Brian Jacobson
How a bike ride could save a performance

UPAF & Miller Lite’s Ride for the Arts

By - Jun 4th, 2009 01:00 am
last year's ride, photo courtesy Nancy Aycock

Last year’s ride, photo courtesy Nancy Aycock

As one of the premier bike events in Wisconsin and the country, The United Performing Arts Fund’s Miller Lite Ride for the Arts stands the chance this year to be one of the most successful in its 29-year history. That doesn’t mean that Milwaukee’s major arts funder isn’t worried.

Last year, pledges and donations for an easy ride that winds through Milwaukee and its suburbs netted around $325,000; this year it’s speculated to be on pace with that if all goes well. Ride supporters can often make up a good chunk of the leftover cash for the annual campaign drive, which gets most of its budget donations from employee giving programs and corporate dollars.

Understanding of the down economy, however, UPAF set this year’s desired windfall $1.6 million less than the 2007-08 goal marker. Even after the ride pledges total up, the organization may still be short $375,000 with two weeks to go before the end of the season — unless somebody steps up.

After the wheels are done spinning and the kickstands go down Sunday morning, participants and supporters will enjoy select performances on the Summerfest grounds by some UPAF-supported performing arts groups in Milwaukee. A small donation will be requested for at the entrance, and with attendance numbers that reach over 6,000, UPAF might see that $5 a head could add $30,000 to the final total. But will it be enough to save an opera, a kids’ theater workshop, or a Broadway showstopper?

Both MillerCoors Vice-President of Public Affairs Mike T. Jones and UPAF’s Vice President of Community Relations and Marketing Linda Edelstein note that the reason the ride is so popular year after year is because it “kicks off the festival season” in Milwaukee. Compared to competitive events like the Storm the Bastille Run or International Cycling Classic, the Ride for the Arts is more accessible to families and cycling hobbyists. But they also say its greatest success may come from the participants’ desire to see a strong arts scene remain in the area.

Jones explains that MillerCoors has contributed to 27 years of the ride now, both monetarily and with volunteer manpower.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Mike Jones says. “We want a better place to live, and this [event] contributes to it.”

He also noted that the ride has always been “a signature event” among the Brewery’s underwriting programs that include staples such as the Milwaukee County Zoo and Summerfest — plus a few major sports teams you may have heard of. He also understands the reciprocal benefit to the city’s infrastructure by supporting art-centered events such as the Lakefront Festival of the Arts and this weekend’s ride.

If Milwaukee is an attractive place to live, Jones explains, it attracts a better base of employees who could work for companies like MillerCoors.

“It’s never been an either/or proposition. We’ve never thought about just sports but not the arts. Even the group of team doctors that works on the Brewers [also] works on the dancers for the ballet.”

UPAF’s Linda Edelstein sees a lot of little reasons why the Ride for the Arts is so popular, and why it adds so significantly to the overall campaign budget.

“I think the trend is so good because people feel positively about it,” Edelstein says. “Also, there’s no pressure. It’s not a race and it’s during the summer season.”

Riders can actually benefit from getting pledges as well. Depending on the amount raised, several area businesses give away prizes such as movie passes, Summerfest tickets, and bicycles from Wheel and Sprocket. Top pledge-getters win prizes such as season tickets to a UPAF cornerstone group, airfare and a trip to Vegas, or four tickets to the Miller Suite for a Brewers ballgame. Even donors that give directly to UPAF on their own benefit from getting a ‘smART card’ that offers deals on performing arts tickets in the Milwaukee area.

According to UPAF, there are 36 performing arts and music groups that are directly affected by the total UPAF funds available. A guarantee was introduced in recent years so that no one organization would receive less than 98% of their prior year’s allocation. Sixteen member groups — the ‘cornerstone members,’ including First Stage Children’s Theater, Florentine Opera Company, Milwaukee Ballet Company, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and The Skylight — get most of the funds available through a formula that looks at continuing support, organizational performance, campaign performance, and how an organization gives back to the community during the year. The remaining funds go to help out non-affiliate members who have applied through a competitive grant process.

Danceworks, Inc. is one group that benefits greatly from UPAF as a major funding source. UPAF dollars help to keep ticket and operating costs down while affording “to compensate the artists fairly.”

Hannah Wallisch from Danceworks, which has a team in the event made up of 14 riders, notes that it’s important that they ” get more bang for the buck” by organizing a team and not just handing over a check from supporters.

“It’s one small way [the team] can be part of something bigger,” Wallisch adds. “They get that experience of being part of a larger group that’s working toward a common goal.”

First Stage Children’s Theater team captain Meaghan Morrissey says that last year, three of the top fundraisers came from the First Stage group. She recognizes that money from them goes into all aspects of production and administration, including the other stage workshops. First Stage conducts a Theater Academy which teaches “life skills through stage skills,” and several in-school educational programs that provide learning through theater.

“Milwaukee is lucky to have so many world-class, affordable arts organizations right at our fingertips,” Morrissey states.

With a truly invigorating 2009-10 theater and music season planned for Milwaukee, Waukesha, and six other counties (look for a full fall preview later this summer on TCD), funding shortfalls may end up canceling traditional and adventurous programming alike. Whether a spin of a wheel and the opening of a pocketbook will help them remains to be seen.

Online registration for the UPAF Miller Lite Ride for the Arts ends Saturday. Lineup starts between 7:00 a.m. to 8:15, and routes between 5 – 75 miles will be held. For more information or just to donate, visit the United Performing Arts website.

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