If the City of Milwaukee wants to make the Bronzeville African American arts and cultural district a reality, three key elements must be in place: history, identity and an understanding of the visual and performing arts industry. Branding is essential to attract and grow economic development. Without it, potential businesses, residents and tourists will not be drawn to the district. And to brand the district, the city must look beyond putting up banners, plaques and a big billboard. It must understand what attracts artists and therefore their patrons.
The proposed Bronzeville Arts and Cultural District is supposed to reflect Milwaukee’s African American art, culture and history. To me, it is unclear whether the city understands how arts professionals earn a living doing their craft or how they can help shape the district into a reality.
The purpose of an arts and cultural district is to serve as a catalyst to spark economic revitalization by developing mixed-use buildings consisting of residential and commercial spaces with arts and cultural-related businesses and institutions. This, in turn, is supposed to draw tourism dollars into the area. These arts and cultural districts are intended to improve the quality of life not only for residents living in the district but for all of a city’s residents. More jobs are created, people move into the area, tourism grows, and this leads to more tax revenue for the city and thus more money for education and city services. All due, in theory, to a thriving arts and cultural district.
It all sounds wonderful. However, as a visual artist and a Milwaukee resident who has attended some of the visioning sessions, focus groups and meetings held by the Department of City Development, developers and UW-Milwaukee, I continuously wonder whether they understand how individual visual and performing artists, organizations, theater groups, poets, writers and other arts professionals run their businesses.
Moreover, do they understand that the arts are a business? Have they asked who are the patrons who support the visual and performing artists, theater groups, poets, writers, etc.? It is these patrons who are going to bring dollars to the businesses in the area.
It is also unclear how the rich history and identity of Milwaukee’s African American arts and cultural scene would be incorporated into the branding and design of the area.
Part of the problem in determining how to create an identity for the Bronzevile Arts and Cultural district has been the way conversations have been presented to African-American artists who have attended these meetings. Some have left us to wonder whether they know who the African-American visual and performing artists are in Milwaukee, and whether there are stereotypical notions that the city and developers have about artists.
For example, at a meeting that I attended a few months ago, the moderator asked the artists, “Do artists have camaraderie together?” If this was what she thought is important to visual and performing artists, it is clear that she does not understand the arts business. And if you don’t understand the arts business, how are you going to brand, create and develop an identity for the Bronzeville Arts and Cultural district?