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.