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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Overcast
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A survey identifies Madison's urgent cultural needs
Action plan
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Credit:Alexei Vella

Artists and other cultural workers in Madison tend to be less white, feel alone, and be self-employed. 40% of them earn less than a living wage.

Understandably, some of them are even a little bitter, with 19% reporting that community response to their work is "unsatisfactory."

And when it comes to arts coverage, hardly anyone likes the local press.

This is part of the portrait unveiled as the City of Madison's first cultural plan nears completion.

Madison-based Mary Berryman-Agard and Associates have been assembling the plan's elements, with oversight by a 16-member steering committee chaired by Anne Katz, executive director of Arts Wisconsin, a state advocacy nonprofit. Other committee members include High Noon Saloon owner Cathy Dethmers, DJ Nick Nice and Isthmus associate publisher Linda Baldwin, who also serves as chair of the Madison Cultural Arts District, which governs the Overture Center for the Arts.

"I am pleased with and optimistic about the process so far, for many reasons," says Katz. "We've got extensive findings about the community's strengths and needs, with input from a diverse range of Madisonians."

Impetus came from former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, whose Healthy City Plan in 2005 called for a cultural plan. Based on information that emerged from a broad public-research effort, the plan is expected to present recommendations for advancing participation in the arts, developing cultural facilities and establishing priorities for funding. Work began in the summer of 2009, and both artists and consumers of art were surveyed.

Many cities have cultural plans, including Monterey, Calif., Erie, Pa., and Tucson, Ariz. "In France and Spain and Italy, they even have a minister of culture," says Patty Elson, Madison Arts Commission vice chair and ex-officio member of the plan's steering committee. "We're a little bit behind here."

The final plan is yet to come, but on March 23 the consultant's early results were released. Based on months of exhaustive surveys, public meetings and requests for comment, the assessment of strengths and challenges will be used to create a list of recommendations for approval by the Common Council, likely this summer. See the results and more at the Madison Arts Commission's website.

The process is vetted by the Madison Arts Commission, which is part of the city's Department of Planning and Community and Economic Development. The plan is budgeted at just under $64,000. That's a fair amount of money for study of local culture. By comparison, the city annually allots $67,000 to the Arts Commission for grants to artists and arts groups.

Meanwhile, the definition of "culture" has been broadened -- some might say watered down -- by the steering committee. For example, in Madison, it even includes trees.

"So many people just go immediately to art," says Elson. "Culture is not [just] art. Culture is the urban forest. Culture is the food. Culture is the architecture. Culture is the science. It's everything coming together that we value, those intangible things, the reasons why we love living where we do. That's what came out in these findings."

Culture consumers

The research has yielded more than 100 pages of findings, covering a broad range of issues important to both consumers and creators of the arts and other culture. The survey results split up into three broad categories: culture consumers, nonprofit organizations and creative workers.

Surveyed Madison culture consumers range in age from 15 to 81. The average responding culture consumer is 45. Most live in central areas: 31.4% on the isthmus, followed by 20.3% in the near east side and 13.2% in the near west. Families that enjoy cultural activities are 2.2% more likely to have children in their homes.

Of the surveyed families who provided optional demographic information, 90.09% are white (82.1% of Madison residents are white). Self-identified Asian residents account for 6.8% of our population, but they account for only 1.9% of survey respondents. The figures for Latino or Hispanic residents are similar. African Americans are 6.4% of the city's population, and they account for 6.5% of the returns.

What do Madisonians like? Assuming that the survey represents a true cross-section, most of us enjoy non-classical musical events. We also like the visual arts. However, the most popular cultural events we actually attend are related to food, textile arts or ceramics. Broadway-style musical theater, opera and standup comedy come last. Ballet, science and nature programs are in the middle.

We prefer to consume our culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Overture and art museums. Suburban residents also enjoy branch libraries and "faith community facilities" as cultural centers.

Only 19.6% of all respondents rate culture in their own neighborhoods as "excellent." After isthmus residents, the near west and east sides are happiest with what they have. No survey respondent rated facilities on the southwest, east and north sides as "excellent."

In fact, on the southwest side, 54.5% rated their facilities as "inadequate," followed by 44.4% in the south central area, 33.2% on the east side, and 30% on the far west side.

