I think the Milwaukee Cultural Alliance is a prime example of why Milwaukee will fail to become a genuine "Art City".
Jonathan West's discussion of this topic got me interested. To summarize: it seems that donors are giving money to the cultural alliance, who are doing nothing with it ("The Cultural Alliance folks talked about how in their initial impact as an organization could be characterized as inert.") Then the donors aren't giving to other more active artist-led groups like MARN, leading to Mike Brenner's great frustration and eventual "retirement".
This creates an environment of inaccessibility for new artists and organizations. New groups or individuals are unlikely to connect with a viable support structure when The Alliance has a monopoly on what is considered "legitimate professional art". If the Cultural Alliance groups were making art, this wouldn't be such a problem, but what they produce is generally more of a bourgeois status symbol than a meaningful artistic expression, a mirror for our society, or a currently relevant cultural object or experience.
That these groups are the only ones getting funding leads me (and others) to believe that the donor base in Milwaukee do not actually support or beleive in art, they only want to look like they do. As a result, the big organizations live in a very inefficient closed loop, where donors give them the money needed to maintain the appearance of legitimacy, they waste most of the money on administration and fancy new buildings and occasionally squirt out incredibly safe inoffensive art. It's like a feedback loop for crap, and the press dutifully plays their part.
When a city has this sort of self-perpetuating deadly arrangement sitting on top of its art scene, that city's audience, talent, and entire art community are negatively impacted. This kind of feedback loop for crap reinforces the anti-art mentality in audiences, who then reject all art or any cultural event because they associate it with the snobbishness that accompanies bourgeois status symbols. It stunts the growth of new art organizations who are unable to access support from philanthopists because they've already given to do-nothings. It also encourages artists to leave Milwaukee in droves, and those who stay, stay with very limited expectations, and with a tendency to spend more time drinking than art-making. Which drives me crazy.
I need to point out that I'm not whining here. I know that the responsibility for fixing this problem is mine, Mike's and everyone else's in the art community. We need to do a better job of inspiring people to look through the smoky alchoholic haze of the bars, past the Cultural Alliance's deadly offerings, and focus on the talented artists who are producing worthwhile challenging work. I'm not asking the Cultural Alliance to do better, or even for the bourgeois donors to get real. I'm encouraging the people who are real, who are genuinely interested in supporting art to not let their donations be lumped in with all the frauds and fakers who support the Cultural Alliance, UPAF and similar groups.
Maybe the best way i can do that is to get out of the way and leave the job up to others who are more charasmatic, positive, friendly, tolerant and otherwise just plain more attractive than Mike and I. People like Peggi Taylor, MIGA, or Cedar Block. If Milwaukee is going to become an Art City it will be through the efforts of those kinds of groups, not the Cultural Alliance.
But, i happen to think that every movement needs an uncompromising asshole to demand more and tell it like it is, regardless of toes stepped on, or bridges burned. I seem to fit this role naturally because when i look at things like the Cultural Alliance, i get really angry, and i'm no good at hiding it.
But more important than my anger, or my sanity (at least to anyone but me) is the future economic health of the City of Milwaukee. Which brings me to the subject i really want to talk about: The Cultural Alliance's report on Milwaukee's cultural assets. This report doesn't say anything new or unexpected, but there are some indications here of just how far the Cultural Alliance's heads are up their asses.
Somebody somewhere convinced Milwaukeans that we should want to be an Art City. This should be a good thing. Unfortunately when the task of actually becoming an art city is trusted to organizations that run like The Cultural Alliance (or UPAF, or MAM, or Visit Milwaukee, or The Journal Sentinal) the project is doomed to be a boondoggle.
The Cultural Alliance's report is an excellent example of this. It discusses the importance of the creative sector to economic growth, but it completely misunderstands what it's talking about. The leading voice for "creative class cities" is Richard Florida. If Milwaukee genuinely wants to be an Art City, and genuinely wants to attract the economic benefits of a thriving art scene, we need to look closer at what Florida has to say.
The creative class can be thought of in two different ways. A broadly defined creative sector and a "super radical core" of the creative class. The broadly defined creative sector includes, to quote the Cultural Alliance's source "* The core creative industries include R&D, publishing, software, TV/radio, design, music, film, toys/games, advertising, arts, museums, architecture, crafts, video games, fashion. Source: John Howkins, The Creative Economy: How People Make Money from Ideas, 2001." These people are highly valued, have lucrative jobs, and create much economic growth. The super radical core, is a much more limited group of more purely creative people, that is: artists. Artists are starving, scraping by, working day jobs, living under the radar and not making money from their art. As such, they do not directly create economic growth.
The goal according to Florida is to attract the broadly defined creative sector to your city. This is where the super radical core comes in, the best means of attracting innovation and growth-causing creatives is to encourage the super radical core to cultivate a "street level culture". To put it simply, punk rock bands and starving artists don't make economic growth, but they do attract good software designers who do make economic growth.
The most important cultural assets to look at for Milwaukee's art city growth are assets creating "street level culture" and this is where the Cultural Alliance drops the ball. When their report says "In depth surveys... including the largest and best known... as well as medium- and small-sized nonprofits" they are totally out of touch with the meaning of the word "small". I know Milwaukee theatre better than other cultural areas, and the smallest theatre companies on the list of those surveyed by the Cultural Alliance are Chamber and the now defunct Milwaukee Shakespeare. From my perspective, those are two of the biggest theatre companies in this city. If you're standing on the "street level" The Rep and Skylight are giants. Chamber, Mke Shakes and other UPAF members are "big" companies. Groups like The Boulevard, Off the Wall, and Windfall are "medium sized", and folks like the Alchemist, Pink Banana, Insurgent Theatre, and Dead Man's Carnival are "small". The Cultural Alliance is unable to recognize the value of even medium sized companies, let alone the small ones, and it's the medium and small companies who produce the most street level culture, who are most likely to attract anyone other than retiree's to Milwaukee.
Now, i personally have a problem with Florida's ideas, he's encouraging cities and communities to use starving artists and punk rockers as bait for creative sell-outs who are more willing to be exploited by corporations. But that's a tangent. The more important point is: The Cultural Alliance, whose job it is to "strengthen, advance and represent the arts and culture sector as an essential asset for growing a vibrant, attractive region" is either unwilling to challenge Milwaukee's obsolete establishment or else they aren't even aware of how the creative class relates to economic growth. They focus all their attention on UPAF members and big organizations, as though these are the only existing relevant cultural assets, when, in reality from the creative class perspective, they are the least relevant.
33 minutes ago