An optimistic view of the city’s creative growth was the overarching theme at the Barrymore Theatre Wednesday night. In front of a crowd of about 400 people, five Madison mayoral candidates addressed issues of transportation, education, racial inequity and affordable housing through the lens of arts and the creative economy.
The repeated theme: The way to make Madison better for artists is to make Madison better for everyone.
Two WORT-FM radio hosts, Kate Hutchinson and Brian Standing, moderated. The forum itself was hosted by Arts + Literature Laboratory, a community arts center on the east side, and Tone Madison, an independent culture website. Only incumbent Mayor Paul Soglin was absent from the forum, citing a conflict.
If the forum at times repeated similar themes, it was because the root of many of the questions was the same: How can the government of a growing city demonstrate in a tangible way that it supports the artists who make the murals and music in our midst?
Time and again, candidates came back to flexibility.
“The city tries to put things in boxes, and creatives don’t fit well in boxes,” said Satya Rhodes-Conway, a former alder and managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. “Some of the ways artists use space and describe their businesses and activities doesn’t make sense to the people who do zoning.
“We need to translate, and we need for zoning to take a more flexible approach.”
Candidates returned to the core of their individual campaigns, whether environmental sustainability or addressing the city’s racial disparities.
“As someone who has fallen in love with this city, one of the things that has been most disappointing to me is watching friends choose not to stay here,” said Mo Cheeks, a three-term alder representing parts of Madison’s southwest side. “Often times, it’s friends of color. It has more to do with cultural space than it does with economic opportunity.”
From their seats in the heart of east side “Festyland,” the two moderators pressed candidates on "festival fatigue." Toriana Pettaway, the city’s racial equity coordinator, and Raj Shukla, executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, both referenced the value of such events in community building.
“The arts are a way to bring people together,” Shukla said. “People who worship different gods, speak different languages or eat different foods can all dance together at a Golpe Tierra show ... It comes with a responsibility. Neighborhoods have to be thinking about the comfort of their neighbors.”
Pettaway, who’s running as a write-in candidate, encouraged access to the arts using partnerships with the Latino and Black chambers of commerce. She was also supportive of city celebrations.
“Festivals are the city of Madison,” Pettiway said. “We have festivals all year ’round ... and that’s what makes the city beautiful, that’s what brings us together. That is probably the only time black, white, brown, indigenous and others come together and communicate with each other.”
Standing and Hutchinson encouraged specific answers about how to support the creative economy, as well as how the city can have an impact on out-of-school arts education programs.
“It’s important to talk about the really practical and pragmatic parts of this,” Rhodes-Conway said. “What do artists need? They need affordable housing, transit in the evenings. We need venues and art spaces and the ability to get those things through the zoning and permitting process.
“What supports the creative economy is recognizing it as an economy at the city (level).”
Shukla encouraged partnerships with the private sector as a funding source for the arts. Pettaway said to look to “community partners” and evaluate how city grants are given.
Cheeks supported growing the Bubbler programs at Madison Public Library, while Rhodes-Conway supported more staff to help city arts coordinator Karin Wolf.
“We have already begun the work of bringing access to the arts to folks,” Cheeks said. “As we look to increase access to the arts, one of the things we need to focus on ... is bringing access into more libraries around our city.”
Debate was generally collegial, with one small moment of tension when Rhodes-Conway took up a question Nick Hart passed on. Hart said he “came here not as a mayoral candidate ... I came here as an artist.” He used his speaking time to talk about artist friends.
After a meaty question about gentrification, Hart said, “You want a comedian to answer that?” before adding, “support the artists and the art will take care of itself.”
Rhodes-Conway waved a card to speak.
“It deserves a real answer,” she said, then referenced cities like Oakland and Portland that have faced similar issues.
“Madison’s changing, especially downtown and on East Washington, and I actually think that can be a good thing,” Rhodes-Conway said. “One of my top priorities as mayor would be to implement a bus rapid transit system. We need the density of housing and activity to support that, but that doesn’t have to be luxury density. I want it to be affordable density.”
As for keeping art spaces affordable, it’s complicated and a multi-faceted problem.
“We need to recognize that our city is going to need to grow drastically,” Cheeks said. “When we think about growth of 30,000 people in 10 years, we need 15,000 some (housing) units to support that level of growth.”
“We can think about cooperatives, land trusts, community control of space and land so it stays affordable in the long term,” Rhodes-Conway said. “Think about it now, while we have potential access to getting site control, rather than five years from now when it’s too late.”
Scott Gordon, editor and publisher of Tone Madison, credited ALL’s Jolynne Roorda with the idea for the forum. Gordon, who has written about city-funded arts projects with both praise and criticism, hoped the event would push people to “engage more with these issues ... and get interested in city arts policy.”
“I want more people to think and care about what local government does when it comes to the arts,” Gordon said. “I want people to feel like they can have a voice on those issues. I think the turnout proves that people do want to grapple with the intersection of arts and local politics.”