Imagine MKE has emerged out of a two-year effort to address a lack of coordination in Milwaukee’s art sector. Under local philanthropist Katie Heil’s leadership, more than 100 representatives from Milwaukee’s artistic and business sectors have been convening to develop a shared agenda with the goal of establishing Milwaukee as a “creative hub and a world-class arts city,” the organization said.
As chief executive officer, Lee will now spearhead those efforts.
Before joining Imagine MKE, Lee led Feeding Wisconsin, the Madison-based association of Feeding America food banks in Wisconsin, since 2014. Prior to that, he managed program development and led state government relations and grassroots advocacy at Feeding America.
Lee’s new role combines his nonprofit leadership background with his lifelong love for the arts, which started when he was placed at a performing arts high school in San Francisco. Lee went on to study film and drama at Vassar College.
“Before high school, I had no context for the performing arts, what it meant, how it could help me understand the world,” Lee said. “And it literally opened up a brand new world for me in how I engage in learning, creativity, innovation and leadership.”
The search for Imagine MKE’s CEO yielded 70 applicants, a pool that included both local and national candidates, Heil said.
“It was unanimous,” she said of Lee’s appointment. “… His skills will translate to leading a coalition: his advocacy work, the fact that he has the heart and soul of an artist and the fact that he’s bringing a fresh perspective to the sector.”
Heil initiated the coalition to fill a need in the city, she said.
The initial convening of arts-related stakeholders occurred around the time when the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra announced plans to move from the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts and into its new home at the former Warner Grand Theatre on Wisconsin Avenue, Heil said. It also followed conversations regarding the need for cultural assets funding that were prompted by the Milwaukee Bucks arena funding discussion.
Wisconsin ranks 48th nationally for public arts funding, according to a National Assembly of State Arts Agencies study. That scarcity has contributed to an environment of competition, rather than collaboration among area artists, Heil said.
Moving forward, Imagine MKE can be a “megaphone” for the sector in discussions regarding philanthropic and state investments in arts-related capital campaigns, Lee said.
“For funders, we can provide context,” Heil said. “Personally, I was looking for that kind of context, as a smaller funder in the arts and culture space.”
Studies, such as a recent report from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Endowment for the Arts showing Wisconsin’s creative industries’ $9.7 billion annual economic impact, underscore the importance of the sector, Lee said.
“As a sector, across Wisconsin, we employ over 90,000 people, which is more than the beer industry,” he said. “We’re also bigger than paper and biotech combined. That’s an incredible story.”
Beyond its economic impact, Lee said, championing Milwaukee’s arts scene is important as employers seek to attract and retain talent.
“Some of the folks we want to bring to our state to potentially be engineers or to work in tech, those folks are artists,” he said. “They’re doing incredible, high-level work. And we have to think about how arts affects business in terms of creativity, innovation, attraction and retention and how it impacts public health … When I think about the key concerns of our city, arts and culture have a big role to play.”
Included in the Imagine MKE coalition are a host of other groups that also champion or fund raise on behalf of Milwaukee’s art scene, such as the United Performing Arts Fund, Milwaukee Filmmaker Alliance and Milwaukee Artist Resource Network. Imagine MKE is aimed at bringing everyone to the table to advance the overall sector.
“We’re sort of the hub of hubs,” Heil said.
Within a few years, Lee envisions Imagine MKE serving as an arts chamber of commerce for the region.
Prior to Imagine MKE’s creation, Milwaukee was the largest city in the country without a dedicated local arts agency, Heil said.
“We have rich arts and culture here; that’s not the issue,” she said. “It’s about advancing it, making it grow and telling the story of what we have here because I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of doing that. That’s all been part of our agenda.”
The organization is currently in its seed funding stage, having raised about $500,000 from private foundations that will support its first year of operation.
“We’re in round two of funding and hoping to get to some revenue model by year five,” Lee said.
Lee said the Democratic National Convention next summer will provide an opportunity for Imagine MKE to put a spotlight on the city’s arts and culture. The coalition plans to help connect artists to performance opportunities associated with the convention, which is expected to bring more than 1,500 events to the region.
“We’re hoping that with some of the promotions of the DNC going forward you will see a little bit more of arts and culture, rather than simply all the things we’re known for, like beer, sports, all the things we love,” Lee said. “Having a more visible arts and culture promotion for the DNC is part of the reason we were created.”
Lee plans to complete a “100 day tour” to meet with stakeholders in his first months on the job. Imagine MKE will hold an official launch event in September.