Wisconsin Examiner: Can bipartisan support save arts funding in Wisconsin?

May 5, 2023

Salvation for the arts in Wisconsin may yet be delivered by an unlikely partnership between non-profits, Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and the former head of the state Republican Party.

Right now it doesn’t look good. What a state arts coalition terms a “generational” opportunity to endow the arts in Wisconsin was nixed on Tuesday, just one among 545 of Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposals to be cancelled by the Legislature’s Republican-led Joint Finance Committee.


The timing is swift. Joint Finance’s actions were outlined in a memo to committee members from co-chair Sen. Howard Marklein on Friday. The last of the committee’s three listening sessions around the state was just two days before that. 

Early last week, Marklein’s chief of staff, Katy Prange, told Wisconsin Examiner, “Sen. Marklein does not have a comment on this particular [arts] funding request at this time. The Joint Finance Committee is looking at all of their options and will consider all spending as part of the full budget plan.” That consideration was wrapped up three days later with the Friday memo. .

“It doesn’t mean that it’s over. We just have to figure out how to finish,” says Anne Katz, executive director of Madison-based Create Wisconsin, an advocacy non-profit that helped organize the “creative economy coalition” of 134 member organizations from across the state (see sidebar). They include the Wisconsin Counties Association and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

Wisconsin ranks last among the 50 states for public arts funding. Badger arts groups had hoped the Legislature would set aside $100 million of the state’s record $7 billion surplus for one-time financing of the Wisconsin Artistic Endowment Foundation. Created in 2001 with bipartisan support under Republican Gov. Scott McCallum, the foundation was never funded.

Its proceeds were to be used by the state’s arts agency, the Wisconsin Arts Board, to leverage a larger federal funding match from the National Endowment for the Arts. In recent years, state funding levels have sometimes been less than required to claim the full annual NEA grant. Wisconsin spends 14 cents per capita on the arts. Illinois spends $5.04 and Minnesota spends $7.34.

The legislature could still craft a bill to separately fund the endowment. “We’re in this for the long haul.” vows Katz.  For now, though, Joint Finance’s position is a sharp disappointment for the coalition members assembled to back the proposal, most of them rural arts non-profits.

It’s a disappointment, too, for their lobbyist, Michael Best Strategies, a firm with impeccable conservative credentials.

The lobbyist is  an affiliate of the Milwaukee-based law firm Michael Best & Friedrich, LLP, whose president and chief strategist is Reince Priebus, formerly chair of the Republican National Committee and White House chief of staff for President Trump. Priebus serves as chair of the board of advisors for Michael Best Strategies, which engineered the arts coalition’s public face. Katz credits the firm for the coalition’s branding.

Though it had been in the works for months, “Wisconsin’s Creative Economy Coalition” was announced by Michael Best Strategies on April 20. Michael Best Strategies came up with the name, put together the coalition’s website and wrote the press release, which named  principal and senior strategist Joe Fadness as public contact. (Fadness has not responded to repeated requests for comment.)

The relationship between players is an example of politics making strange bedfellows. As a political party, Republicans tend not to favor funding government agencies that award arts grants, for a variety of reasons:

“As the U.S. Congress struggles to balance the federal budget and end the decades-long spiral of deficit spending, few programs seem more worthy of outright elimination than the National Endowment for the Arts,” argues a 1997 report from The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank. 

The National Review, which calls itself the magazine that “defined the modern conservative movement and enjoys the broadest allegiance among American conservatives,” agreed in 2017 — kind of: “The case against the NEA is not that abolishing it will save the federal government a tremendous amount of money. It won’t. The NEA’s budget is, relatively speaking, chickenfeed.” Rather, “the case against the NEA is that it is bad for art and bad for artists.” 

The National Review  argues that most NEA dollars go to “community-development programs with an arts component,” which it characterizes as  a bad thing.

But some Wisconsin heavy-hitters involved in the coalition for the arts  have strong GOP credentials. Fadness, campaign manager for former Gov. Scott Walker during his unsuccessful 2015-16 campaign for president, eventually became executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Earlier he served as director of external relations for Gov. Walker. In his 2013 book “Unintimidated: A governor’s story and a nation’s challenge,” Walker credited Fadness as “part of that great team that did more than win – we laid out a roadmap for reform.”

One of those reforms hit the arts in Wisconsin hard. In 2011, after just three months in office, Walker announced plans to cut the Wisconsin Arts Board’s budget by as much as 73 percent, eliminate its staff and remove its agency status. He was largely successful.

Similarly, after just three months in office, Preibus’ boss, Donald Trump, attempted to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. He was not successful.

These are not arts fans of government support for the arts. But that’s exactly why the arts groups chose Michael Best Strategies.

“We shopped for the lobbying firms that had ties to the majority” in the state Legislature, says Katz. “And for those connections, Michael Best is a great fit.” Notably, Preibus’ roommate at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater was Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

“Michael Best provides an opportunity for the discussion to happen fully,” says another of the coalition organizers, Patrick Rath, president of Milwaukee’s United Performing Arts Fund (no relation to the writer). “That’s what we appreciate.”

The contract with Michael Best Strategies runs through mid-June. Katz says they’ve been working with eight of its staff. “They’re working pretty hard.  They’re pretty engaged,” she says. 

The cost of the firm’s retainer was covered  by the coalition’s largest and most financially robust members. “Let’s just say we’re paying them a considerable amount,” says Katz.