Philanthropist Chris Abele moved to Milwaukee 12 years ago, and since he arrived, the 38-year-old has donated thousands (and thousands) of dollars to a variety of local art, education and human rights organizations.
Abele is the head of the Argosy Foundation, located on Wells Street in a building overlooking Cathedral Park, with an estimated worth of $450 million. Abele's father, John, founded the Boston Scientific Corporation, a leading supplier of medical equipment.
Argosy was based in Boston for a decade, but after Abele attended Lawrence University in Appleton, romance brought him to Milwaukee. Although the relationship didn't work out, Abele became smitten with Brew City and eventually relocated the foundation.
Although foundations are required to make annual donations, Abele puts more than dollars behind his causes.
OMC recently caught up with Abele and chatted with him about his passions, which are many.
OMC: You do a lot more for local organizations than simply write out checks. Why and how do you get so involved?
Chris Abele: Being in the privileged position of being able to contribute is a huge responsibility, and the responsibility doesn't stop when you write the check. I try to "add value" as much as I can.
Specifically, I get involved if I think I can add value. The only way I can do this is if the organization is interested in having me become involved. I don't ever want to walk into an organization and start micromanaging. I have way too much respect for what these groups do.
I also become involved if I think I can learn from the experience. Even if there is a wide range of seemingly unrelated parts, I can almost always learn from the bigger patterns and connections.
If my involvement is a good fit, I am, essentially, a consultant.
OMC: Which groups or causes are you the most passionate about?
CA: Most of what I do falls into the category of the arts, education or human rights. I have a deep love for the arts. The arts are a passion for me, and I love what Milwaukee has to offer. Take our symphony, for instance. Here's this medium-sized company, yet we just did "Mahler 9," a symphony that not many cities have tried to do or have done successfully, but we did.
We have many opportunities to see this kind of passion and virtuosity in Milwaukee, and this is a rare thing for a city our size. It is not the same as hearing pieces on CD or iTunes, although I am happy to report the MSO is the first in the country to have their repertoire available on iTunes.
There is something to be said about the collective experience of a performed art. Most importantly, when 2,000 people sit silent in a room together (at the end of a symphony) they have a collective experience, which becomes part of the common dialogue. This is so important and cool.
We have pieces in the Milwaukee Art Museum that have never been seen anywhere else in the world. That's really incredible. I try to kick ambition up a notch. If we're not doing a world class show, I want to ask ourselves "why?"
And we have 27 theater companies in this city. 27!
OMC: You are so amped about our arts scene, yet some Milwaukeeans have the perception we're living in a cultural wasteland. Why is this?
CA: People in Milwaukee have a tendency to only believe something if someone else says it ... And I have heard people with the attitude, "This director or that director would never want to come here" and my question is always, "Well, did anyone ask?"
We've recruited some incredible talent to Milwaukee by just asking.
OMC: In your opinion, is Milwaukee behind the times?
CA: No. Sometimes we have more difficulty making major changes, but that's because we're smaller. We could be more of an integrated city and our property taxes are too high, but Wisconsin has a fascinating history of being a very progressive state and I think we still are in many ways.
OMC: You clearly love Shakespeare, being the board president of the Milwaukee Shakespeare Company and also being the chair of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Where does this passion stem from, and did you ever do any acting?
CA: I have acted before, but not well. Many years ago I was in an abbreviated production of "Macbeth" and I play this rock-star version of McDuff.
I love Shakespeare because last summer alone, there were 22 productions of "Hamlet" performed. We're talking about a guy who has been gone for 400 years and since then, no one has surpassed his understanding of the human condition.
OMC: Other than the arts, you have given so much to the Boys and Girls Club and Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. What inspires you about these groups?
CA: The Boys and Girls Club. Love it, love it, love it. It's the best board I have ever been around. It's a huge board made up of people who really care. We've gone from reaching 10,000 kids to 30,000 and it's because of this group's level of commitment. Their ability to have fun and to work really, really hard.
As for Planned Parenthood, my belief is that if you want to stop abortion, you have to support Planned Parenthood. "Pro choice" doesn't mean "pro abortion," and the best way to share your beliefs is not by screaming at people but talking to them on their own terms. I am pro choice, yes, but I believe that abortions should be safe, legal and rare.
OMC: Where do you fit in on the political spectrum?
CA: I am a bit more "left" than "right" but not as much as people think. I would register as an "independent" if we did that in Wisconsin.
OMC: How do you see yourself and how do you want others to perceive you?
CA: I am an independent thinker with skepticism of extremes. I am someone who loves Milwaukee ... I truly believe that no one is more important than anyone else on this planet, and I'm a person constantly asking myself, "Am I doing enough?"
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.