Shepherd Express: Making the Case for UPAF


 FEBRUARY 27, 2018

3:52 PM


When it was established 51 years ago, the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF) was focused on one particular Downtown Milwaukee building. Nowadays the scope has widened to the entire city.

“The Performing Arts Center [now the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts] was being built in 1967, and Milwaukee’s business leaders were concerned whether the city’s arts groups could sustain that performance space,” says UPAF’s president and CEO, Deanna Tillisch. “We have evolved over the past half-century. There’s a greater awareness of the underserved. The arts are a great vehicle for bringing people together in a common experience.”

UPAF’s 2018 Giving Campaign will launch on Monday, March 5, with an event at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater—one of 30 regional arts groups and facilities supported by funds raised by UPAF through workplace campaigns, individual and corporate donations, and events such as the popular Ride for the Arts in June. In 1967, UPAF member groups were simply expected to give excellent performances in the city’s grandest venues. In the new millennium, they are also expected to take their performances out into the metro area and to fill gaps left by the declining state of arts education in many schools.

According to Tillisch, some $600,000 was allocated in 2017 to member and affiliated groups for outreach to schools, involving 100,000 students. “An arts education has a material impact on lives,” she continues. “Many of those 100,000 children live below the poverty line. Our groups also bring a different dimension to education that schools don’t usually have the ability to do. First Stage did a seven-week literacy program at La Casa Esperanza’s K-4 school using theater to help teach reading and writing.” Last year, UPAF raised a record-breaking total of $12,312,885.

The March 5 event, called “Making the Case for UPAF,” was going to feature a Q&A with Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry—husband and wife and professional collaborators on TV’s long-running series, “L.A. Law.” Tucker was sidelined by unforeseen health concerns in the final days before the event, forcing the couple to postpone their Milwaukee visit until UPAF’s June 13 season finale at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. Both Tucker and Eikenberry have long résumés in film and television. As Tucker, a member of the Milwaukee Rep from 1967-1970, recalls, “The Rep was my second job out of school. I did five or six shows a year for three years. I rehearsed one during the day and played another in the evening. I was in heaven—and I got my feet under me. Acting became something I knew I was able to do. It was a crucial part of my development.”

Arts Education Hones Life Skills

He speaks to the importance of the arts—and not just for artists. “Taking all the funding from arts education is a disgrace in this country, and we will pay for it dearly,” he insists. “A nation can learn who and what it is through the people that express themselves through art.” He lists the skills an arts education teaches: “Trusting ones instincts, leaping into the void, using both sides of one’s brain, playing well with others.”

Eikenberry, whose earliest experiences in theater occurred while attending high school in Madison, adds, “Kids need a chance to develop as whole people, not just test-takers. As a theater student, I learned so many things that have helped me in my life. I’m excited to be part of UPAF’s fundraiser because they have been so effective in raising much-needed funds for the arts and because so many of the member groups are helping to get the arts to Milwaukee’s kids, who aren’t as fortunate as I was to have arts education in schools.”

For its first 49 years, UPAF went dark at the end of its three-month annual spring fundraising campaign. 2017 saw the inauguration of its first Performing Arts Awareness Campaign (PAAC)—a two-month effort to attract new audiences for the arts in general. Last fall’s campaign included pop-up performances by member groups during Gallery Night, podcasts sponsored by Radio Milwaukee and “Facebook Live,” with volunteer art world novices posting unfiltered responses to plays and concerts. “Our intention was to go beyond core patrons to the next circle of people who are interested in the arts but not sure about going to the symphony or the theater,” says UPAF’s chief marketing officer, Dave Fantle. He hopes to expand the PAAC this fall.

During what UPAF hopes will be Milwaukee’s “Year of the Artist,” the organization will, as Tillisch says, “put a face on what we fundraise for. It’s great to talk about a particular theater company, but we also want to spotlight the talent onstage and behind stage. It’s more than brick and mortar. It’s about people.”

She recalls attending a panel discussion with a group of Millennials. “The question we asked was: ‘How to increase your engagement?’ The answer was: ‘Show us how it’s made!’ In this era of transparency, they are interested in how the pieces fit together.”

“I call it ‘behind the proscenium,’” Fantle adds. “The makeup artists, costume and scenery designers, the stage managers—they’re all artists. We want to open the curtain a little more.”

Making the Case for UPAF takes place at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, March 5, at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 E. Wells St. Admission is $10. For more information, visit

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