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UPAF Still Performing After 50 Years

2017 campaign funding major arts groups launches next month

Feb. 21, 2017
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Fifty years ago many pundits pronounced a dark future for America’s cities. It was a time of urban unrest, race riots, declining neighborhoods. But in Milwaukee, civic leaders banded together 50 years ago to establish a pair of enduring institutions that have become part of the city’s identity. 1967 heralded the founding of Summerfest. It also marked the birth of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF).

UPAF Member Groups:

Bel Canto Chorus
Danceworks
First Stage
Florentine Opera Company
Milwaukee Ballet
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre
Milwaukee Children’s Choir
Milwaukee Public Theatre
Milwaukee Repertory Theatre
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra
Next Act Theatre
Present Music
Renaissance Theaterworks
Skylight Music Theatre

UPAF president and CEO Deanna Tillisch cites the construction of the Performing Arts Center (now the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts) for the inception of her organization. “The founders realized: ‘Here we are, building a beautiful Performing Arts Center, but will the organizations performing there be sustainable?’” In today’s dollars, Tillisch says, UPAF raised $4.7 million for seven arts groups in 1967. Last year, the total rose to more than $12 million for 15 groups.

UPAF will mark its 50th anniversary with a Campaign Launch party at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. This year’s MC, Jacob Bach, has performed at ComedySportz and Skylight Music Theatre and hosts the popular “Yeah, Bro!” podcast. “He’s a little bit of a departure for us,” says Dave Fantle, UPAF’s chief marketing officer. “He’s young, edgy, funny…” and millennial—part of an audience performing arts groups hope to reach.

Milwaukee has changed dramatically over the past half century and UPAF has evolved with it. Surprising from today’s perspective, one of the original seven UPAF member groups was the Chicago Symphony Association of Milwaukee at a time when the Windy City orchestra was a regular in Milwaukee. The remaining six charter organizations are still with UPAF: the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Bel Canto Chorus, Florentine Opera Company, Skylight Music Theatre and Music for Youth (now the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra).

The “Youth” ensemble is indicative of a UPAF mission that has only expanded over the years: reaching young people. Tillisch says, “Without as much arts education in schools, it’s incumbent on us to help organizations provide exposure to the arts.”

Educational outreach is one factor that determines UPAF’s annual allocation of funds to its 15 member groups. UPAF’s “affinity program,” UPAF Notable Women, is dedicated to raising additional donations for arts education.

About those annual allocations and how they are determined: The process is complicated but has grown more transparent in the 21st century than was previously the case, as have the qualifications for becoming a UPAF member.

“We don’t want the market to drive everything. If the market did, we might see nothing but Broadway shows,” Tillisch says. “We look at performers that touch the community in different ways—that address community issues that need a platform. Some organizations, like Present Music, were chosen because they add depth to the offerings available in Milwaukee. UPAF allows our groups to take risks.”

Along with the art, UPAF scrutinizes the commerce of its members—debt, revenue flow and business strategy are all factored into the decisions. “We’ve made it easier for groups to understand what we’re looking for,” says UPAF board member Tina Chang. “We’re helping the groups to secure their long-term future—to become smarter, better managers of their business.”

One of the building blocks of UPAF’s annual campaign is its Workplace Giving Campaign. More than 200 local businesses participate in company-sponsored drives in which employees are asked to contribute to UPAF. Performers and performing arts groups reward participating firms by staging presentations in their workplaces.

UPAF was not the first organization of its kind in the U.S., but has become a model for similar institutions that have emerged during the past half-century. Although Milwaukee doesn’t rank with New York, Chicago or San Francisco in the top tier of performing arts cities, UPAF was named number-one among fundraising “umbrella organizations” by the nonprofit trade association Americans for the Arts. Chang adds that UPAF recently received the highest marks from Charity Navigator.

New fundraising ideas are being introduced, including a smart card allowing donors to buy one ticket and get a second one free at UPAF-supported performing arts groups. The 2017 campaign begins in March and concludes in June with the annual UPAF Ride for the Arts, Sponsored by Miller Lite. “But the performing arts go on beyond those 15 weeks,” says Tillisch. “We’re looking to keep the drumbeat going year round.”

For reservations for UPAF’s 50th Anniversary Campaign Launch (Monday, March 6 at the Milwaukee Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theater), information on the Workplace Giving Campaign or to sign up for the UPAF Ride for the Arts, visit UPAF.org.

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