Green Bay’s art scene has made strides in recent years. The road isn’t always easy
by John McCracken
We’ve all seen them.
The brightly colored bridge found near the corner of Main and Monroe Street, welcoming patrons to the Green Bay arts district. A giant pelican on the side of the Neville Public Museum. Frida Kahlo’s painted face and flowers on the side of the former Los Banditos Main Street building. An army of illustrated black and white felines decorate a Broadway Street cat shelter. Aaron Rodgers’ smug mug and anointed crown on the backside of the Let Me Be Frank Productions Broadway Street building.
Murals and public art are everywhere in Green Bay.
Art is a growing force in the Greater Green Bay area. More and more arts-based organizations and events are forming across the region. And for passersby and residents alike, the influx of art is a welcome sight.
But, in the grand scheme of things, Wisconsin is full of arts funding shortfalls.
Wisconsin rates second to last in the entire country for state funding of public art, according to a 2021 report from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA). On the other side of the Mississippi River, Minnesota has us and the rest of the country beat with arts funding. Minnesota has the highest percentage of arts funding per capita in the U.S., according to the NASAA.
Bringing it together
To cultivate this fragile, regional growth, numerous organizations and entities are shaping how art is publicly enjoyed and sustainably created.
Local muralists, volunteers and Green Bay nonprofit organization On Broadway, Inc.’s inaugural Mural & Busker Festival recently added to the city’s arts armory. Serial muralist Beau Thomas painted a lion on the south wall of DuBois Formalwear. Claire Erickson painted a community- and democracy-inspired mural on the north wall of the Chestnut Avenue Democratic Party of Brown County building.
This event, however, doesn’t come together on its own.
The event—planned with the pandemic in mind—stretched out over many blocks throughout the district, which allowed people to enjoy the arts and creativity and community at a distance.
“One of our goals in hosting the Mural and Busker festival was to create these opportunities for our local artists of all skill levels to earn an income,” On Broadway Marketing Director Brooke Hafs said. “We wanted to bring in new artists who had never done a mural before, give them that opportunity, see if they like it, see if it’s something they want to do more of, and we hope to provide more opportunities for them in the future.”
Peter Koury’s mural on the south wall of the Green Bay Area Public School District Broadway Street building.
Koury was born and raised in Green Bay and has almost 30 years of professional mural
He said he’s seen artists leave Wisconsin because of the state’s lack of funding for the arts.
John McCracken photo.
After events were cancelled and financial constraints were rampant due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire arts, events and entertainment industry had to adapt. During this time, all On Broadway in-person events were cancelled, causing a drastic gap in revenue. On Broadway launched a public fundraising campaign in late 2020 where it sought donations to reach a goal of $100,000 ($75,000 from sponsors and $25,000 from individuals) to secure the future of the organization and avoid cancelling 2021 special events. According to the organization’s fundraising page, the individual goal of $25,000 has been met.
In November 2020, On Broadway received a grant for $100,000 as a part of Gov. Tony Evers’ $15 million COVID-19 Cultural Organization Grant Program, which provided funds for organizations whose primary goal is to produce and cultivate cultural disciplines such as music, dance, theater, literature and the visual arts. Brown County arts organizations received more than $544,000 in this grant funding, with the average recipient receiving around $32,000.
On Broadway received sponsorship dollars from Fox Communities Credit Union to fund the Mural & Busker Festival and pay its muralists and buskers. Specifics on the sponsorship funding were not released, but as a nonprofit, On Broadway is reliant on grant and/or sponsorship funding, individual donors and volunteers to host successful events. On Broadway commissioned and fielded
muralists, worked with property owners to secure walls and the event unfolded.
Seeking funding for public art is a mess for art-reliant organizations and primarily self-employed artists all throughout the state.
Commissioned artists often work as freelance, contracted employees. Many artists, musicians, writers, designers, muralists and other creative-sector professionals are self-employed. A 2019 National Endowment for the Arts report found that roughly 34% of all artists in the country were self-employed, which is 3.6 times more than other industries.
As part of On Broadway’s event, 10 muralists revamped walls throughout the Broadway District. In addition, buskers— think street performers, magicians, solo musicians with guitar cases full of cash tips and other vibrant troupers— entertained.
