Anne Katz modestly describes Madison's long-pondered cultural plan as "a beginning point" for giving the arts a more prominent role in Madison life. As chair of the cultural plan steering committee, she further dampens expectations by saying that no one recommendation outweighs another.
Those recommendations - and there are many in the 100-page report - include strengthening the hand of the city's arts commission, empowering a creative-initiatives staff team in city hall, and establishing an independent public-private group "as a proactive nexus for creative sector development." That's not to mention the curious exhortations to preserve the urban tree canopy and to not draw distinctions between amateur and professional artists.
"The report is our best attempt to represent what the people of the city dream about and what they believe," says Katz, perhaps inadvertently pinpointing one of the plan's problems. She calls it a living document "that won't solve all of the world's problems," but will become a blueprint for change.
Unfortunately the cultural plan illustrates what Madison gets wrong with a lot of plans: It took an exceedingly long time to produce. It prizes process over content. It reinforces the status quo. It avoids difficult issues. It slights for-profit ventures. And it's self-absorbed in that Madison Portlandia way.
Am I being too hard? I don't think so.
Inspiration for the cultural plan came out of the 2003 Arts Summit organized by Katz's advocacy group, Arts Wisconsin. Five years later the Madison Arts Commission commissioned a $63,000 study led by arts consultant Mary Berryman-Agard for a five-year plan to advance Madison's position as "a center for creativity and innovation." Numerous hearings, meetings and interviews were conducted as Madison did what Madison does best: talk to itself.
Nine years after a cultural plan was first envisioned (yes, nine years), it will make its way to the Common Council in April, according to Katz. All this to put us at "a beginning point" for improving the arts in Madison. But even that very modest claim may not be true.
What we need is a Dane County arts plan, not a Madison plan. Reality is that our local artists live all across the metro area and into the boonies. (Best of all would be a regional arts strategy, but politically that's inconceivable.) Sure, there's a perfunctory nod to regionalism and cooperation in the plan's narrative, but the report plows resolutely ahead on a narrowly focused, Madison-only approach to the arts.
There's no talk of furthering a countywide approach, for example, by merging the city and county arts commissions. Just as troubling, the university, easily the biggest arts player in town, is barely mentioned. You have to ask: How meaningful is a city arts plan that doesn't address the age-old town/gown gap in the arts?
The plan's focus on divining local opinion created another problem - Madison's penchant for navel-gazing. We never get a detailed sense of what best practices we might glean from other communities. How about the Denver area's regional sales tax to support the arts? Or a special exhibition district like Milwaukee's? How has Austin made the creative arts a pillar in its economic development strategy? Or why have smaller cities like Grand Rapids, Mich., and Ottawa, Ill., come up with better public art programs than Madison's?
And then there's the elephant in the room - the sad and glorious Overture Center for the Arts, which is both crown jewel and millstone. The city has yet to come to grips with the fact that while the concert hall is world class, the complex's overall spatial configuration is ruinously unhelpful to the arts community.
It's painful how the plan tiptoes around Overture even when it moans, "Artists and creative workers have no ongoing, interdisciplinary gathering place where collaborative ideas and reinvention are free to grow." Why not just come out and say it: Overture should be that place. But that would undiplomatic. That would rock the boat.
Forward thinking really isn't a trait of our local leaders when it comes to thinking regionally. At best it's honored in theory but not in practice. (See the Thrive effort for an example.)
The regional imperative hit a high point with the county takeover of the airport and zoo from the city in the 1970s and '80s. Other programs followed, but the painful and long-delayed merger of the city and county health departments, finally achieved in 2007, seemingly exhausted further interest in a consolidation.
So now we have County Executive Joe Parisi forming a task force to look at bolstering the financially squeezed Alliant Energy Center. This follows, of course, the city grappling with the more serious financial problems at Overture. Astonishingly, our leaders never connected the dots - that Overture, Alliant and the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center are all A-List regional facilities. Why not explore some degree of shared operation and financing?
The bottom line, as one governmental veteran told me, is whether consolidation saves money and improves service. Fair enough. Use that standard to also weigh the merger of the Madison and Dane County housing authorities. Why not take another look at a regional transportation authority, so that Madison Metro is truly metropolitan?
A countywide cultural plan is small potatoes in this universe. Still, Madison's insistence on a city-only plan is a telltale example of how our change-resistant community gets planning wrong.
Marc Eisen is the former editor of Isthmus.