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Milwaukee-Waukesha, WI Debuts on List of Top 40 Most Arts-Vibrant Communities in the US

  • Posted Feb 13, 2024

8-minute read

Milwaukee-Waukesha’s vibrant arts scene made its first appearance on SMU DataArts’ list of the top 40 most arts-vibrant communities in 2023. Nestled on the shores of Lake Michigan, Milwaukee-Waukesha  boasts a diverse array of arts and cultural amenities including destination arts institutions, innovative projects infusing arts and social change, and a strong community of local artists. Milwaukee is sometimes called the city of festivals, with residents making the most of the warmer months through a crowded calendar of gatherings that showcase the diverse cultural heritage and interests of the region. The city’s nightlife offers everything from large scale venues booking national acts and a bustling theatre district, to a vibrant small club scene showcasing local musicians and talent. Makers spaces and arts markets with a DIY-feel provide opportunities for artists and art lovers to connect. This impressive arts scene has been gaining momentum in recent years, resulting in a boom of innovative projects, growing reach for its arts organizations, and increasing opportunity for local artists.

Image courtesy of Imagine MKE, Milwaukee, WI. Photo credit Rob Ran. Image courtesy of Imagine MKE, Milwaukee, WI. Photo credit Rob Ran.

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An Artistic and Social Renaissance  

“We are seeing an artistic renaissance right now, with organizations reenergizing spaces that have sat empty for years or decades,” says Elisabeth Gasparka,  Communications Director at Imagine MKE; a non-profit arts advocacy and media organization. Embodying this renaissance are projects like the Mitchell Street Arts Collaborative which is reclaiming a previously empty space in Milwaukee’s South Side as a nonprofit commons. The organization hosts public arts programs and provides other offerings including a gallery and makerspace with a woodshop, ceramics studio, and photo darkroom. The project was seeded by a series in conversations in 2021 with neighborhood residents, artists and community leaders about their needs.  

Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel is another group employing a model that crosses traditional organizational boundaries.  This fully operational hotel includes a 1,700 square foot gallery operated by the Museum of Wisconsin Art, a black box theatre, and collaborations with local artists making it a hub for discovery and connection 

There is also the Cactus Club, an artist-run and queer-owned performance space with a storied history within the local and national indie music scenes. The club also runs arts education and community organizing projects under the banner of Cactus+, a nonprofit arm of the venue founded in 2022. The club’s unique organizational structure and role within the community grew out of mutual aid, community education, and harm reduction work begun in 2018.  

As the city grapples with segregation, economic inequality, and population loss, arts and culture are increasingly being harnessed for social change. Community leaders in Metcalf park have incorporated arts and culture in their work to create opportunity and increase public safety and wellness for neighborhood residents through local beautification and mural projects. In the Bronzeville neighborhood, fundraising and planning is underway to build a center for the arts that aims to create a destination arts museum in a neighborhood that was the historic core of Black life in Milwaukee. The museum would showcase Black arts from across the city and state and provide space for community cultural events, in addition to driving employment and tourism in the neighborhood. The project will receive $5million in federal American Rescue Plan funds from the state of Wisconsin. 

To amplify the impact of this renaissance, Imagine MKE is spearheading a "Reimagine Milwaukee" media campaign with support from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and Associated Bank. The effort will share multimedia storytelling from within the arts, culture and creative industries of Milwaukee to support talent attraction and retention in the region.

Arts Organizations with a Collaborative Spirit 

Milwaukee’s arts organizations are critical to the both the cultural lives of residents and the local creative economy. The city ranked 19th in total expenses and 19th in program revenue in the 2023 Arts Vibrancy Index. These local groups are strongly interconnected, buoyed by a spirit of collaboration.  

For Sonya Thompson, Artistic Director of Ko-Thi Dance Company, the environment of mutual support is her favorite thing about working in the arts in Milwaukee. “My goal as an artist is to make sure I meet 10-12 new people every day. Even though [the community] is small, there are still new people to meet and learn from.” Lately, she sees partnership all around her, especially deeper partnerships that last longer. Ko-Thi Dance Company has recently worked with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee and Milwaukee Ballet, allowing them to expand their reach and increase their program offerings coming out of COVID-19 lockdowns. This year, she celebrates the 55th anniversary of her organization, and as the city’s longest running black-owned dance company committed to their community. After seeing smaller companies shutter due to the COVID-19 shutdowns, Thompson has been working with those founders and company members to carry on their legacy.  

