Shuffling Priorities: How MARN is Pushing Art to the Top of The List

In times of financial duress, priorities are re-structured and during the shuffle, funding for the arts is sent to the bottom of the pile. MARN's Executive Director Melissa Musante wants to make sure that the arts get shuffled back to the top.
July 7th, 2009 |
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When  the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network (MARN) named Melissa Musante as its first full-time Executive Director last February, our interest here at TCD was piqued. Musante came to MARN with an impressive resume including several years as  Associate Director at Film Wisconsin; prior to that, she was the National Outreach Sales Manager for Utrecht Art Supplies from 2003-2006.

Musante had been active with MARN as a visual artist before assuming the role of ED and has been showing her work both as a painter and an independent filmmaker in the Milwaukee area for years.

Under the direction of former ED Mike Brenner and Interim Director Melissa Dorn Richards, MARN was able to provide some of the most innovative resources for artists, and both leaders played pivotal roles in helping Milwaukee’s arts scene grow exponentially. Since its founding in 2000, MARN has been able to operate as a network for literary and visual artists, offering outreach programs designed to empower artists and expose them to a broader nexus of organizations, businesses and individuals.

Very much a grassroots effort, MARN has always been committed to a “for artists, by artists” philosophy and to this day works to connect people across disciplines, regardless of education or economic backgrounds.

With Musante at the helm, MARN will continue to uphold its grassroots mission, but faced with dire economic times and the fledgling support for the arts, some creative new developments and fundraising strategies are on the horizon.

It’s a dreary and unseasonably cold Saturday morning and I’m meeting with Musante and her husband at a bustling Alterra cafe in ‘Tosa. The plan was to talk about some of the new programs she’s helped to implement at MARN since February and what’s on the agenda for Fall 2009, but our conversation quickly turns to talk of the economic decline and what that means for arts advocacy in Milwaukee.

“Our big push right now is fundraising … things are bad,” Musante tells me with a short, nervous chuckle, “but it’s tough all over.”

In times of financial duress, priorities are re-structured and during the shuffle, funding for the arts is sent to the bottom of the pile. Musante wants to make sure that the arts get shuffled back to the top. Though MARN’s funding gap is not astronomical, Musante says that it’s enough to make things “uncomfortable” — which is part of the reason that the organization decided to take on a full-time executive director: to ensure that enough time and resources could be devoted to both the business and creative end.

At this point, government grants available aren’t enough to really help MARN move forward, and while it’s been able to subsist on membership fees, this raises the issue of whether it’s fair to continue asking struggling artists for money, which just doesn’t sit right with Musante.

“We can’t keep going back to the artist for money,” Musante says, “I want to go to the folks that have the money to give.”

Musante wants to focus more energy on developing the consumer in Milwaukee — art appreciators that also have the financial capability with which to support the arts. Musante says that the relationship between artist and their patrons is often the missing link, and that connecting the two can help art and artists thrive. To fill that gap, consumers need to see what individual and lesser-known artists are producing — outside of Gallery Night.

Musante argues that though Gallery Nights can provide some great exposure, more often than not they become an overwhelming whirlwind — most galleries are jam-packed, and the work that’s hanging on the walls end up overshadowed by the chaos. What’s more, she adds, is that most of the time people are walking out of those galleries empty-handed.

To this end MARN launched Art In Milwaukee — their newest online resource for artists, musicians, non-profits and arts administrators — in April 2009. Think of it as a sort of social networking site-meets-artists’ portfolio. To the tune of only $25 per year, members can activate an online profile of their work, including their bio and resume, contact information, upcoming events and multimedia examples of their work, granting each artist or organization some much needed (and inexpensive) exposure.

“We have to start growing the image of Milwaukee beyond the Milwaukee Art Museum,” Musante says of the site.

Part of growing that image is teaching artists how to market themselves, which is no easy task. The ability to market oneself is essential to an artist — or, as Musante points out, anyone that wants art to eventually be their full-time job. She insists that of course, an artist’s focus should always be on creating for the sake of making great art and not just cranking out meaningless work for profit, but argues that “it” is also about sustaining a thriving community of artists within Milwaukee.

ArtInMilwaukee.com not only acts as a conduit for cross-pollination between artists and organizations, but serves as a means of self-promotion and opens up the lines of communication between the artist and the person who wants to buy their work.

Musante says that there are more MARN programs geared toward educating the patron of the arts that are slated to roll out late this summer and into fall. On the agenda are salon-night style gallery talks, workshops about building an art collection and a potential Patron Program — all aimed at cultivating an appreciation for the arts outside of Milwaukee’s art community as well as within. First and foremost, MARN wants to ensure that Milwaukee artists will continue to produce here.

” You have to [connect] the artist to the people that will buy their work … that’s what will keep them here,” she says.

Five years ago, to ensure that artists are still able to live, work and produce in Milwaukee, MARN launched the Mentors program, which pairs emerging artists with an established artist for one year. During that time, mentors help budding mentees make the transition from art student to “artist.” At its core, the program is geared toward cultivating strong relationships among artists and arts administrators in Milwaukee while subsequently developing its burgeoning talent.

In 2009, the program has grown to include visual and literary artists, as well as filmmakers, composers and arts administrators. Over the course of their year together, mentor and mentee meet once a week and the two work together on various projects. In the meantime, each continues to make their own work and the end of the program culminates with a group exhibition of the work that both teacher and pupil produced during the year, often giving evidence of the ways that the two influenced each other and how the mentee has grown. Beyond that, the Mentors program has proven to be a huge stepping-stone for participating artists, many of them going on to show nationally and internationally.

Musante says that Milwaukee is a great town for artists because it’s relatively cheap, so artists can afford to live and work here. Even so, most still have to work day jobs in order to support themselves.

“It’s like having two full-time jobs,” Musante says. “Trying to find the balance between your day job and your work can be very difficult.”
Add to that workload the burden of marketing yourself to a larger audience, and it’s easy to see how an artist can get burned out and their work suffer as a result.
This is where the mentor program offers arguably the most valuable advice to an emerging artist. Throughout their time together, mentors teach their students about the professional side of being an artist educating them on things like writing an artist’s bio and resume, writing proposals or grants, pricing your work, marketing, etc. Mentees also have free admission to all MARN workshops and forums during their year in the program, providing them with the start-up tools they’ll need to embark on a career in fine art.
“The mentors really help the mentees strike a balance between work, production and self-promotion — that’s the hardest thing,” Musante says of the progra.  ” You could paint all day long, but if you don’t know how to get it out there, you’re not going to make it.”

The deadline for the mentors program is July 25. Check the website for a full list of requirements.

Despite fiscal decline, Musante remains optimistic … or at least realistic. She’s confident in the direction that MARN is taking and anticipates great things for Art In Milwaukee as the site continues to develop and as more and more artists activate their profiles. In the meantime, Musante and MARN’s board of directors will focus on funding to ensure that these programs can flourish.

“We can’t get burned out,” she says, “it’s time to forge a plan and say ‘this is where we want to be’ and then figure out how can we get there.”

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One Response to “Shuffling Priorities: How MARN is Pushing Art to the Top of The List”

  1. Dr. Fran Kapln says:

    Thanks for covering MARN and the great job Melissa is doing under difficult circumstances. MARN has been a wonderful — and necessary — resource for me for the last 6 years as I’ve been moving into artistic expression.

    [Reply]

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