Peter Koury was one of those muralists.
Koury is a visual artist with over 30 years of professional experience painting murals, managing set designs and commissioning hand drawn artwork. He was born and raised in Green Bay and has worked across the country designing film sets, painting walls at businesses and art galleries, and he even painted a mural inside the home of famed horror rockstar Rob Zombie.
Koury said he’s no stranger to the lack of funding Wisconsin artists wrestle with and he’s unfortunately seen artists leave the Badger State altogether because of this gap.
“There’s some talented people here, but oddly, I just think we lack tremendously,” Koury said.
Koury said he is excited to have his mural’s painted hands in a visible district like Broadway. Koury painted the south wall of the Green Bay Area Public School District Broadway Street building.
A few blocks north, Heather Peterman’s giant dog overlooks Howard Street.
The self-taught muralist, who uses the name Good Energy Art, has been hanging her paintings around the Green Bay area since 1997. Petermen said she lives paycheck to paycheck and is familiar with the idea of being a “starving artist.”
One of her notable paintings is the frazzled black cat on the side of WhiteDog BlackCat Cafe. The cafe recently dropped the BlackCat moniker and renamed itself WhiteDog. In conjunction with this change, the cafe offered Peterman the opportunity to continue leaving her mark on their building. Peterman said she was excited to be a part of something for the community.
“It’s great for me,” Peterman said. “I mean I’ll have this huge 600 square foot mural in downtown Green Bay and I’ve wanted to do something with this wall for a while.”
She was paid by On Broadway for the event with WhiteDog Cafe contributing a portion on top of that to repair their deteriorating wall.
Heather Peterman (far left) puts the finishing touches on her WhiteDog Cafe mural.
Peterman said she is familiar with concept of being a “starving artist.”
John McCracken photo.
Koury and Peterman said though they are doing more with less, they both see the event as a way to give back to the community. Peterman said she was happy to help WhiteDog, a business that has helped her showcase her art for more than 14 years.
Events, events, events
The Mural & Busker festival was one way for tenured and fledgling artists to gain notoriety here in Green Bay.
“We are on a mission to revitalize the Broadway District here,” Hafs said. “That includes focusing on historic preservation, property development, business retention and recruitment. We’re basically trying to create a beautiful, safe environment for people to want to come and play and work and live.”
So where does public art fall into this equation?
Hafs said public art creates safe, clean spaces for people to enjoy and wander through.
“We find that when we analyze revitalization projects in other downtowns throughout the nation, that the installation of public art is a huge contributor to the success of those revitalization projects,“ Hafs said.
Hafs said one way to look at revitalization is the act of making a district a place where people want to come and spend time.
“We created 10 new murals and we wanted to continue beautifying the Broadway District and I feel like now people have just one more reason to come down here and find something beautiful to come look at,” Hafs said.
In a good, non-pandemic year, On Broadway hosts dozens of events.
“Our goal is to draw 400,000 people down to the Broadway District through our events every year,” Hafs said.
Events are in On Broadway’s DNA. The nonprofit’s 2019 W-9 tax filing (the most recent copy of this public, nonprofit documentation) shows both its largest revenue sources and organizational expenses came from special events.
Looking into the future, more murals are likely for Broadway. Hafs said. On Broadway plans to host the festival for the next two years.
Small funding, big impact
Looking into the future of all arts-adjacent events in Green Bay, one local artist hopes organizations change the way they approach putting money into the pockets of artists.
Stacey Burkhart is the founder and president of the arts non-profit organization Share, Accept, Grow, Encourage (SAGE), an entirely volunteer operated organization. Burkhart said SAGE, which was founded in 2017, is rooted in the idea of: for artists, by artists. The nonprofit facilitates events, connects local artists to each other and focuses on economic sustainability for artists.
Burkhart is a vocal advocate for increasing pay to arts across the board. One tension as a working artist Burkhart herself is familiar with is the idea of exposure vs. (or in lieu of) payment.
An example Burkhart said is an artist getting their painting hung in a gallery. On a $200 piece of art (in a gallery setting), with a $25 jury fee and 50% commission, the artist would take home $75.
However, having artwork inside of a gallery—or plastered on a giant wall in downtown Green Bay—presents an opportunity for artists to get their work out to the public.
