Milwaukee Arts Working Together Amid Pandemic
It was Wednesday, March 11, and our team had just completed the Support for Artists Work Group session to round out our quarterly meetings. As we divided up meeting materials among our cars to take back to the office, I noticed a disparity in the actual attendance versus the number that had registered, and hypothesized that it might’ve been due to the rising concern of a novel new flu virus that had struck abroad and began to hit our country. We then all traded takes: from “this could be the end of the world as we know it” to “it’s a nastier version of the flu.” Either way, we’d have the option to work from home in the interim. Little did we know that Friday, March 13th would be the last time we’d work in the office together for the foreseeable future.
In the spectrum of takes, this ended up being closer to the “end of the world as we know it” side with regards to arts and culture: no mass gatherings, which means no audiences for the performing arts and virtually rendering the service industry obsolete, which is a key industry to sustain artists. Though we already initiated the MKE Artist Relief Fund, we needed to connect and convene our sector leaders to identify ways to respond to the pandemic, and initiated the COVID19 Task Force series. Through the late spring and early summer, we convened nearly 110 leaders across several meetings to find ways to support our most vulnerable neighborhoods, ensure that arts and culture would be covered in the relief and recovery funding legislation and be ready for the Badger Bounceback, and align our small arts and cultural organizations on recommendations for support through the pandemic.
I had the role of producing these convenings – from designing the agendas to crafting the “MURALs” which would serve as our collaborative workspace on the call. It was also a courtside seat to witnessing the work – here were some of the moments that stood out to me:
Since our inception, we’ve partnered with Metcalfe Park and Amani neighborhood organizations on activating arts and culture. Our first session featured Melody McCurtis from Metcalfe Park Community Bridges sharing how they had surveyed 750 residents and identified their most pressing needs, and how arts and culture organizations could help. Within minutes, all the organizations in attendance identified ways they could meet that demand – from lending their extra vehicles to support supply distribution and opening up their purchasing lines to secure cleaning supplies, to distributing art-packs to children and facilitating virtual story circles so neighbors could feel more connected.
After Gov. Evers announced the “Badger Bounceback”, we wanted to hold a convening for leaders to identify how arts and culture orgs could best “bounce back” after the pandemic. We started the session by inviting participants to imagine "headlines of magazines and newspapers if the best-case scenario were to happen.
This conversation was compelling to me because our leaders spent time being bold in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty. Even though the room was “virtual”, I could feel the energy rising – this would not be the usual Zoom meeting.
From that, we were able to lead the conversation – what would it take for government, philanthropy, the private sector, and the general public to help those headlines become reality. We closed the conversation by inviting participants to reflect on how we as a sector could work differently.
I appreciated this conversation because I appreciated that the attendees recognized that we as a sector have to adapt and work differently, and this was a good first step to chart that path.
Our “Small Arts and Culture Organizations” series was actually inspired by one of the attendees – LaShawndra Vernon, who had recognized that small arts and culture groups were especially vulnerable in this time, and needed a space to collaborate. As a result, we hosted two meetings which brought together leaders from nearly 30 small organizations – one which produced a set of recommendations for effective partnership with philanthropy.
Moving Forward, we learned that for a good chunk of our participants, this was the first time they were in conversation with each other. This was especially true for our Small Arts and Culture organizations – who were able to connect across discipline and geography, and are now self-organizing around specific projects – like developing a ”Mary Nohl-like" award for individual performing artists, developing shared summer programming, and deepening the connection between philanthropy and small organizations.
These meetings also provided a focus for our Shared Agenda work – as these meetings provided data insights for our recent July Work Group series, which focused on adapting the collective work in the coming year.
Finally, it affirmed that we need to craft more spaces for our artists, administrators, and community leaders to imagine and do sense-making together. While we have to honor social distancing protocols, more than ever we need to have opportunities to collaborate and scheme together, and we need all hands-on deck. If you want to be part of the work, we invite you to visit our Work Groups page to find how you can join in.
Want to learn more about Mac, and how he serves Imagine MKE as our Senior Director of Collective Impact? Check out his profile on our "Our Staff" website page.