The immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on performing arts groups in Milwaukee was fairly obvious: Government shutdowns meant no shows, no shows meant no ticket revenue, dealing a big blow to organizations like First Stage, The Florentine Opera, Milwaukee Ballet, The Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Skylight Music Theatre, all of which are supported by the United Performing Arts Fund.
The fallout from the pandemic, however, continues as COVID surges cut into performances and reserves were depleted to keep artists and staff employed and organizations moving forward. Patrick Rath, president and chief executive officer of UPAF, and Tim Mattke, UPAF board chair and CEO of MGIC Investment Corp., joined BizTimes managing editor Arthur Thomas on the BizTimes MKE Podcast to discuss challenges in the performing arts industry. This Q&A features portions of the conversation. Listen to the full episode at biztimes.com/podcast
BizTimes: Could you explain a little about the United Performing Arts Fund and its mission?[caption id="attachment_559253" align="alignright" width="300"] Patrick Rath[/caption]
Patrick Rath: “... Over time, what UPAF has done, we continue to host workplace campaigns during the springtime with many businesses, well over 120 businesses host a workplace campaign with their employees giving back to the arts. We execute a wide-reaching community campaign that reaches out to individuals, corporations and foundations, and all told we’ll have somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000-plus donors from the community all saying, ‘We value the arts,’ and we’ll raise in the neighborhood of $10 million-plus. Those dollars go directly to the United Performing Arts Fund’s current members and its affiliates. We have 14 members, that’s the core of what we fund, and they represent the best in music, song, theater and dance in our greater community.”
BizTimes: Patrick, you joined UPAF in October 2020 as president and CEO. We were well into the pandemic at that point, what attracted you to joining an organization that supports the performing arts in the midst of a very challenging time?
Rath: “… I’ve been involved with the arts since I was 10 years old … knowing what was happening with the arts community during this very significant time with COVID, it was a chance to be part of a longer-term solution because there were some significant cracks in our financial pictures for the art sector as a whole. Not only did we need to stabilize where we were during this time frame, but also build for a greater future.”
BizTimes: Tim, you chair the UPAF board, how did you get involved, and what does the roll call on you to do in terms supporting the organization?[caption id="attachment_559254" align="alignright" width="300"] Tim Mattke[/caption]
Tim Mattke: “I got involved with UPAF in a more formal capacity probably just a little under a decade ago. I joined the finance committee to really help the organization to think through the finances, budget, all those types of things, joined the board more formally a couple years after that. … From a board leadership standpoint, Patrick and his staff and the volunteers are doing all the work, what we’re really there for from a board standpoint is to provide the right governance, to make sure we think about the organization, to make sure it’s set up the right way to achieve its mission.
“I think the other part that we’re really called on to do is to really think about it from a fundraising standpoint, too. A lot of leaders in the community, a lot of business leaders in the community are part of the board, they’re there because they care about the community, they care about the impact UPAF and the performing arts have on their business, they want to make sure we’re really good stewards of the dollars that are raised by not only the business community, but the community in general. My role as board chair is really to help facilitate that, make sure the dialogue is happening … and make sure we’re thinking about the long-term strategies of the organization.”
BizTimes: What is the importance for the business community of having strong, thriving performing arts organizations?
Mattke: “I think about it on a few levels, I think at the simple level of if you’re trying to be a world-class city, you want to have amenities for your co-workers and the people you’re trying to attract to your business and retain. Just like you want to have great professional sports organizations like the Bucks, you want to have a rep, you want to have a symphony ...”
“I think if you peel it back another layer, though, you think about what it provides to people when they’re here, and you think about the outlet it provides, the dialogue it creates in the community, I think trying to have people who are innovative on your teams, when they get exposed to the performing arts, has them think about those things that they maybe don’t think about in their everyday jobs and has them sort of broaden their mindset; I think that’s invaluable ...”
“The other layer I think about is just the community in general. The organizations we’re involved with, most people think about the performances that they do on the stage, they don’t probably think as much about what they’re doing in the community, whether it’s educational in the public schools, whether it’s getting out in the community for people who have challenges, that outlet for our community, especially when you’re in a spot where government isn’t able to provide a lot of those resources that they used to, our performing arts fills that void and makes our community stronger and better. ...”
BizTimes: What are some of the strategic keys for UPAF and its members in navigating the next few years?
Mattke: “If you’re going to put on the performances people expect, you can’t cut back on that, so when the organizations look to tighten, they look to tighten sort of administrative, behind the scenes, because you can’t give a performance that people don’t expect from you. So that’s a challenge I think they have to think about. ... We see changing behaviors, right? Subscriptions – in terms of how a lot of the organizations sell their tickets – when people haven’t been going for a couple of years, trying to get them to resubscribe, trying to get them to think in advance about committing to a show is a little bit of a challenge they’re going to have to think about from a revenue standpoint.
“I think from a UPAF perspective, being there to support the organizations the best way we know how. We fundraise and we advocate on behalf of the arts. ... UPAF has committed three-quarters of a million dollars to help out our member organizations to sort of come through this period, to help them get to the other side, but the other side is probably going to look a little bit different than what it did prior to COVID, and I think that’s what we’re trying to work with the member organizations to think about: what does the future look like?”
Rath: “... We have to also grow the long-term resources, which is replenishing and recapitalizing our various reserve funds and endowments that make up and should make up a healthy percentage of our overall budgets on an overall basis. ... I think the next three years, it is the growth out of this. It’s eerily similar to the economic downtown of 2008 where it took about five years for most of our organizations just to get back to a level where they were operating and that’s what we’re facing here now, too, but the stakes are even higher because there’s less capital to leverage during this timeframe.”
BizTimes: In what ways can UPAF and its members act like businesses, and in what ways does being performing arts organizations stop them from pulling the same levers?
Mattke: “There’s not as many levers, I would say. You can think about scale, how big of a scale of a production you’re putting on, maybe not have as many potential actors or actresses in a particular show. But take the symphony, for example: A symphony is a symphony and if you’re going to put on a show, you need the whole symphony to put on a show. So, that’s where in my business I might be able to say, ‘For this period of time, we’re not going to spend dollars here,’ and sort of get through the next quarter. That’s really difficult for the symphony to do, (with) musicians (for whom) that is their job, and without all of the musicians, they don’t have a symphony. What I’ve seen through all the conversation with these member groups, they’re thinking about every way they can do it ... but that’s really difficult to do on a sustainable basis.”