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Curtain Time

Assessing and Responding to Milwaukee’s Performing Arts Challenges

May 2024

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Throughout history, performing arts groups and artists have depended on philanthropy for survival. Even Beethoven, one of the most revered figures in classical music, was so strapped for cash in 1808 that he was forced to premiere his iconic Symphony No. 5 at a benefit concert hastily arranged on his behalf. Tickets were priced for the aristocracy — more than a week’s salary for a laborer.

Today in Milwaukee, the question of how much philanthropy should be expected to sustain the performing arts brings new urgency to a community conversation that has festered for years. Local performing arts groups were already increasingly turning to corporate, foundation, and individual donors to fill funding gaps long before the COVID-19 pandemic, due in part to struggles to enhance earned revenues and low levels of public sector support.

The pandemic threw the symphony, other musical groups, and theater and dance companies into an even deeper dependence on philanthropy with a two-year hit to ticket sale revenue, which was only partially alleviated by federal pandemic relief funds. Corporate, foundation, and individual donors stepped up in response, but it is unclear whether funders can and should continue “crisis-level” funding to sustain a sector that has become so dependent on them.

Nearly a decade ago, we explored the capacity of metro Milwaukee’s philanthropic community to sustain and expand already growing levels of support for the arts and culture sector. A key finding in that 2015 report – How Much is Enough? – was the existence of “a deep philosophical divide” over whether the community has more arts and cultural offerings than it can sustain. The debate hinged on whether philanthropy should prioritize funding for a handful of major arts and culture institutions, or whether it should spread its support further to foster a diverse mix of large, medium, and small organizations.

Nine years later, Milwaukee is still grappling with this divide and still lacks a clear collective vision for how to resolve it. In light of this reality, as well as the vast challenges facing the performing arts both nationally and locally since the pandemic, the Northwestern Mutual and Herzfeld foundations and Bader Philanthropies commissioned this new analysis. Its purpose is to hone in on the sustainability of Milwaukee’s performing arts sector post-pandemic, while seeking insights from peer cities that could help inform next steps for stakeholders, funders, and policymakers.

We launched this research project as an important conversation was also unfolding about recalibrating a major funding mechanism for Milwaukee’s performing arts: the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF). That conversation has created additional urgency to evaluate performing arts funding and operational infrastructure and to refocus on business-oriented solutions for large, medium, and small performing arts entities.

Our focus here is on professional performing arts groups that are governed by boards of directors and that stage performances that draw paying audiences. Specific research questions include the following:

  • What is the financial health of metro Milwaukee’s performing arts sector post-pandemic and what are its most pressing challenges moving forward?
  • In what areas might there be potential for better cooperation and cohesion among individual performing arts groups and their supporters, or at least opportunities to reduce unnecessary competition for the benefit of the sector as a whole?
  • Are there best practices from other cities that might serve as useful models for how individual organizations here might partner, or how key public and private sector leaders and performing arts stakeholders here might work collectively to develop a unified vision for a sustainable and successful performing arts sector?
  • Are there additional factors that help explain why organizations of all sizes are struggling in Milwaukee, and how should they be addressed to create new infrastructure to support a sustainable performing arts ecosystem?

In the pages that follow, we highlight findings from our deep dive into data, news and trade articles, and academic research, as well as dozens of interviews with performing arts sector leaders, stakeholders, and arts sector consultants in Milwaukee and around the country. Our goal is to provide a clear picture of the challenges facing the performing arts sector in Milwaukee and potential solutions to ensure its health and vitality moving forward.