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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Overcast
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Madison and Dane County culture bosses confront dire economy
Art gets funded thanks to the city's Karin Wolf (left) and
the county's Karen Crossley.
Art gets funded thanks to the city's Karin Wolf (left) and the county's Karen Crossley.
Credit:Carolyn Fath

Karen Crossley and Karin Wolf could not have foreseen the challenges. The recession may have been on the horizon by October 2006, when Wolf was hired as the new administrator for the Madison Arts Commission, but the economy was not yet in freefall. Nor had calamity reached full scale seven months later, when Dane County picked Crossley as its new coordinator for the Cultural Affairs Commission.

Since then, both have been tested. Faced with a 2009 Madison Capital Budget amendment that would have stripped $112,000 from the Municipal Arts Fund, Wolf mounted a successful campaign on short notice to sustain the city's public arts grants and related initiatives. Crossley, meanwhile, has helped the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission navigate a rising tide of demand from a record number of applicants vying for grant money.

Wolf, 40, and Crossley, 52, bring contrasting backgrounds to their jobs. But they also complement each other in ways that may strengthen the local arts infrastructure and sustain it in rough economic times.

Born and raised in St. Louis, Wolf grew up near that city's Laumeier Sculpture Park, in a city where the art museum's faade reads "Free to All." She was a frequent visitor to both.

Enrolling at UW-Madison in 1986, Wolf embarked on a 20-year educational odyssey yielding undergraduate degrees in history, women's studies, history of cultures and African American history, and a master's degree in curriculum and instruction. During that span she also worked for the Milwaukee International Film Festival, the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

As the Madison Arts Commission's administrator, Wolf oversees its $67,000 grants program. She also has mounted a series of arresting exhibitions in the Madison Municipal Building's ArtSpace, and she has been laying the groundwork for the city's first cultural plan. She is about to launch a series of community meetings, focus groups and surveys to gather data for the plan. She expects the outreach effort to take 12 to 18 months.

"Especially now, with the challenges that we're experiencing because of the economy," she says, "it's so exciting to me that we're going to have a plan that will bridge us to the recovery."

Among those challenges is a shift among philanthropic foundations toward programs serving basic needs. Wolf perceives "a lot of fear in the arts community" regarding continued support of arts programs. "There's going to be a lot more demand on us to keep these programs happening," she predicts.

Madison Repertory Theatre's demise signals the tectonic forces shaking the arts, notes Wolf. The Madison Arts Commission confronts "some really difficult decisions" in the pending grant cycle, but is "committed to coming up with additional ways to support art in our community that aren't necessarily about the direct dollar."

Wolf believes the city's cultural planning process will yield innovative answers to the questions she confronts. "How can we help artists market their work?" she asks. "What other resources do we have as a city that can help artists?"

She's confident the city's creative class can help answer these questions. Wolf perceives "a will to help one another," noting the drive to establish an arts incubator at the old Garver Feed Mill on Madison's east side.

Such responses to the recession will be critical to economic recovery, she contends: "I think the arts will be called on to help hold people together and express the sort of collective angst that we're all feeling."

Wolf sees herself as an enthusiastic facilitator. "I enjoy playing with red tape," she says. "I enjoy jumping through hoops. And I'm happy to help people navigate the system."

That's what Wolf did for the recent Effigy Tree preservation project, which she calls one of the most gratifying experiences of her first 30 months at the Madison Arts Commission. When the Harry Whitehorse sculpture's deterioration grew dire, the artist, Hudson Park neighborhood residents and other stakeholders proposed casting the tree in bronze. Wolf helped shepherd the plan through the city approval process.

In a perfect world unburdened by recession, with ample funding for the city's collection of almost 50 public art works, the Whitehorse Effigy Tree might not have approached a state so critical that it cried out to be cast in bronze. "We have a very limited budget," Wolf explains. "The public art program gets $30,000 a year, and that amount has been in place since the Art in Public Places program began in the '70s. It's never gone up. That's very limiting."

Even so, limited budgets don't constrain Wolf's ambitions. If she had her way, "Public artworks that we already own would be loved, maintained, embraced," she says. "Art would be interwoven into every aspect of education, not just in the art curriculum. Every building, every street, every public project would have a component of design and art involved. Artists would have some resources to help launch their careers, opportunities to create, studio space, exhibition space, performance space, rehearsal space that would be affordable and accessible."

