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Artists discuss ways to improve Sauk County grant program

August 1, 2018

Those with an interest in a Sauk County arts and culture grant program said Tuesday they’d like to find new ways to spread the love, from both a financial and public outreach perspective.

“There is absolutely nothing for me as a working artist here in Sauk County,” said Char terBeest-Kudla, a Baraboo fiber artist who credited a $5,000 grant she received years ago with saving her career.

Although the grant program is helpful for nonprofit groups and growing artists, she said, it is less accessible to private businesses that promote the arts. A panel that distributes the grants frowns upon awarding funds to for-profit entities.

About 30 people attended a hearing at the county’s West Square Building in Baraboo to discuss the grant program, which distributes between $50,000 and $60,000 annually and includes two prongs. The group discussed what they like about the program, what they don’t, and possible ways to improve it.

The meeting was facilitated by Wisconsin Arts Board Assistant Program Director Karen Goeschko, who said Sauk County is one of only three in the state that manages such a program, and the only rural county to do so.

The county sets aside $5,000 of the funds for Good Idea Grants that provide small chunks of cash — up to $500 a piece — to individual artists, craftspeople, musicians, writers, historians, and nonprofit organizations.

The rest of the funds get distributed as larger matching grants — up to $5,000 each — for major art, history and humanities projects. Those are reserved for community organizations and local governments seeking supplementary funds, according to the county’s website.

Much of the discussion at Tuesday’s hearing focused on what was referred to as the “all or nothing” policy, which says applicants will either get all the funding they applied for or nothing at all.

Program Specialist Haley Weisert said guidelines previously allowed the panel — consisting of five Sauk County Board members and one citizen — that distributes the funds to award an amount less than what an applicant requested. However, she said, that caused unintended complications.

Several in attendance also expressed frustration that there are multiple organizations that receive grant funds each year. They suggested new limitations to prevent reoccurring recipients, or the creation of a separate grant fund for those flagship organizations.

Some said there is a need to educate the community and elected officials about the program.

Although she expressed gratitude for the repeated funding her organization has received, Wormfarm Institute Executive Director Donna Neuwirth said some members of the grant panel don’t seem to value the program.

While attending prior meetings, Neuwirth said, she has been “shocked and sometimes appalled” at the things panel members have said. She wondered whether some education for those elected officials is appropriate.

Others who attended Tuesday’s hearing said several county board members have mockingly refered to the panel as the “arts and crafts” committee.

Several suggested a greater effort to publicly highlight the work of grant recipients and ensure communities are aware of the program.

Despite the criticisms, most hearing attendees said the grant program is a valuable addition to promoting creativity and a vibrant nonprofit sector in Sauk County.

“I do want to thank the county board members for funding this program,” Kudla said. “I’m so proud to live in Sauk County, and proud that they feel the arts and culture and history are worth investing in.”

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