As COVID-19 ravaged the livelihoods of hundreds of Dane County artists in spring 2020 by forcing the cancellation of all live appearances, Mark Fraire knew he had to stop the bleeding. The director of the Dane County Arts and Cultural Affairs Commission (better known simply as Dane Arts) secured $15,000 in private funding and began offering $250 to artists who requested it to help boost their online presence.

As more money became available from both private and public sources, Dane Arts increased the grant to $500, eventually helping 250 independent working artists in Dane County throughout 2020. Then in April 2021, thanks in no small part to Fraire’s tireless allegiance to the local arts community, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and the Dane County Board of Supervisors allocated $1 million to Dane Arts to be distributed to artists in the form of Dane Arts Need Grants (DANG).

“I wanted to call it the DAMN grant — Dane Arts Materials Need — but the county said, ‘We don’t like that,’” Fraire says with a laugh.

The message, nevertheless, was clear: “The arts are an integral part of the local economy, and in turn will play an impactful role in our comeback and recovery,” Parisi said when the DANG program was announced.

“I’m really into how the arts are an economic driver for our communities,” Fraire says. “They generate funds that go right back into the local economy, and I want to get more businesses to understand that.”

A total of 400 artists — including writer, poet and storyteller Marisol González Rodríguez, Waunakee photographer Mark Weller, digital artist and muralist Lilada Gee, comedian Antoine McNeail and musician Josh Harty — received $2,500 each. Some, like González Rodríguez, used the money for bills and computer repairs. Harty put the grant dollars toward new microphones and a new computer, which allowed him to perform livestreams as well as record at home during the pandemic.

“A lot of musicians play 20, 24 nights out of the month,” says Harty, who still is not performing live as often as he did prior to the pandemic. “Restaurants rely on somebody coming in to provide the entertainment. That grind is a huge economic driver. I don’t think people realize how much they are impacted by art, every single day.”

Weller pooled his grant money with that of another local artist to co-purchase a trailer to transport his work to and from exhibitions. He also began participating in virtual exhibitions during the pandemic, which has allowed his work to be featured around the country.

“Artists are running a business, and Dane Arts gets that,” says Weller, who also took several business-related classes the commission hosted pre-pandemic. “Dane Arts has been so instrumental in helping me connect the dots.”

Connecting the dots has been Fraire’s mission since he became leader of Dane Arts in 2014 after spending 17 years as a grants specialist for the Wisconsin Arts Board and a short stint doing similar work for the Madison Metropolitan School District.

Dane County is part of the Arts & Economic Prosperity study conducted by the nonprofit organization Americans for the Arts approximately every five to seven years. The latest results, based on fiscal year 2015, came to this conclusion: “The nonprofit arts and culture sector is a significant industry in Dane County — one that generates $249.9 million in total economic activity. This spending — $145.7 million by nonprofit arts and cultural organizations and an additional $104.2 million in event-related spending by their audiences — supports 9,154 full-time equivalent jobs, generates $183.6 million in household income to local residents, and delivers $23.9 million in local and state government revenue.”

“We use this data to show the business community the value of what artists do for our community,” Fraire says. “Changes are being made through deliberate efforts.”

As examples of those deliberate efforts, he points to more than 70 murals that now liven up the county, as well as the burgeoning cultural arts corridor on Madison’s East Washington Avenue — driven in part by the collective presence of the Brink Lounge/High Noon complex, Madison Youth Arts Center, The Sylvee, the Dark Horse ArtBar, the Artists in Residence program at StartingBlock Madison, and a range of cultural events at Breese Stevens Field.

Since 2019, Dane Arts has partnered with Forward Madison FC, the city’s professional soccer team, to offer a free poster series, which is an example of what Fraire calls “spARTS” — the co-mingling of sports and art. Each home game at Breese Stevens features a different poster created by a local artist, who receives payment and free admission to the game, as well as recognition on the scoreboard.

The poster promotion, which has helped raise the profile of both the artists and Forward Madison FC, stemmed from a 2019 article in The New York Times about the National Basketball Association’s Portland Trailblazers poster giveaways. “People were coming to the game just to get the poster,” Fraire recalls. “Wow. What a great idea.”

González Rodríguez believes her work as one of two new artists-in-residence at StartingBlock Madison this year (poet Araceli Esparza is the other; poet Sasha Debevec-McKenney’s stint ends in July) has not only helped her better understand the business of writing but also has helped increase recognition of artists — especially artists of color. In the program, artists in residence have access to the coworking space and resources, and StartingBlock members interact with the artists.

“It’s definitely changed the dynamic,” she says about sharing space with several budding entrepreneurs. “People are a little more aware of what artists do now.”

That awareness should continue to grow. In May, Dane Arts awarded $95,400 in grants to 59 local artists, part of more than $180,000 in public-private funds the county plans to distribute this year to nonprofit organizations, schools, individuals and municipalities for arts, cultural and local history projects and programs.

Fraire says his former gig as a standup comic exposed him to the challenges of being an artist, but they also helped prepare him for his role at Dane Arts. “Being a comedian requires the ability to interact with others,” he says. “It’s about networking, it’s about building a relationship with the audience, it’s about timing — knowing when to say something and when not to.”

The time is now for him to keep talking. “The arts are integrated into everything we do, from sports to manufacturing to education to environmental issues to social services, and I think they’re often misunderstood and marginalized. I’m trying to help people see and recognize and appreciate what many artists do for all of us.” 

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