Shepherd Express: UPAF’s New President, Patrick Rath, on Sustaining Milwaukee’s Performing Arts in Turbulent Times

Jean-Gabriel Fernandez | December 16, 2021

For obvious reasons, 2020 was not the best year for the performing arts in Milwaukee. Beyond the risk of COVID-19 infections for audience members, staff and performers, such gatherings go against instructions from Gov. Tony Evers. By August, 33.9% of Wisconsinites working in the arts, entertainment and recreation had filed for unemployment, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. This is a challenge; working to overcome it is the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF) that supports some of the biggest names in local entertainment through fundraising. At its helm is Patrick Rath, its new president named in October 2020.

The organization raised and allocated more than $8.6 million in 2019 to its member groups. For the 2020-2021 season, UPAF allocated more than $8.4 million to member groups, a slight dip due to a decrease in donations this year, they recently announced. A total of $7.17 million, or about 85% of the allocation, will be distributed to six of UPAF’s 14 member groups: Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Milwaukee Ballet, First Stage, Florentine Opera Company and Skylight Music Theatre. UPAF receives no government funding,” and as its literature explains, “Generous individuals, companies and foundations contribute to all dollars raised.”

As the pandemic unfolded and performing arts communities lost all ticket revenue, companies had to either find new forms of revenue or reduce expenses, eventually leading to the staggering unemployment numbers seen in the sector.

“Our arts community is one of the finest in the country, and this pandemic has put it under attack. Venues have closed down from day one, which means that the artists, both onstage and offstage, have been unable to perform their craft. The longer this pandemic continues, with effectively no performance opportunities, the greater the risk that we will not retain the talent pool in our communities to come back strong,” says UPAF President Patrick Rath. “Everything that we are doing, it is to maintain this talent pool. These people are not part of a singular organization; they are a fabric, a network of artists in our community who add vibrancy in our lives.”

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