Mama Africa Commited to her Art, and you Madison..?

Mama Africa died on Sunday.

Grammy-award winning Miriam Makeba suffered a fatal heart attack shortly after her performance at a benefit concert in Italy. Makeba, who had been exiled from her native South Africa for 30 years before her triumphant return in 1990 at the behest of Nelson Mandela, was 76 years old.

In 1993, I had the distinct honor of presenting Makeba in concert with her former husband, Hugh Masekela, at the Barrymore Theatre. The show remains a highlight of my professional career, even though Makeba’s own performance that night was limited to just a few songs due to illness.

I recall being humbled by the experience, by the privilege of being able to facilitate such an important cultural event for the city of Madison.

And that is why, today, I’m worried for my city.

Under consideration at tonight’s Common Council meeting is the removal of the Municipal Arts Fund which for the last 30 years has helped support the arts and enhance the culture of Madison.

I’m not sure how this makes sense. I understand the city is broke, the state is broke, our nation is broke, everyone but the Chinese are broke…and even they are worried.

But cutting the arts is penny wise and pound foolish.

Consider for a moment the concert I put on for Mama Africa fifteen years ago. Those who attended the show spent money at the Barrymore. Before coming to the show, they might have had dinner at the Blue Plate across the street or had a beer afterwards at the Harmony. They might have come in from out of town and stayed at the Edgewater, and maybe even gone shopping the next day on State Street. In other words, money got spent, the wealth was shared, value was created, and, not insignificantly, tax revenues were generated.

There are other ways, perhaps less direct, of tallying the impact of the arts. When Promega or Epic Systems or the great University of Wisconsin is looking to attract and retain top talent, you can bet the quality of Madison’s overall arts and cultural scene comes into play. When high-tech firms like Microsoft are scouting new locations, the arts rank up there as a deciding factor.

Folks want something to do, and the fact that Madison has a music scene, for example, that rivals cities two or three or four times as large is not a nothing.

Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, established the fact that a vital arts scene is a critical component in attracting the desirable “creatives” considered key to growing and sustaining a local economy.

In other words, we can’t afford not to support the arts. Divesting in the arts is to invest in failure. We do so at our own peril.

In short, I don’t believe the argument that we can’t afford to support the arts in this present moment of financial crisis. During the Great Depression, it wasn’t only bricklayers and carpenters and masons who were put to work under the WPA, but also actors and dancers and painters and musicians.

The market alone simply cannot sustain the cultural life of Madison. True Endeavors will continue to present a diverse array of live music and entertainment with a view towards deepening the cultural life of this great city. But the non-profit publicly-funded arts groups are absolutely essential in that they are able to do what we cannot.

The Miriam Makeba show fifteen years ago made money, but there have been a good number of shows since, of equal cultural worth, that have lost a lot of money, to the point where we have to be increasingly cautious about whom we bring to town.  If the marketplace alone is determinant as to what artistic endeavors get presented in Madison, apart from any subsidy or assistance from the common purse, our shared cultural life as well as our long-term economic vitality will surely be diminished.

There will be an opportunity for public testimony regarding amendment #26 on Tuesday, November 11, 2009. The Common Council meeting will start at 5:30pm in room 201 of the City-County Building, 210 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.

Citizens are always welcome to attend these open public meetings and register their position on the matters being considered and/or briefly express their opinions by making a short verbal statement. There are 28 budget amendments being proposed, so public comment on Amendment #26, which calls for removing the Municipal Arts Fund, is likely to come up for discussion sometime after comments on the first 25 amendments have been heard. If you are interested in attending the meeting you are welcome to arrive at any time, although there is no way to predict when Council will hear comments on #26 because that is entirely dependent on how many people register to speak about the other issues being considered.

Citizens can also express their thoughts on Amendment #26 through direct correspondence/contact with their Alderpersons. To find your Alderperson’s contact information visit:

Meanwhile, while pondering the future of the arts in Madison, check out the late, great Miriam Makeba on YouTube:

“Pata Pata”

-Tag Evers

(If you’d like to comment on this or any other bog just click on the title of the entry and scroll down)

2 Responses

  1. We won!

    Just heard word from Karin Wolf of the Madison Arts Commission that Amendment 26 was voted down during tonight’s Common Council meeting.

    Way to go Madison!

  2. What a relief- thanks to all who went and expressed their opinions!

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