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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

The Milwaukee Rep is truly world-class. (PHOTO: Milwaukee Rep)

The Arts: How does Milwaukee stack up?

I can almost hear the mouse click sound as people see that first sentence, mumble "who gives a (fill in your own profanity)."

Here's the answer to that question. Survey after survey after survey, in Milwaukee and all over the world, people say that a vibrant arts community is a key criterion for individuals and companies who are deciding where to live, work and do business. In many surveys the arts community is at or right near the top of considerations.

If we accept that the arts are that important, and we need to, then let's take a look at the Milwaukee arts scene and figure out whether we've got enough and whether we are good enough.

Let's say, first of all that almost every single arts organization is constantly scraping for money. Most of them wonder how in the world they are going to keep the doors open, but keep them open they do. Now, let's take a look.

The music scene

People often point to Minneapolis as a great town for music. Milwaukee has a long way to go to catch up. If you play in a band in this city it is incredibly hard to make a living, even a sustenance living. If you're a '50s and '60s cover band you can work a lot and make some dough. But if you are playing your own music and you are dedicated to it, then it's hard to break in.

The reason is clear. Club owners need to make money and a band can cost more than a guy takes in at the bar. Unless the band has a loyal following that will always show up, they may get a chance to play for door money, but not much more. Summerfest is a great opportunity for some local bands, but that's just a few days in the middle of summer. There are a few places with strong commitments to local music, but not nearly enough. Our music scene has a long way to go.

The classical scene

I think Milwaukee is much further along in the musical world when it comes to classical music. We have two world-class and world-respected leaders, The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Fine Arts Quartet. The Milwaukee Ballet has struggled for decades but it continues to stage artistically pleasing shows. If there is a criticism of the classical music scene it would be that the big guys in this city generally go with the safe and sound programs and don't often venture out onto the limb of experimental stuff. There is a steady parade of guest artists who stop in Milwaukee, but it's not a nonstop parade.

The theater scene

It's possible that the live theatre scene in Milwaukee is the best thing we've got going for us. The Milwaukee Rep is a truly world-class theatre. They are incredibly brave and good and each season brings a surprise or two that makes people catch their breath. After the Rep is First Stage children's theatre, which may well be able to lay claim to the best children's theatre in the United States. After those two there is a whole raft of smaller professional theatres with gracious and startling good actors performing on those stages. We can see David Cesarini at Next Act or Tom Reed at Optimist or Angela Iannone or Deborah Clifton in anything, and they can take their place with any actor anywhere in the world. Milwaukee also has a pretty vibrant community theater scene where you can usually see well known plays and truly enjoy the evening.

The visual arts scene

I don't pretend to know a great deal about visual arts. I have a friend named Ken Hanson who does know a lot about it. And over the years he's helped me find some things I never would have found on my own. He's got spectacularly good taste and is in love with painting, photography, architecture and all things that you can stand around and look at. We have a number of museums, led by the Milwaukee Art Museum, that have interesting collections and exhibits. But this is one area where we could stand a real infusion of effort and publicity.

Support for the arts

I'm not torn here at all. I think Milwaukee is woefully behind the times as far as support for the arts goes. This is a critically important part of our lives and part of our efforts to bring and keep people here. We have the United Performing Arts Fund and it's annual drive. But we need to have vastly increased governmental and quasi-governmental support for artistic endeavors. I think you could easily find a few million dollars in funds from a variety of places. We spend millions trying to persuade people to come to Milwaukee. I say let's spend that money on really giving them something to come for. That's the old "Build It and They Will Come" philosophy.

That's my quick survey of the arts scene in Milwaukee. Good in some areas, not so good in others. But all of it is vitally important.


Jimmy_Jones | Jan. 30, 2012 at 4:06 p.m. (report)

I don't worry about the arts in Milwaukee. I go out to shows that interest me... miss some that I don't hear about it time. Maybe if there was a higher profile & focus on customers... there would be more patrons? Anyway, I'm just talking out of my arse... not unlike the blog.

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iabston | Jan. 28, 2012 at 2:32 p.m. (report)

Agreed. - We spend a top dollar on attracting people to the city for conventions. However, what will their perception of Milwaukee be if they spend the entire time at a convention Center on 6th and Wisconsin, and not encouraged to visit the local attractions that make Milwaukee our home. Invest more of that money in the cultural aspects of the city and it will pay dividends. Build it and they will come. -The arts scene definitely needs some help. I'm guessing there's some great art organizations that you don't know about which are doing tremendous things in the city. Not due to your lack of research, but because of their lack or resources to spread their messaging.

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