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  • Writer's pictureAdam Braatz

Why The Creative Economy Must Be the Lead Character in Milwaukee’s Next Chapter

The New York Times 2022 list of places to visit for a changed world. National Geographic’s 2023 list of the top places to visit in the world. Milwaukee’s culture and its creative institutions were the “star” of these features. Why? Simply put: there’s just something special about Milwaukee. Our city defies expectations, challenges narratives, and captivates the hearts and minds of cultural enthusiasts who experience it. At the same time, we are seeing a devastating trend of population decline and loss of diverse talent that threatens our region's future. At Imagine MKE, we believe that if our community’s creative powers are united and more robustly supported, we’ll find ourselves on a new trajectory.

The creative economy is the nexus of arts, culture, business, and technology, and plays a crucial role in the economic vitality of all American cities. In fact, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts found that creative industries contributed over $1 trillion to the U.S. economy in 2021, accounting for approximately 4.4% of GDP. An abundance of creative talent ensures that a city resonates with innovative ideas, energy, and a competitive spirit—and attracts significant investment.

Take Austin, Texas: celebrated as the live music capital of the world, diverse events like SXSW and Austin City Limits, and a thriving tech hub, Austin has carved a niche for itself as a haven for young and diverse talent through its commitment to its unique arts and culture scene. Leading tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook have built offices in the city, swayed by the abundance of talent available.

What is the Creative Economy? Learn more about how Americans for the Arts, a partner and collaborator of Imagine MKE, defines it.

What does this have to do with Milwaukee and Imagine MKE?

Urban economist and author of The Rise of the Creative Class Richard Florida once asserted, "access to talented and creative people is to modern business what access to coal and iron ore was to steelmaking." The Milwaukee of yesterday was a bastion of manufacturing, with its industries powered by coal and iron. Today, it has the potential, talent, and natural assets to be known for its special brand of creativity and hospitality, like Austin. However, our city has grappled with maintaining its appeal for the young and diverse demographics, hindering growth, and leading to an outward talent migration. The City of Milwaukee recognizes the peril of this situation and has made population growth and the expansion of professional opportunities central pillars of its Downtown Plan 2040.

With Milwaukee’s formal plan in place, it is imperative that we now lay the foundation for this expansion so that Milwaukee can grow, thrive, and compete.

Creative Solutions

Imagine MKE is here to help this vision and new narrative come alive. We believe that by amplifying, advancing, and advocating for the arts and culture sector we can help propel Milwaukee’s creative economy, and in turn, increase economic and social prosperity for all Milwaukeeans.

Della Wells, Rosemary Ollison and Ariana Vaeth speak at an Imagine MKE "Creative Mixer" event, held in collaboration with the Milwaukee Artists Resource Network and the Portrait Society for Contemporary Art.
Della Wells, Rosemary Ollison and Ariana Vaeth speak at a Creative Mixer event, held in collaboration with the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network and the Portrait Society for Contemporary Art

The creative sector, encompassing non-profit, private, and public jobs and programs, fuels our regional economy by driving tourism, stimulating the hospitality industry, igniting entrepreneurship, and underpinning innovation. It also makes our community a dynamic, stimulating and colorful place to live, work, and play.

While our organization’s founding intention was to catalyze social and economic vibrancy by acting as a conduit for arts and culture’s sustainability and expansion, our approach to accomplishing this goal has manifested in vastly disparate ways throughout the years.

A Refocused Imagine MKE

Shortly after becoming an official nonprofit organization in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Recognizing immediate need in the sector, Imagine MKE pivoted to provide timely, direct financial support to local artists and arts organizations. We secured and distributed about $300,000 in emergency relief funds, collaborated closely with the philanthropic sector, and stood as a champion for the arts and culture sector during its hour of greatest need.

We are proud of these and other early accomplishments. Once the most severe period of the pandemic was behind us, however, Imagine MKE looked to the state of our changed world: how can we most effectively generate profound and lasting impact? Where is the greatest need? What are we uniquely positioned to accomplish?

With strategic intention and laser-focused effort, we've embarked upon the next chapter, and we invite you to come along side us.

Our Mission: 

Imagine MKE drives vibrancy, prosperity, and systemic change in the Greater Milwaukee area by advancing our region's creative economy.

Our Vision:

We envision Milwaukee as a nationally-recognized creative community, a magnet for talent and investment, where social and economic prosperity is powered by an equitable, diverse, and thriving creative economy.

Imagine MKE Executive Director Adam Braatz pictured advocating for expanded public funding of the arts
Imagine MKE Executive Director Adam Braatz pictured advocating for expanded public funding for the arts at a budget hearing for the Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance in 2023.

Many within the Milwaukee community have only ever known Imagine MKE as a fund distributor, hands-on facilitator of arts activations, or convener of inspiring meetings. While we continue to whole-heartedly support and advocate for the outstanding folks who are doing important grassroots arts-based work throughout Milwaukee, we are interested in getting out of the way to enable communities, cultural organizations, and creatives to do what they do best – and instead of driving these initiatives, focus our efforts on activating connection and collaboration across the public, private, and non-profit sectors in order to drive systemic change. Our renewed focus is to help to reshape the system that our creative sector operates within. Why?

  • Our region’s arts and culture sector desperately needs public funding at the city, county, state, and national level.

  • Artists and arts organizations large and small deserve an ecosystem of equity and opportunity, and a place at the table with business, philanthropic, and civic leadership.

  • Leaders across the sectors need to gain a deeper understanding of – and see data that illustrates-- the impact that intentional investment in the creative economy will have.

  • The stories of Milwaukee’s vibrant culture must be told at a larger scale in order to change the negative narrative and inspire growth, tourism, and investment.

Imagine MKE is hard at work on all of the above, and more. But we cannot accomplish our ambitious vision without your help in this movement. If Milwaukee’s arts, culture and creative sector matter to you, I invite you to join us in this critical work.

How can I help?

Milwaukee's creative economy is already driving evolution in this region, and Imagine MKE represents the network that will help recast our city's narrative with creativity at the center. Together, we look forward to shaping a future where Milwaukee shines as a beacon of creativity, innovation, prosperity, and diversity for the benefit of the entire community.


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