Elevated

When people wax poetic about “the good old days,” it’s not often that they’re referring to the 15th century.

“Artists had it best during the Medici period,” my table mate says to me.  She’s referring to the Italian dynasty famously credited for ushering forth the Renaissance. Their patronage of promising new artists such as Botticelli, Raphael, Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, and even Galileo launched a trend where arts patronage became one of the ultimate status symbols for wealthy families.

“If there were a tax break, patronage might have a comeback,” she says. “We do need patrons again.”

Her name is Amanda Marquardt. I found her in the café as I was scouting someone to share a cup of coffee. I picked her out right away: dark hair with fair features, fierce haircut, fluid movements as she worked on her laptop and an appraising sideways glance as I sat down with my coffee.

Amanda has recently returned to Milwaukee, after 12 years in Los Angeles, to help out with her niece and nephews. A graduate of Milwaukee High School of the Arts, Amanda has been immersed in the arts for as long as she can remember.

“I’ve been dancing since I was three, started instruments when I was 10 and theater when I was 14,” she says.

Amanda describes some of her work as abstract, “late night,” and a bit sardonic. Her plays have earned three nominations for LA Weekly Awards; she’s been a tour manager for the Prince Poppycock, a past finalist on  America’s Got Talent); she produces authentic burlesque shows; and is regularly consulted as a Vaudeville expert.

“In the 20s and 30s, it was working,” Amanda says. “Clubs would include 10-12 chorus girls in their budget. Costumes, a choreographer, a live band. They all were paid. Not a lot, but they earned a working wage.”

“Why do you think things changed?” I asked.

“All that money was yanked out of the budget, out of the schools, out of the social infrastructure,” she says. “The struggle is that, now, people will spend $150 a month on an insurance policy they probably won’t use, but can’t see the value of the arts.”

We talk about the life of an artist, the sacrifices, the necessary drive, the investment of time, education, training and the unbalanced payoff of financial instability.

“There are so many talented people who used all of their saving to move to LA, but can’t go to auditions because they have to work three jobs,” she says.  “The risk is so high.”

Amanda and I share woeful observations about mass market entertainment and how arts and culture will be defined for a new generation, especially with the withering investment of the arts in schools. She’s currently building a Shakespeare children’s theater.

“There are kids who can actually sing who don’t make the cut at Disney because they don’t look a certain way,” she says. “It’s all a big machine that diminishes the other things the arts can do. I was encouraged when my little girls told me they preferred being at rehearsal instead of watching TV.”

Amanda’s friend from high school, Matt, arrives.  As he approaches the table, she introduces him as “a wonderful visual and conceptual artist.” He raises a blush, shrugs one shoulder. Matt is blonde, clean shaven with a youthful glint in his eye.  He also works full-time in the engineering department for the Pfister.

“He’s creating the artwork for my upcoming show,” Amanda says. “I should be able to write him a big fat check for his incredible talent.”

I turn to Matt and explain, “We’ve been talking about the state of the arts.”

“She opened up Pandora’s box is what she did,” Amanda says to Matt.  To me, she turns to say, “He’s heard all this. A lot.”

Matt chuckles and excuses himself to wait at another table with his portfolio. I ask Amanda why she thinks artists keep at it, with the deck stacked so high.

She folds her hands in her lap, gives me a wry smile and says, “I have no other marketable skills.”

“I know better than that,” I say after a laugh. “To sustain an artist’s career for as long as you have, you have an arsenal of marketable skills.  So, really, what pushes you?”

Amanda leans back against the cafe bench to think for a moment. “Where we have evolved is incredible, but where we could be makes me sad,” she says. “A society that values its creative community is one that is elevated. People don’t see the immediate value, but I know that the arts completely inspires people.”

We say our goodbyes, Amanda with a production to plan and me with scribbled notes to sort through.  As tempting as it can be to second-guess a career in the arts, Amanda’s bold conversation was fortifying to this writer and, I’m sure, the many young people and performers she will mentor. Completely inspired, indeed.

