Public Policy Forum Blog

How should we support arts and culture in Greater Milwaukee? Depth or breadth?

Recent deliberations over the prospect of a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks have brought up some soul-searching questions for Greater Milwaukee of late. What cultural, social, and economic assets do we need to be a thriving, "major league" metro area? Who will pay for construction, maintenance, and operations, and is there enough donor and patron demand to sustain these assets in the future?

In two previous reports, the Public Policy Forum identified substantial capital and operating needs for the major arts and cultural assets in Greater Milwaukee and explored potential public funding options for addressing them. But given the magnitude of needs, few could argue with the premise that private philanthropy also will be called upon to play a pivotal role.

The report released today, How Much is Enough?, seeks to shed light on private philanthropy in Greater Milwaukee and its capacity to address the needs and aspirations of the regions’ arts and cultural assets. We explore recent trends in philanthropic giving, challenges that may impede such giving, and opportunities to enhance it. The following primary findings encapsulate the many themes to emerge from our analysis:

  • Individual giving poses the greatest opportunity for contributed revenue growth for arts and culture, suggesting a need for institutions to invest in their development offices.
  • Private philanthropic dollars will flow to organizations whose leaders articulate both visionary projects and realistic business plans. Conversely, dollars for important but less inspiring needs such as capital maintenance and general operating support (particularly for smaller organizations) will be harder to come by.
  • Greater Milwaukee is grappling with a deep philosophical divide between depth and breadth of arts and cultural offerings. Some think we have more offerings than the community can sustain, and others see a need to support an arts/culture “ecosystem” serving a diversity of audiences.
  • Inadequate endowments pose a substantial threat to the sustainability of Greater Milwaukee’s arts and culture sector. Few organizations have endowments of sufficient size, suggesting a need to build capacity to secure planned gifts.
  • The public sector's role in owning and supporting cultural assets will help determine whether philanthropic capacity will be sufficient. Some think the County should divest from its cultural holdings to allow them to secure private support, while others fear this could destroy a vital public-private funding balance.

In the end, the answer to How Much is Enough? depends on where the region places its rich array of arts and cultural assets in its list of civic priorities. Investments – public or private – will follow from there.

Anne Chapman