MILWAUKEE — Virtual opportunities have actually increased access to arts education in Southeast Wisconsin. That certainly doesn’t have the same appeal as knowing local venues would soon be packed with families enjoying holiday shows, but it’s how arts groups are surviving the pandemic. That, and a reliable revenue stream from United Performing Arts Fund, which has a new President & CEO taking over at this critical time.
Patrick Rath is a former Chief Development Officer for UPAF and was just hired as the new CEO. He replaces outgoing CEO Deanna Tillisch, who announced early last year that she was retiring after nearly 10 years with the organization.
Rath is a local guy, whose passion for the performing arts grew even as a child. He was a member of the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra.
“That opened a lot of opportunities,” he said of that early experience as a young performer.
Now he’s tasked with leading the economic driver for the major arts groups in Milwaukee.
“The essential part of what United Performing Arts Fund provides is unrestricted operating support for our 14 member organizations,” Rath explained. “This is dollars they can count on, on a monthly basis, to ensure they can cover all of their expenses at that point in time. That predictability in funding is essential for them to be able to plan and prepare for whatever is happening next.”
Wouldn’t we all like to know what’s happening next? For UPAF’s 14 member groups, the impact of COVID-19 means a projected $22 million in losses through May of 2021, 1,600 canceled performances, and 75% of staff and artists impacted by layoffs, furloughs, or salary reductions.
Despite that, UPAF nearly hit its 2020 fundraising goal and announced this fall it was allocating more than $8.5 million to its member groups. Rath believes that cash infusion will further the groups’ efforts to prepare for a big comeback.
“Each of the member groups… have taken the step to ensure that the core of their artistic group, the talent that they have, is strongly in place for the future," Rath said.
While we wait for the time when patrons can head back to the theater, arts groups have hardly gone dormant. Rath points out how they’ve pivoted to, “…offering virtual performances, virtual experiences, behind the scenes glimpses of what's happening in terms of their artistic process.” He added the education component has been even more far-reaching than usual. “We've had more than 90,000 plus performances, activities, educational training that really have brought the arts into the home and let families experience that together which is a huge plus.”
That’s even more apparent now, as so many Milwaukee area families would be looking ahead to attending a holiday show. All the major groups are streaming some form of ticketed performances, including Milwaukee Repertory Theater, which is offering two different streaming versions of A Christmas Carol.
Still, patrons of the arts are anxious to return to in-person, live performances. Rath predicts that won’t happen on a large scale until a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available. Health experts believe that’s coming in spring.
It’s why Rath is grateful for the continued support for UPAF from local businesses, and more than 20,000 “community partners” who have helped position arts groups for a strong comeback. “As they've had to make choices as to what they can put on stage, they've also looked ahead to say we're going to preserve the talent that we have to make sure when we can have in-person performances we are ready to go.”