What’s in the new City of Madison budget for the arts?
A look at city funding for music initiatives, the Bubbler, and public art.
Even for people who follow these kinds of things, the 2016 City of Madison budget, which Mayor Paul Soglin signed last week, is anticlimactic. But the funding items in the budget for arts and culture programs can tell us a bit about what kind of leadership city officials are showing when it comes to making Madison a stronger city for music and other art forms. After all, Soglin has made improving the local music economy an issue in his current administration, and he wrote passionately about the importance of arts and music when we asked candidates in this year’s mayoral primary about their positions on arts policy. So how is all this playing out in funding terms? I dug through this year’s budget and looked at some of the key items. Arts-related items are scattered about in different sections of the budget, so it took some scouring and double-checking. You can also hear me talk about it with WORT-FM's Dylan Brogan on this episode of our podcast:
More of the same, but... more so
Not much has changed in the events the city has been funding for the past few years under the “Madison Music City” initiative Soglin rolled out in 2012, though his roundly mocked proposal to spend $50,000 on a music video promoting Madison seems to have died. This $75,000 chunk comes from taxes on hotel rooms and breaks down as follows:
-$25,000 for administrative costs for Make Music Madison (which received $25,000 in 2013, $25,000 again in 2014, and $20,000 last year).
-$25,000 for a Madison Songwriting Conference and Festival (this hasn’t actually happened yet; more on that below).
-$15,000 for Dane Dances (a $10,000 boost from last year).
-$5,000 for the spring Revelry festival on campus (this also received $5,000 last year).
-$5,000 for BandSwap, a program by a Colorado-based nonprofit program in which bands from different U.S. get together and trade shows, and it also involves some professional development/networking events (this also got $5,000 last year). Also why must their logo be this?
The above is starting to look like a package of things that just get funded every year as a matter of course. This money is allocated to these specific organizations and events in the budget, as opposed to the budget setting up a fund and having those organizations compete for grants in a subsequent process. Whatever the merits of the individual programs—and I’m not dismissing them out of hand here—people who care about music in Madison should force more of a conversation about how this money is doled out in the future. As I’ve argued previously, Make Music Madison is a nice event but the $95,000 the city has put toward it so far could be spread out among other projects.
Another big question mark is the Madison Songwriting Conference. Again, $50,000 has been set aside for that, but it hasn’t happened and an event has not even been announced. Karin Wolf, the city’s arts program administrator, told me this week that the event would be a national conference focusing on helping musicians learn about marketing and the music industry. She says the organizers will include Roy Elkins, founder of the Madison-based Broadjam, a site where musicians can pay to have their songs submitted for licensing opportunities and get feedback from professional reviewers. So who knows how that will turn out, but if Broadjam wants to be a musical ambassador for Madison, here’s hoping they improve on their golden-era-of-MySpace-worthy web design soon.
A new position at The Bubbler
The city budget also funds the Madison Public Library, which has been getting more ambitious about its role in the arts community these past few years—taking over the Wisconsin Book Festival, stepping up its film screenings, and launching its Bubbler program, which basically creates space and resources for people to make things ranging from art to beer to digital media. Those resources include the Media Lab, which provides free access to and training on a bunch of A/V gear and production software. There’s also the monthly Night Light series, an adult after-hours thing that has so far offered a diverse combination of visual art, music, readings and film screenings. (Full disclosure: I helped curate one of the Night Light events a couple years back.) Since launching in 2013 the Bubbler has also scored a respectable amount of outside funding, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services. Unlike most public or non-profit programs, it feels like a scrappy, open-ended environment where people of diverse perspectives can throw ideas at the wall and take chances. So this item in the budget jumps out:
-$57,398 to create a full-time Program Assistant position for the Bubbler.
Right now the program is basically singlehandedly run by “Head Bubblerian” (actual job title, apparently) Trent Miller, who is also an accomplished artist and is known for being kind of insanely busy, so hopefully this will take some of the load off him. More importantly, it’s an investment in a program that has a lot of excitement around it and, despite being couched in an established institution, isn’t stodgy.
Miller currently has a part-time assistant, but that position is funded by a grant that ends soon. He says hiring a new program assistant will be key to maintaining the program's current momentum. "It should also help us to look at expanding the program in areas where we see the most need," he says. "Over the past two years The Bubbler has offered over 1,000 workshops, classes, and events with over 24,000 attendees. The assistant will help with lots of logistics related to workshops, classes, events (contracts, calendars, planning sessions) along with bigger projects related to grant writing and reports."
This budget boosts funding for public art projects, with
-$100,000 for the Municipal Art Fund, which is used to integrate art into public projects
-$79,000 for other public art grants
Some of money supports grants through several programs administered by the Madison Arts Commission. The Municipal Art Fund is getting a bump from $80,000 last year, and both funds have seen long-term growth—Wolf notes that when she began her job in 2006, the city budgeted $30,000 for the Municipal Art Fund and $67,000 for arts grants.
Perhaps the most interesting arts grant program the city runs is Blink, which gives artists relatively small amounts of money ($500 to $3,000, according to Wolf) to create temporary installations in public spaces around the city. My favorite one so far was “Asylum,” a sound installation in a bike underpass at Tenney Park. Like the Bubbler, it’s unpredictable and parcels out some actual resources—one financially, one in gear and know-how—to a diverse group of people. There’s nothing in the city’s music initiatives that quite captures that same spirit.
And of course…
-$1.75 million for the Overture Center, including educational and outreach programs.
So, that accounts for about $2.05 million in the city budget aimed at arts-related programs, the bigger chunk of it going to Overture. If there are significant things I missed in combing through this doorstopper, please do let me know and I’ll add it. Feel free to tell us what you think about these budget items in the comments, but more importantly, be involved next time around. I’ll also be taking a look at the recently passed 2016 Dane County Budget soon.
This story has been updated and corrected to reflect new information.
Correction: This story initially misstated the amount of funding the City of Madison has set aside for the Madison Songwriter Conference. It is currently $25,000; another $25,000 was budgeted in the 2015 city budget, but was returned to the general fund.