In the city of Madison, the arts community is alive and well. From venues like the Sylvee and the Overture Center for the Arts to more community based spaces like the Arts + Literature Laboratory and Communication, local artists have a variety of places to creatively express themselves.
However, maintaining those spaces is easier said than done.
Communication, an arts and music nonprofit that is ‘dedicated to fostering a vibrant creative community, curating an all ages sober space for all forms of artistic’ is centered at 2645 Milwaukee St. and closed its door to the public a little over a year ago.
Jennie, Communication’s director, has a personal background as a community practice artist and photographer and shares that although Communication doesn’t have a strict hierarchical structure, her position is helpful because it helps a lot with applying to many different grants.
Speaking of grants, Communication’s standing as a nonprofit helps with their public image as generally speaking, many identity nonprofits as community-based organizations. However, Jennie does admit that sometimes the 501c3 nonprofit model can be flawed, as there are certain grants you can’t apply for.
Communication is run entirely by volunteers and on top of grants, they bring in money from donations, an online shop and in pre-COVID times, ticketed events that support local artists.
In wake of the pandemic, Jennie admits that they’ve had to reconsider how they can serve the community without being able to physically be together. “We’ve tried to think about ways of being sustainable and the past year has really increased that,” shared Jennie.
Volunteers at Communication are constantly revisiting questions like “Who are we here to serve?” and “What do they need and how do we support that?’
Around Valentine’s Day, Communication organized a "Queer Madison Mixtape" that was available to buy on Bandcamp. Jennie shares that all profits went to Freedom Inc., another local nonprofit that aims to achieve ‘social justice through coupling direct services with leadership development and community organizing.
“We want to be sustainable when we think about what other organizations we are investing in,” said Jennie. “We want to be invested in other people’s success.”
That sense of camaraderie is vibrant among the Madison arts community. Jennie shares that when she moved here six years ago, she became quickly involved in the arts scene because of the welcoming atmosphere.
She also admits that for artists in general, it can be intimidating because there are few spaces that operate as real galleries and the chance for exposure might be limited. On top of local spaces, the University of Wisconsin also plays a certain role in the arts community.
“There are certain types of personalities and identities that thrive in those specific settings,” said Jennie.
Communication tries to operate as a "third space," similar to that of coffee shops and libraries. All types of artists are welcome, as are all ages and a lot of their work mimics this idea of community importance.
In the past, Communication has partnered with Madison’s Public Library’s Bubbler program, “a hub that connects artists to the community and the community to artists through free, hands-on making, exhibitions and community-wide events.”
“These connections are really about the people that are there and what they want to do,” said Jennie. “We’re interested in connecting with people who have the same goals.”
In addition to their work with Madison public libraries, Communication has also worked with other art organizations like the Arts + Literature laboratory on south Livingston St.
It’s no secret the local art tends to be underfunded. This is a problem all over the country but Wisconsin as a state is 50th — yes, that’s last! — for art spaces and artists alike, there’s a certain reliance on exposure, rather than actual financial compensation for their work.
“It is really unfortunate that artists and musicians are taught that their passion is what should pay them and that they have to work other jobs to support their work, when those jobs are also underpaid,” said Jennie.
In a report conducted by the Argonne National Laboratory on COVID-19’s impact on arts & culture, the most recent data suggests that economically, arts and culture contribute 4.5% of the US GDP, which is more than industries like transportation and construction.
Other daunting data that illustrates the impact of the pandemic on an already vulnerable industry show that in the third quarter of 2020, 27% of musicians were unemployed.
Why is that? In a society that benefits from all sorts of arts and entertainment, there is a clear disconnect between what people gain and what those artists lose.
Jennie agrees and grows frustrated with the growing list of scenarios where artists are essentially doing free labor. She also reiterates the idea that a lot of artists are already working other service industry jobs that are already underpaid and face a long list of hardships on top of unfair compensation.
One avenue that artists can pay attention to in hopes of better funding is public policy.
“As creative people, we need to build on coalition building and the only way to make change in our community is to put pressure on policy workers,” said Jennie.
Jennie’s friend, Francesca Hong who owns Morris Ramen and serves as Wisconsin State Assembly’s 76th District representative has inspired her to think about what is possible for coalition building.
Funding of the arts is one of many things local politicians can influence and encourage. Using your voice and vote to put pressure on those elected can lead to real, visible change and Jennie is one of many local artists that see the opportunity.
Communication tries to ease the financial stress placed on local artists by fairly compensating them for their work. Amplifying local artists while promoting fair and equitable pay is crucial to the organization and the success of the community.
The Madison arts community is big and only growing. Jennie speaks to the role bigger players have to play in the conversation regarding fair pay and exposure. Bigger venues like the Sylvee are in a unique spot as more visible artists tend to go there, versus somewhere independent. Shining a light on smaller spaces can help give those spots a chance to reach a bigger audience, as well as gain more traction, which will in turn lead to better financial support.
Communication continues to work directly with those they serve and offer time, support and unique, creative outlets. As vaccine rollout in Wisconsin continues to expand, Jennie is hopeful that Communication can return to in-person activity sooner rather than later.
In 2020, Communication paid out $6000 to local artists, which is an admirable sum for never once having open hours and operating as a small organization. As art continues to be made, they only hope for that number to grow and with support from the community, as well as anticipated pressure on local officials, the show must and will go on.