Sky Theater, Fish Creek

Black Arts MKE, Milwaukee

Nova Linea Dance Company, Waukesha

Bookworm Gardens, Sheboygan

NWTC Artisan Center, Green Bay

Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Green Bay, Green Bay

Organic Arts, Milwaukee

Cable Hayward Area Arts Council, Hayward

Overture Center for the Arts, Madison

Cambridge Arts Council, Cambridge

Pablo Center at the Confluence, Eau Claire

Capitol Civic Centre, Manitowoc

Peninsula Players Theatre, Fish Creek

Center for the Visual Arts, Wausau

Pewaukee Arts Council, Pewaukee

Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra, Stevens Point

Point Dance Ensemble, Stevens Point

Chequamegon Bay Arts Council, Washburn

Portage Center for the Arts, Portage

Christopher Max Design and Development, Green Bay

Present Music, Milwaukee

City of Green Bay Public Art Committee, Green Bay

Public Arts Initiative of Egg Harbor, Egg Harbor

Civic Music Association of Milwaukee, Milwaukee

Pump House Regional Arts Center, La Crosse

Concord Chamber Orchestra, Milwaukee

Racine Art Museum, Racine

CREATE Portage County, Stevens Point

Racine Arts Council, Racine

Create Waunakee, Waunakee

Racine Symphony Orchestra, Racine

Create Wisconsin, Madison

Racine Theatre Guild, Racine

Creative Downtown Appleton, Appleton

Renaissance Theatreworks, Milwaukee

Danceworks MKE, Milwaukee

Richland Area Arts Council, Richland Center

Dane Arts, Madison

River Falls Community Arts Base, River Falls

Dodge County Center for the Arts, Beaver Dam

River Valley Arts, Spring Green

Door Community Auditorium, Fish Creek

Rountree Gallery, Platteville

Driver Opera House Center for the Arts, Darlington

Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts, Mineral Point

Fine Arts Foundation of the Westby Area, Westby

Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts, Brookfield

First Act Children’s Theatre, Madison

Shell Lake Arts Center, Shell Lake

First Stage, Milwaukee

South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center, South Milwaukee

Florentine Opera, Milwaukee

Stefanie H. Weill Center for the Performing Arts, Sheboygan

Fort Atkinson Arts Council, Fort Atkinson

Sterling Silver Studio, Superior

Fort Atkinson Chamber of Commerce, Fort Atkinson

Stevens Point Convention and Visitors Bureau, Stevens Point

Forte Theatre Company, Franklin

Stone House Development, Madison

Forward Theater, Madison

Sun Prairie Civic Theatre, Sun Prairie

Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, Appleton

Superior Council for the Arts, Superior

Frederic Arts, Frederic

Superior Craft School, Superior

Geneva Lake Arts Foundation, Lake Geneva

Ten Chimneys, Waukesha

Grand Opera House, Oshkosh

The Hardy Gallery, Ephraim

Heid Music, Appleton

The Heist, Ripon

Imagine MKE, Milwaukee

Thrasher Opera House, Green Lake

Innovation Center Stoughton, Stoughton

TNW Ensemble Theater, Madison

Janesville Performing Arts Center, Janesville

Trout Museum of Art, Appleton

John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan

United Performing Arts Fund, Milwaukee

Katherine Kramer Projects, Verona

UW Arts Committee, Sauk County, Baraboo

Kids from Wisconsin, Milwaukee

UW-Madison Division of the Arts, Madison

Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua, Bayfield

Verona Area Performing Arts Series, Verona

Land O’ Lakes Arts, Land o’Lakes

Viroqua Chamber Main Street, Viroqua

LaPointe Center for the Arts, LaPointe

Visit Eau Claire, Eau Claire

League of Wisconsin Municipalities, Madison

Viterbo University Fine Arts, La Crosse

Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, Wausau

Walworth County Arts Council, Delavan

Lemon Street Gallery, Kenosha

Wausau Area Performing Arts Foundation, Wausau

LuCille Tack Center for the Arts, Spencer

We Think Big LLC, Madison

Madison Arts Commission, Madison

Weidner Center for the Performing Arts, Green Bay

Madison Community Foundation, Madison

Whitewater Arts Alliance, Whitewater

Madison Gas and Electric, Madison

Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, Milwaukee, 

Madison Opera, Madison

Wisconsin Counties Association

Madison Symphony Orchestra, Madison

Wisconsin Craft

Madison Youth Choirs, Madison

Wisconsin Presenters Network

Make Music Madison, Madison

Wisconsin School Music Association, Waunakee

Marcus Performing Arts Center, Milwaukee

Wisconsin Writers Association

Midsummers Music, Sister Bay

Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, Madison

Mile of Music, Appleton

Wormfarm Institute, Reedsburg




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Jay Rath
Jay Rath

Besides The Wisconsin Examiner, writer-cartoonist Jay Rath has contributed to Animato!, Cartoonist PROfiles and Nemo: The Classic Comics Library magazines. An early and longtime contributor to The Onion, for more than 20 years he taught cartooning and animation to young people through the University of Wisconsin School of Education-Extension.