Patronage and the Everyman

 

The Campus Theater in Ripon, Wisconsin was the first business opened by company founder, Ben Marcus.

The Medici Family were bankers from Tuscany, Italy. Their initial family monies were made in the textile industry and they were influential in developing the double entry bookkeeping system. During the renaissance they owned Europe’s largest bank.

I’m sure their advances in bookkeeping are fascinating but that is not generally why the Medici name has survived throughout history. The Medicis were great patrons of the arts and sciences. Artists so highly regarded we don’t bother speaking their entire names; Masaccio, Donatello, Brunelleschi, da Vinci, and even Galileo.

The first time I saw a concert in Summerfest’s largest amphitheater I was 15. The headliners were Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler, and Ziggy Marley. I won two tickets by being the 14th caller though a radio giveaway. I took a friend from theater camp, and it was the first concert I was allowed to attend without any parents present to shepherd the teenage flock. As I think back, oddly enough, I worked at a Marcus owned KFC at the time.

Yesterday evening the Marcus Corporation kicked off their UPAF fundraising campaign at the Pfister. It was a night of camaraderie, speeches, prizes, and fantastic food and drink. Employees were encouraged to donate to the United Performing Arts Fund, an entity of which the Marcus Family have been patrons for many years. UPAF’s current tagline is, simply, “Life’s better with the arts.”

Mr. Marcus spoke at the event last night. I type this with a bit of a chuckle because their have been three Mr. Marcus’ over the years. Ben Marcus started his company in 1935 by opening a movie theater in Ripon, Wisconsin. His son Steve took the company helm in 1988. In the past few years grandson Greg has taken over as CEO.

Greg Marcus referenced Oklahoma City, where the company operates a lovely historic property called the Skirvin Hotel. He said Oklahoma City recently invested a great deal in their infrastructure and arts and culture community. Mr. Marcus added that this was met with some grousing by the city’s long-time and retired residents. They didn’t view the expenditure as important as they weren’t certain if they’d see the fruits of their monetary seeds. During this dialogue within their city someone asked, in response, if those folks would like to see their grandchildren. The question was met with shrugging and head scratching. Greg explained that, “If you want to see your grandchildren a city needs to be somewhere your children can be gainfully employed and not desire to move to another city. But we can’t have jobs alone, a city requires an active culture worthwhile for residents spread their earnings throughout the community. So, if you don’t want to have to drive to Tulsa, or Dallas, or any other city to see your grandchildren, Oklahoma City needs to be the place your kids want to keep living.”

This type of conversation crosses my mind when I’m at Milwaukee’s Lakefront, one of it’s festivals, or one of our many county parks. These places don’t exist on accident, and we don’t have free and public beaches because the real estate is undesirable. Decades ago, centuries even, people decided that those areas were worthwhile to keep public to increase our collective quality of life. The idea of shared park space was relatively new, as European royalty often enjoyed exclusively any desirable land. Ken Burns’ documentary on the topic was titled, succinctly, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.

I may be getting a little off the direct topic, but I see a parallel between patronage toward the arts and the coexistence of natural spaces for us to share. They both require the conclusion, whether by one person or many, that,

“This has value to me.”

Over the last six months, I’ve been able to gather the stories of people traveling through Milwaukee, native Milwaukeeans, and everyone in between. But years before that a few people got together and decided that there is a history, a contemporary living history, that is worth documenting. They decided that Milwaukee and the Pfister Hotel are worth it, and they’ve invited artists and writers in to actively chronicle our contemporary lives within this cream-bricked city. I’ve been lucky to capture a few of these stories, reassemble them, and hand the bouquet back over for you to experience. Whether you’ve been a reader, a hotel guest, a new friend with a story, a conscientious employee…you’ve all acted as patrons.

I look out from Blu’s 23rd floor windows. Summerfest is visible and far to the south in white lettering across a blue background reads The Marcus Amphitheater. The venue in which I saw that first concert the summer before my junior year in high school. Summerfest; that musical playground of my teenage summers. Which someone built just for me and everybody else.