Launched in late 2022, the Milwaukee Theater District includes 11 venues and four performance groups, representing more than 15,000 theater seats in the downtown area. The district was established to increase awareness and attendance at these venues through collaborative marketing campaigns, activations, and events. In November 2023, the new collaborative hosted the first ever Milwaukee Theater Week, offering discounts, giveaways, and special events to downtown theatregoers.  

Imagine MKE also supports arts organizations as part of its mission to advance the region’s creative economy. The group regularly convenes nonprofit arts leaders through the Coalition of Arts Leaders MKE (CALM), presented in collaboration with Arts @ Large, and Artists Working in Education. The Milwaukee Arts Board and the Wisconsin Arts Board represent key public funding sources for organizations, in addition to private foundations that support the arts including Bader Philanthropies, The Herzfeld Foundation, and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation 

Local organizations were also buoyed through pandemic shutdowns, re-openings, and recovery by federal relief funding. According to a report from Wisconsin Policy Forum, states nationally allocated  1.7 percent of their America Rescue Plan funds toward arts and culture; in comparison Wisconsin allocated an impressive 5.8 percent. The same report, published in 2022, also found that employment, sales tax, and the overall numbers of organizations pointed to steady recovery.

Image courtesy of Imagine MKE, Milwaukee, WI. Photo credit Rob Ran. Image courtesy of Imagine MKE, Milwaukee, WI. Photo credit Rob Ran.

A Wealth of Artistic Talent 

Milwaukee boasts a deep pool of artistic talent including artists born and raised in the city and students who come to study at local arts schools like the Milwaukee Institute of Arts and Design (MIAD) and the Peck School of the Arts. Situated within striking distance of major arts markets like Chicago and Minneapolis, but with a relatively low cost of living and a supportive community, the city offers artists a mix of opportunity and freedom.  

Part of this sense of opportunity comes from a number of new funding initiatives: gener8tor Art is an accelerator program for visual artists, run by a nationally ranked venture capital firm. It provides funding accompanied by a brief period of capacity building for participants to help them accelerate their artistic careers. The Mary L Nohl Fund fellowship program, administered by the Lynden Sculpture Garden, provides unrestricted funds for established and emerging artists. The Open Fund, administered by the Poor Farm and The Open, supports visual artist initiatives that are public oriented and experimental. Both programs are funded by Ruth Arts, a Milwaukee-based foundation that centers artists in their grantmaking. The Arts/Industry residency program, administered by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and Kohler Co, is a unique residency program hosted within the Kohler Co. factory. Public art programs have also increased opportunity for local artists while providing Milwaukee residents and visitors with immersive arts experiences. Sculpture Milwaukee curates an annual outdoor public sculpture exhibition in the downtown area. Joy Engine creates immersive public art experiences, including Nitelite, an immersive arts and light festival that took place in September 2023.  

The regions’ artists are taking advantage of this moment, especially as the community emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic. “I see more artists willing to take risks on themselves,” says Darius Smith, Program Director of gener8tor Art x Sherman Phoenix. Smith also noted that funding opportunities are increasingly accessible for people from Milwaukee’s neighborhoods. “When these grants go to people who grew up on the North side, or the South side, and that says to other individuals that they also can access those opportunities.”  

Overall, Milwaukee's vibrant arts scene is a testament to the city's resilience and creativity. The arts have emerged as a dynamic force, shaping conversations around social issues and contributing to the city's vibrant cultural tapestry. As Milwaukee continues to evolve, its arts community will remain a crucial part of life in the good land.

Thank you to the following individuals for their thoughtful contributions to this profile:  

Elisabeth Gasparka, Director of Communications, Imagine MKE 

Maureen Ragalie, Managing Director, gener8tor Art 

Darius Smith, Program Director, gener8tor Art 

Alex Zimdars, Creative Marketing Manager, VISIT Milwaukee 

Sonya Thompson, Artistic Director, Ko-Thi Dance Company

ABOUT THE ARTS VIBRANCY INDEX

The Arts Vibrancy Index examines the level of supply, demand, and government support of the arts in more than 900 communities across the country. Accompanied by an interactive Arts Vibrancy Map that reveals the arts-vibrancy score of every county in the U.S., the Index lists, in alphabetical order, the 20 most arts-vibrant large cities, the 10 most arts-vibrant medium cities, and the 10 most arts-vibrant small cities. In this year’s Index, San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, CA, reclaims top spot on the list of most arts-vibrant large communities for the first time since 2018; Milwaukee-Waukesha, WI and Canton-Massillon, OH make their debut.

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