Culture consumers say that the media can do a better job: 21.8% of respondents say that a lack of information is a barrier to their participation, and 63.6% say it sometimes is. Often, though, Madison is just too busy for culture; 38.4% of us say we don't have time for it. For 19.9% of us, it's often too expensive.

Only 1.8% of the respondents said that they are often disappointed by the quality of local arts and cultural activities. However, Madison shouldn't rest on its laurels. 61.3% of us say that we're sometimes disappointed.

Culture creators

Also surveyed were arts, science, history and "innovation" nonprofits. Seventy-nine organizations responded, presenting a broad range of missions and sizes.

Overall, 5% of culture nonprofits report a "very modest" increase of activities compared to three years ago. 24% programming growth is expected by 2014.

However, we have fewer permanent exhibitions, and we send out fewer traveling performances. Local film production is down, and is expected to get worse in three years -- likely as a result of the cutback to state film incentives.

A plurality of cultural organizations (48%) have their administrative offices on the isthmus, followed by the near east side (13%). The average nonprofit board of directors has 10 members; 92% of the directors are white, and 62.4% are ages 41 to 65. They're pretty evenly split by gender.

Most nonprofits are somewhat pleased with their venues. 22.9% say that their performance, exhibition and sales spaces are excellent. 58.3% say they're good and 18.8% say they're only fair. A lack of dance studios is an identified need.

Distressingly, only 33% of nonprofits responded to questions about their budgets, even though this information consists of public records and is available online. Only four organizations provided budget projections. Those that did respond generally reported growth.

The lack of response suggests, in the words of the report, that "robust record keeping and financial management data availability is infrequently present among volunteer-run organizations." In other words, their books are not in order.

Nonprofits use their websites and email when they look for audiences. Only four nonprofits rely on the press for marketing. A frequent criticism from respondents is that "arts and cultural media coverage is difficult to secure, often comes too late to drive attendance, and does not seem to be a priority for local media outlets."

Pricing and a lack of outreach to people of color are cited as problems. Nonprofits also report increasing difficulty in finding volunteers. Other difficulties include a lack of ways to share ideas, create general cultural excitement and build collaboration. A shared online database is desired by 92% of responding nonprofits.

The number-one identified problem is funding, and increasing competition for it.

That's the nonprofit-organization line. When you ask individual artists, arts administrators and other cultural workers, the results change a bit.

Most artists here work in the visual arts, music and theater, in that order. 75.5% are white -- less than the city average. Their median age is 44. They live mostly on the near east side (27.2%), the near west side (16.8%) and the isthmus (16.4%), but 45.1% of them work on the isthmus.

More than half (61.6%) are self-employed, and 49.1% say their income is "unsatisfactory." They're right to be unhappy: 40.6% earn less than a living wage and 9.3% have no health insurance.

Creative workers are much more unhappy with facilities than the nonprofits that employ some of them. 55.6% say their workspaces are "poor" or "weak," and affordability is their top concern.

They report that the media are their second-most effective marketing tool, after word of mouth, though only 24.1% rely on the press.

Individuals strongly prefer to rely on their own websites and social media. Disturbingly, 5.9% don't market their work at all because "they don't know how" or lack resources.

Individual artists and cultural workers also strongly desire a shared database.

Next steps

The final draft of the cultural plan is being prepared. "And then we will move on from there," says Elson. "When we first formalized the idea of the plan, we made it very clear that after the plan was written there would be implementation. There would be a process of finding money to implement. We just didn't want to have a nice plan sitting on somebody's shelf, waiting to be dusted off every couple of years."

There are no recommendations yet, so the cost of implementation is unknown. Meanwhile, Gov. Scott Walker has proposed a $1.6 million cut in state aid provided to the arts by the Wisconsin Arts Board, which helps fund Madison Arts Commission activities. Locally, Elson says that Mayor Paul Soglin is a supporter of the arts plan in concept, and that a mix of public and private dollars will have to be sought. Soglin did not respond to a request for comment.

"It's true that the real work is ahead of us -- making this plan come alive -- and that the 'interesting' times we are living in will have an effect," says Katz.

"I want to stress that the plan's recommendations will happen over time, with twists and turns along the way, and we will only see positive change with hard work, persistence and a collaborative mindset," she says continues. "But the fact that we've come this far is great, so I'm optimistic and ready for the next steps."

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