Can bipartisan support save arts funding in Wisconsin?
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.
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.
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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
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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