Shepherd Express Highlights UPAF Campaign Launch

Shepherd Express Highlights UPAF Campaign Launch


Despite economic uncertainty, turbulent markets and stagnant wages, the United Performing Arts Fund has defied expectations. One might expect philanthropic endeavors to be hard pressed in these times, but UPAF’s fundraising has only grown more successful. In 2015, UPAF set a record by raising $12,001,226.

According to UPAF President and CEO Deanna Tillisch, the upward bump was no fluke. “Over the past three years, we have seen a significant increase in giving with 18.1% growth,” she says. “Our goal is to continue raising the bar each year.”

UPAF’s 2016 campaign launch begins Tuesday, March 1, with an inaugural reception at the Pfister Hotel’s Grand Ballroom. The event’s theme centers on The Wizard of Oz and its deathless song, “Over the Rainbow.” The guest of honor, Aaron Harburg, is great-grandson of the song’s socially conscious lyricist, Yip Harburg. “The Yip Harburg Foundation and UPAF share similar goals,” he says. “Namely, enriching the lives of others through the arts. Yip understood the importance of creativity and its power to impact culture. Making it possible for others to continue is something that he would no doubt actively encourage.” The UPAF campaign culminates with the annual Ride for the Arts, scheduled for Sunday, June 5.

When it began in 1967, UPAF was a novel idea founded on two concepts: 1. Fill one large pot of money and divide it among Milwaukee performing arts groups, reducing the scramble to compete for donors; 2. Derive a portion of that money pot from workplace giving as well as private and corporate donations.

Six performing arts groups that received UPAF money in 1967 are with us today: Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Florentine Opera Company, Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, Skylight Music Theatre and Bel Canto Chorus. UPAF eventually settled on a formula involving 15 “member groups” who receive the lion’s share while reserving funding for “affiliate groups.”

Why only 15? “It is important that we provide adequate funding for all our groups,” Tillisch explains. “Having too many groups diminishes our impact.”

UPAF’s original mission of keeping music and theater on Milwaukee stages at high levels of proficiency has been supplemented in recent years by the need to repair a faltering cultural ecosystem. In 1967, no one imagined that arts funding would be slashed from public schools and public funding for the arts would dwindle.

“UPAF and its member groups can not entirely fill the gaps left by these funding cutbacks,” Tillisch says. But UPAF has stepped in, providing its member groups with grants enabling them to stage performances and hold workshops in area schools. UPAF’s Notable Women affinity group is dedicated to raising money towards arts education. Another initiative, UPAF Connect, “will partner with local nonprofits to bring our member groups and arts education programming to those who traditionally have not had this opportunity.”

Although UPAF customarily concentrated its efforts in Milwaukee County, affiliate groups in Waukesha and Racine counties also benefit from the fund. “A strong performing arts scene, while mostly based in the Downtown [Waukesha] area, impacts the entire region by attracting innovative companies and talented individuals,” Tillisch says.

The 2016 UPAF Campaign Launch begins at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, March 1, at the Pfister Hotel Grand Ballroom, 424 E. Wisconsin Ave. The program will be emceed by Ryan Jay of Channel 4’s “Morning Blend” and feature comments by Aaron Harburg. The event is repeated at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 2, at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts, 19805 W. Capitol Drive. For more information, call 414-273-8723 or visit

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