This interview continues to celebrate and explore where the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center has come during its ten years of operation. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary all year, and to understand MYAC’s story, I’ve been talking to key staff and supporters who’ve been here since the beginning.
Fran Richman is former Executive Director of the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra (MYSO). She led that organization for 25 years, and co-founded MYAC with Rob Goodman during her tenure.
Fran has since retired from her role as Executive Director, but remains involved with MYSO and MYAC. This is the second part of our interview. You can read the first part in a previous blog post.
Kaye Herranen: You talked about this a little bit already, but how did the move to the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center impact MYSO?
Fran Richman: It’s perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but in some ways it changed almost everything about MYSO.
In a sense, MYSO kind of reinvented itself with this move. We added a number of very exciting, new programs, and with that we added a diversity element that had been sorely lacking. One of the things that both MYSO and First Stage developed as part of the capital campaign was our community partnership programs. And I really think that incorporating that concept into the project in such a prominent way was an Elizabeth Meyer idea, as well.
Both organizations were starting up new programs and/or ramping up our scholarship offerings in existing programs, doing things that we hadn’t done before, to help increase our diversity and to make sure that we were serving kids who were interested, so that no interested or capable student would be denied access to the programs. MYSO had always had that as a mission tagline—that every student who could successfully audition into MYSO could participate fully, because we would make sure that they had tuition assistance and private lesson assistance. With the building, the new programs, and an enhanced commitment to diversity, we broadened that access tremendously.
It was putting these programs under the umbrella of community partnership that gave us opportunities—including important fundraising opportunities—that we wouldn’t have had before. We discovered that that pragmatism connected beautifully with the whole vision of what we wanted this space to be and do; it allowed MYSO to grow from about 600 students right before we moved in here, to more than 900 in just a few years.
Before MYAC, MYSO had a rabbit warren of office space. It was one large room with a number of small room dividers; we crammed about 6 staff people in there, and we had timpani and string basses and a lot of other percussion equipment and our music library up in the front of the office. When someone walked in, they couldn’t see anyone, just timpani and large percussion. So they would yell over the cubicles to see if anyone was there. And then people would poke their heads out, like prairie dogs popping out of holes. We were thrilled to be located in the Marcus Center, and they did their best to help us maximize our use of the space; but it was not ideal for our purposes. We entered our old office in an “Ugly Office” contest and were stunned that we didn’t win.
But in spite of the space, we managed to run some truly extraordinary programs, and people liked the idea of coming to the Marcus Center, knowing that so much of Milwaukee’s arts community had ties to it. It screamed “performance,” and that was fun. But the rehearsal halls were really too small for our large ensembles. We were often putting 100 kids in a space that was meant for 50. Sometimes kids were actually hanging out the doorways into the hallway. But it was what we had, and people thrived and grew and turned into fabulous musicians. So it couldn’t have been too bad. So enter MYAC! In addition to giving us a place to store all of that important equipment, it allowed us to take donations of instruments and to buy some equipment that we sorely needed.
KH: What was the original vision or dream for MYAC?
FR: I think the goal was to ensure that children from every background, regardless of their financial capability, would have an opportunity to—in our case—study ensemble music in a setting that was educationally appropriate and high quality and which could play a key role in preparing them emotionally, psychologically, and musically, for whatever they wanted to do.
We sort of joke about the fact that early on we had this idea, and we wanted to vet the idea around the country to make sure that we weren’t wasting a lot of resources re-inventing the wheel. We felt strongly that if there was something out there, we should tap into it, take advantage of what others could teach us. But we gradually discovered that there WAS no wheel—we were it—this concept didn’t exist anywhere. The combination of an urban-based collaborative venture; seeking to create high quality space; not focused on performance but rather on education, training, and rehearsal—all of those things made it unique. And that uniqueness was a pretty compelling argument; I think the idea that Milwaukee was developing a new arts model was something that really helped tremendously with the fundraising.
The community did not embrace the concept [of MYAC] initially. I think there were a lot of people who felt that nonprofits have no business building or owning facilities, and certainly that two relatively small arts groups don’t have any business doing that. It took a long time and was a perplexing concept—people couldn’t quite get their arms around the idea of what we were doing—because it was new, it was different.
You know, when we first started the campaign we had some wooden boards lined up against a wall, which we called the wall of dreams. I hope the pictures exist somewhere. There are some really great quotes on there of what kids thought this was going to be. And they’re wonderful! The kids were pretty eloquent—I think they understood the concept better than a lot of the adults! If that wall is still around, it would be a fun thing to integrate into this retrospective.
When we launched the project, we had a $12 million capital campaign. A measure of the success and of the extent to which people ultimately “got it” is that the campaign raised over $15 million. The “extra” was almost entirely for the new programming being proposed. People said that not only did they think this building was important and great and wonderful, but that they needed to give money to support the kind of programming being developed because of the location and the mission and the notion of community partnership.
So the campaign raised several million dollars extra, largely from Dick Burke, but from a number of other generous people as well, to support the diversity initiatives and the scholarships.
That’s a very successful campaign by anyone’s measure. It was very slow getting going; it was not an easy campaign for a long time, but then gradually people caught on.
I’m sure you’ve heard the story about Dick Burke. A couple of people from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation worked with Dick to help direct his philanthropic giving; they wanted him to come and hear about this project, wanted him to come and see the space. This was when it was still a big warehouse, pretty much a concrete football field. After a lot of effort, a Foundation officer finally convinced him to come and see it. But what he was hearing from Rob and me was all about arts programming, arts and the kids, etc. He made no bones about being a self-professed non-arts guy. And he later joked about wanting to bolt when he got here; he was just not all that interested. After some time he said that he would be willing to give some money for the programming that he cared about, the things that would directly help disadvantaged urban youth. That was wonderful news--he was willing to commit $1.8 million. That sounded absolutely fabulous, but then we had to work very hard to help him understand that unless we had the building, none of that programming was going to happen.
I think it was a good six months after he committed to giving program money, that he committed to making a capital gift, money that would go toward the brick and mortar part of things. My sense was that he loved the place and was pretty sold on it but that he had to be sure it would serve the needs that he saw in the community. He later played an important and active role on the MYAC board of directors. I just loved the fact that he said, “For my $3.6 million can I un-name some spaces? I don’t want anything named after me—I just want to be sure some key spaces remain un-named.”
Are you a student, parent, or teacher at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center? Would you like to write a guest blog post?