“True arts advocacy would center around creating an event where the focus is on the success of the artist,” Burkhart said.
The COVID-19 pandemic took a major toll on the arts and live entertainment industry. Burkhart said despite the horrors of the pandemic, artists forged a new path and community members put financial stock in the success of the people making the work. She saw artists pivot to online sales, virtual classes and live-streamed concerts with digital tip jars.
“In 2020 we adapted so much to make it work, so to speak,” Burkhart said. “I don’t know why we would let that go.”
SAGE also received arts and culture grant funding from the same $15 million pool On Broadway did, but their awarded amount was just under $600.
Beau Thomas painted a lion on the south wall of
DuBois Formalwear on Broadway as a part of On
Broadway, Inc.’s inaugural Mural & Busker Festival at
the end of August.
Artists and arts-reliant organizations wrestle with low funding and a
messy process for funding public art
John McCracken photo
Burkhart said Green Bay’s art scene is still growing and the emergence of present and public art has been a learning curve for event organizers, patrons and even artists themselves.
“We’re so happy to see people doing something that we lose out on the fact that for some of us, this isn’t a hobby,” she said. “This is seriously a way of living, and it should be something that is afforded to us and valued as a cultural roadmap to who Green Bay could be.”
Arts Wisconsin Executive Director Anne Katz said the issue of compensation for an artist is indicative of the multi-layered arts funding problem in Wisconsin.
Arts Wisconsin is a statewide arts nonprofit that focuses on the creative economy, arts advocacy, developing new arts programming and education. Katz said the issues encompass a lack of state funding, a lack of national funding and how a changing economy—especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic— complicates the act of putting money directly into the pockets of artists.
“Wisconsin’s arts funding, if you look at just arts funding, has historically been very low,” Katz said.
Katz said frustrations and concerns with how the arts are funded is all part of how artists see themselves inside of a creative economy—meaning self-employed, entrepreneurial focused artists, makers and musicians—benefitting or not benefitting from a robust economic engine in Green Bay.
“Green Bay has really been making an effort to be known as something—not only to be proud of the Packers—but to be a creative place,” Katz said. “Is it a perfect system? Absolutely not. But it’s something that people are working on, have been working on and are working on.”
The small amount of funding Wisconsin receives is only one way to look at how to measure the impact arts has on the state and its cities.
The impact of the arts is big. Value added by arts and cultural activities to Wisconsin’s economy was $10.9 billion in 2019, a 3% increase from the year before, according to a US Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis report.
That same 2019 report shows that the creative economy in Wisconsin beat out the three major industries—beer (63,000), biotech (35,000) and papermaking (31,000)—in terms of jobs provided in the state (96,000).
Of that, $377 million is spent by arts organizations and $280 million was event related spending on items including hotels, restaurants, parking and souvenirs, but excluding the actual cost of admission. Local arts patrons spent on average $30.27, while out-of-state visitors spent $78.
Who’s gonna pay for this?
With all of these compounding factors, different approaches and an enormous statewide impact, who should be responsible for paying for the arts?
Katz said the question is impossible to answer.
“The arts (a more encompassing term than just “art” for a nearly endless range of creative expression) happen whether there is funding or not, because humans can’t help but be creative,” Katz said.
Katz said to talk about funding the arts, look at the organizations and systems that showcase and uplift the arts, such as nonprofits who rely on funding from public government funding, private funding and earned income such from ticket and gallery sales.
Despite Wisconsin’s history of small arts funding and the uphill battle that follows, Katz said art will happen regardless. The problem, she said, is making sure the arts remain accessible.
“Funding the arts is not just making a performance or exhibit happen,” Katz said. “It’s about investing in economic opportunity, strengthening education for the 21st century, keeping our communities vibrant and bringing people together.”
Simply put, Burkhart said everyone is responsible for paying for the arts.
“There’s no all encompassing answer where one societal entity steps up and suddenly all facets of the arts are successful,” Burkhart said. “But, what I will say, if you are any entity looking to support the arts, let the artist choose how they are to be compensated.”
Burkhart also said she wondered if Greater Green Bay is equipped to pay for the arts and if that was the case, artists who suddenly see that their art is fully supported in their presentation and presence and their talent is valued would do more work.