Describing herself as "a person with a lot of fire," Wolf has learned to temper those flames with patient appreciation for public process. "I'm pretty chill about it," she says. "It makes me a better person. But there's so much that can be done. It's hard to see that need and have that excitement and wait until the next month when there's a meeting."

There are rewards to counterbalance such frustrations. Chief among them: "Seeing how artists and arts organizations take a small amount of money and spread it into these huge projects. I think it can be a model for all of us as we learn how to deal with this economy."

Karen Crossley came to Dane County Cultural Affairs from the University of Wisconsin Foundation, where she was vice president and, earlier, the foundation's development director. Her c.v. also lists the Nature Conservancy's Wisconsin chapter, where she was director of development and communications; a bachelor's degree from Colby College; and an executive MBA from UW-Madison.

She brought 22 years of professional fundraising experience to the county's $635,000 cultural affairs program, which relies on private donations for two-thirds of its grant funds, and sponsorships for its signature series of annual posters and desktop easel calendars.

Crossley has inherited the extensive network and strong foundation built during the 30-year tenure of her predecessor, Lynne Eich. "She's been an extraordinary source of support," says Crossley. "We meet regularly, which she wouldn't have to do, and probably most important, she's been an extraordinary cheerleader out there for me and has helped me develop relationships. It's happened hundreds of times where I've introduced myself to someone and they've said, 'Lynne told me I'd enjoy working with you.' What a gift."

The county's cultural affairs budget dwarfs the city's arts budget, but Crossley notes this money is spread over a broader geographical area and supports initiatives in history and other aspects of culture beyond the arts. "We're a very lean outfit," she says. "We count paper clips."

Being lean, however, affords an agility that may allow Crossley to fulfill her ambition to take advantage of new ideas and opportunities. Several have already presented themselves. For one: Last summer, the Dane County Board approved a proposal to expand the commission from 11 members to 13. "We felt we could use more horsepower," Crossley explains.

Also: The board has signed off on new grants-management software that will render the commission's grants process more efficient and transparent than the existing manual, paper-based process. At $20,000 to $40,000, Crossley concedes, the software is not inexpensive but is "revolutionary in our little world." Among other benefits, the software will let the commission be more precise in analyzing how its grants are allocated.

The commission has reorganized the structure of its grants panels. The arts panel has been broken up into seven categories, establishing one reviewing body each for grant applications in architecture, dance, folk arts, literary arts, music, theater and visual arts, in addition to the existing local-history review panel. (The commission also administers an arts-in-schools grants program, and grants for capital projects.)

The new system brings greater focus to the review process. While an arts panelist might once have reviewed between 50 and 70 grant applications, Crossley says, a dance or folk-arts panelist might now review just five or 10.

Changes are also coming to the annual poster and desktop calendar. They include new distribution sites, adjustments to the submission process and other efforts to expand the pool of artists submitting work. The 2010 calendar will include photography for the first time, and half the artists will be new to the 10-year-old series.

These publications promote greater visibility for both the commission and the artists it serves. Crossley sees them all over the county, in people's homes and businesses. She even saw this year's poster "in an outhouse somewhere, and I was like, 'Yes!'"

Other aspects of Crossley's work have been less triumphant. Due to the recession, some grant recipients have had to return their awards because they could not complete a project or mount a performance.

"That's really troubling for us," says Crossley, noting that the commission has been discussing ways to better sustain grant recipients in a bad economy. Under consideration: relaxing the requirement that recipients match the county awards dollar-for-dollar, giving recipients more time for their projects, and expanding a $1,000 mini-grant program.

Then there's the commission's own funding. For this year, commitments are secure from the six philanthropic foundations that provide two-thirds of the funding, Crossley says. But a significant decline in any of those foundations' endowments could take a bite out of the commission's bottom line.

Meanwhile, county budget deliberations are an annual ritual for all county government agencies. Crossley had to make cuts her first year on the job, though she is quick to acknowledge the support of both the Dane County Board and Dane County executive's office. "It's a new ballgame each year," Crossley says, "so we're concerned about the future."

Concerned, yet hopeful. "I'm a total optimist," says Crossley, perceiving opportunity even in the record number of applications submitted for the commission's most recent grant cycle. "I think we have the good fortune here in Dane County to be rich in cultural assets and rich in creativity and rich in opportunity for arts and culture to play a role in positive change," she says, echoing Wolf.

"There are," Crossley concludes, "higher, purposeful, greater goods that arts and culture can contribute."

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