Madison's arts funding quietly affirms the status quo in 2017 budget

Another year of the same.

The Madison City Council passed the city's 2017 budget earlier this month, and Mayor Paul Soglin has signed it. As we reported previously, this year's budget was tight overall, so there was no reason to expect any big new initiatives in the city's arts and music funding. Those items make up a small portion of the budget, and bigger issues will rightfully take center stage for the most part.

But even given that context, I think this budget proves that the city is on cruise control when it comes to funding music and culture. More people from across the community need to start thinking now about how they can influence next year's budget.

Despite the absence of new ideas in the mix, the city still increased funding for some of the things it's already been funding over the past several years. Like last year's budget, this year's is a lot of the same, but more so.

First, let's look at the city's Room Tax Fund. Money the city collects from hotel-room taxes is basically set aside for tourism purposes, and the budget puts Soglin's Madison Music City program under that heading. This is a batch of initiatives he rolled out in 2012. At the time, Soglin did talk about making Madison a place where more musicians could get paid for their efforts, but four years out, it's not clear if his programs have accomplished that.

Aside from Dane Dances (a free summer concert series at Monona Terrace), which gets a boost from $15,000 last budget to $20,000 this time, all the Madison Music City funding items stay flat for 2017: $25,000 for Make Music Madison, $25,000 for the Madison Songwriter Conference, $5,000 for the Wisconsin Union's spring Revelry Music Festival, and $5,000 for Bandswap.

Make Music Madison will be in its fifth year in 2017; it's a free music event whose model is not set up to pay artists. Bandswap was started by a Colorado non-profit that closed up shop earlier this year, but I'm told it will still go on in some form. A video from 2013 touts BandSwap as a "magical model" involving "visionaries" and "messengers"; essentially the program involves chosen bands trading shows in different cities, and last year it included support for a Wisconsin stage at a folk festival. The Revelry festival does a decent job all in all, but the Wisconsin Union is a well-loved local institution that could probably turn up an extra $5,000 by appealing to its members or private-sector partners. The Songwriter Conference is scheduled to make its debut next summer; I've written two stories about it recently. The organizers never told me what specifically they'll be using their city funding for.

The common theme in all the Madison Music City items is what they're not. None of these are programs that put funds in the hands of musicians to create something. They're all nice ideas in their way, but it's doubtful that they really make it easier for musicians or artists in town to get paid. There is scant evidence that they motivate Madison audiences to seek out local music acts they haven't checked out before—and getting the local audience interested has always been a missing part of this conversation. These items mostly seem to keep getting funded because the Mayor likes them and because there's little time to discuss them during the council's final budget debates, when issues like public safety and infrastructure come to the fore.

The execution of all these programs seems very top-down, driven by a few businesses and non-profits rather than by artists or by the community. At the very least, Madison Music City needs to incorporate a program of small grants for which musicians can apply directly to support original works and innovative events. As I've said before, these funding items should not become a scarcely debated routine: people should have the opportunity to compete for these funds.

There aren't many surprises elsewhere in the 2017 city budget. Subsidies for the Overture Center went up to $1.9 million —a $150,000 increase over 2016. The city's Municipal Arts Fund stays at $100,000, and a room tax allocation for arts grants stays at $79,000. The capital budget for city parks sets aside another $750,000 for improvements at the city-owned, privately managed Breese Stevens Field, which has been hosting concerts from bands including Wilco, The Avett Brothers, and Cake the past couple years. The Madison Public Library's budget includes funding for some new "maker kits" that the library's Bubbler program can use at branch libraries and community centers to improve outreach to communities of color.

Another thing I've said before is that there are some great precedents in city arts programs that should inform city music funding. One is Blink, which gives artists small grants to create temporary public-art installations—a model that's competitive and lets a variety of people get involved, rather than giving a big chunk of money to one private organization that may or may not kick some of it down to an actual artist. Another is the Madison Public Library's Bubbler program, which has involved a hodge-podge of hands-on learning classes, art shows, and after-hours events that have included a lot of good local music.

Before the city re-ups the Madison Music City items in the next budget, citizens and council members should ask for some real accounting of their impact. This is your money. Contact your alder, talk with the Madison Arts Commission (whose next meeting is December 13), and share your ideas and concerns. Make your city officials have these conversations for real.