“I often wonder—as this city sits at the cusp of an artistic explosion—what would happen if today we chose that we all benefit, therefore we are all responsible?,” Burkhart said. “That would involve a lot of listening, and a lot of long-term change.”
Hafs said the act of funding art in Green Bay shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of one organization or person.
“(Funding art) should be a collaborative effort between all stakeholders in our community to ensure this is a place where young and growing artists want to invest their time and energy,” Hafs said. “It should be our priority to cultivate and retain talent in the Green Bay area.”
Working 24/7— and then some
City of Green Bay’s Public Arts Coordinator Laura Schley said everyone has a responsibility to pay for the arts in some form or another and if an arts-lover can’t put money into the hands of artists, they should advocate for the arts through local and state representatives, invest in art by attending performances and sharing art in their personal circles.
“We can pay for the arts with not only our dollars but with our thoughts, words and actions,” Schley said.
Schley is the only full-time, paid public arts staff member for Green Bay. She works for the community and economic development department and with the city’s Public Art Commission (GBPAC). Though one full time staffer seems small, Schley is an outlier in Wisconsin.
Green Bay, Madison and Milwaukee are the only cities in the state with a full-time arts focused employee. Other municipalities have staffers who oversee similar commissions through planning and development departments, but the state’s three biggest cities set themselves apart with a dedicated arts employee.
GBPAC was created in 2017 and was initially funded through leftover funds through the city’s stadium tax in 2017. The initial funds for the GBPAC have since run out, and the commission is funded by a couple of different avenues including private donations, development block grants and a percent for art measure, which requires 1% of new development property’s estimated value devoted to a public art installation. GBPAC is not funded through the city’s tax levy.
Green Bay and Madison are the only two cities in the state with a percent for art program, which used to be a statewide initiative. Wisconsin’s Percent for Art Program was enacted in 1980, but repealed by former Gov. Scott Walker and the State Legislature in 2011.
The GBPAC also uses money from block grants and private donations to the Friends of the Green Bay Public Arts Commission. Private donor donations have a lot less strings attached, Schley said.
Green Bay’s Public Arts Coordinator Laura Schley at a July 2021 unveiling of a public art installation.
Schley said said Green Bay’s art scene is growing and that growth has caused tensions to spark across the various arts organizations in the city, but all of them want the same thing—a vibrant, arts-forward city.
John McCracken photo
Block grant dollars are often limited by the physical and geographical area where development is occurring. Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds affordable housing projects, infrastructure initiatives and housing improvements associated with an area where growth is occurring. An example of an arts project funded by these dollars is the recently unveiled “Salva Jelly” on Adams Street, a giant, eco-friendly statue of a jellyfish.
This funding is allocated to the GBPAC from the Green Bay Redevelopment Authority. Going into 2022, GBPAC has been allocated $80,000 for new projects—the largest amount in the commission’s history. GBPAC was allocated $25,000 in 2020 and $20,000 in 2019.
Schley said Green Bay’s art scene is growing. Though this growth is good, varying approaches to funding the arts and its adjacent organizations cause differing visions and tensions to spark.
“All of our arts organizations and artists need to work together,” Schley said. “We’re stronger together. We all want the same thing. We want Green Bay to be a vibrant and culturally active place where artists can make a living doing their work here.”
Making that living, however, is another story. When asked if it is possible for an artist to make a living from their art alone in Green Bay, Schley said the prospect is “rough.”
“I think you need a side job,” she said. “There definitely are artists that are making it happen. There are full time artists in the area that are doing art 24/7 and then some it seems.”
GBPAC does try to factor this reality into its funding equation. This summer the commission put out a call for proposals for the joint-department Paint in the Parks Project. GBPAC selected a handful of muralists to paint murals on park shelters throughout the city. The park murals are a lot smaller than the Broadway District’s newborn murals and have a lot more stipulations attached to them. But, that is often the reality when using funding acquired through CDBG and administered by local governments.
Schley said the city’s mural pricing was developed by comparing similar projects across the state and muralists received $1,000 each for their 32 square-foot murals.
“We like to be on par with that cost just because artists need to be paid,” Schley said. “Artists deserve to be paid for their work.”
John McCracken is the Editor of Green Bay City Pages. He can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @jmcjmc451.
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