50th anniversary
Peck School celebrates a half century of boosting region's economy and quality of life

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The Peck School’s Fine Arts Quartet performs all over the globe and has an extensive recording legacy. Music critics consider it one of the world’s finest chamber groups. -Photo: Courtesy

Milwaukee’s vast and growing cultural scene has not only immeasurably enhanced the region’s quality of life but also created a new economy that’s helped to mitigate the erosion of its manufacturing base. While other once-great cities in the region have become emblems of the Rust Belt, Milwaukee is evolving into a new life through the arts. The creative industries in Milwaukee have grown to the point that they now have the same economic impact as the construction industry, according to commissioned reports.

Earlier this month, Milwaukee was named one of America’s top 12 “ArtPlaces” today by ArtPlace, a public-private coalition of major foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Much of the credit for Milwaukee’s transition to a cultural center belongs to the generous contributions of arts patrons, as well as visionary civic and government leadership. But the cornerstone of the region’s cultural development is the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts.

The Peck School is marking its 50th anniversary with a “Year of the Arts” celebration that includes more than 400 affordable events both on and off campus. That might sound like a lot of celebrating, but then there’s a lot to celebrate.

“The Peck School – from our alumni to our students to our faculty (current and past) – have made a profound and lasting impact on the cultural vibrancy, creative industry, quality of life and talent pool here in Milwaukee, in Wisconsin and truly, around the world,” says Ellen Friebert Schupper, Peck School’s director of marketing and community relations.

Major presence

Founded in 1962 as the nucleus of UWM’s combined arts disciplines, the school was renamed in 1999 in honor of the financial support provided by the Milton and Lillian Peck Foundation. Today, the Peck School is the only comprehensive school of the arts in the University of Wisconsin system. It’s home to nearly 125 full-time faculty and staff members, as well as 2,000 students studying disciplines that include art and design, dance, film, music and theater. An inter-arts program combines arts technology and musical theater.

The Peck School has grown into a cultural institution in its own right, but it’s also an incubator, pipeline and resource for a large proportion of the area’s prolific arts groups. “If you don’t have a really robust and multi-dimensional educational support structure for creative industries, you cannot grow them and you can’t sustain them – and you’re certainly not going to keep the talent,” says Christine Harris, former executive director of the Creative Alliance Milwaukee and current CEO of Christine Harris Connections.

The presence and influence of Peck School alumni can be seen at all levels and in all facets of the region’s thriving arts scene. Milwaukee Ballet executive director Dennis Buehler is a Peck alum, as are Milwaukee Film Festival director Jonathan Jackson and Jonathan Winkle, director of Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield.

Alumni Kevin Stalheim, the founder and director of Present Music, and Dani Kuepper, the founder and director Danceworks, are among the Peck School graduates who have expanded the city’s cultural scene. So has Michael Cotey, founder and director of Youngblood Theatre Company, whose other members are also Peck graduates.

“You can’t go to any arts organizations in southeastern Wisconsin and not bump into at least one of our alums,” says Peck School’s interim dean Scott Emmons. “The impact has been incredible.”

Peck faculty also have played a prominent role. Dick Chudnow, founder of the popular ComedySportz, teaches at Peck, faculty artists exhibit their work in Milwaukee and around the world and faculty musicians perform with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and other groups.

Peck School itself has grown the region’s cultural offerings through its Inova gallery, one of the city’s most important exhibition sites for the visual arts, along with such performance venues as Helen Bader Concert Hall, Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts, Mainstage Theatre, Studio Theatre and Studio 254.

But one of Peck School’s most important functions is helping to ensure that the area’s arts tradition continues. Every school district in southeastern Wisconsin has a visual or performing arts faculty member who studied at Peck School. As teachers, they are preparing the next generation of arts leadership and talent.

Broad influence

While their impact is most keenly felt in southeastern Wisconsin, Peck School alumni hold positions of cultural influence worldwide. The Fine Arts quartet is world-renown, with an extensive recording legacy and global performance history that stretches over the past 50 years. The Washington Post calls the quartet “one of the gold-plated names in chamber music.”

Henry Godinez, who received an MFA from Peck’s theater program, serves as resident artistic associate at Chicago’s Tony Award-winning Goodman Theatre. Peck School alumna Michelle Grabner, chair of the painting and drawing department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was recently named a curator for the Whitney Biennial.

Oscar-nominated film actor Willem Dafoe and visual effects master Jim Rygiel, who won an Academy Award for his work on “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” also attended Peck School. So did composers Jerome Kitzke and Josh Schmidt, as well as Broadway actor Chike Johnson, who appeared most recently in the Great White Way’s revival of “Wit.”

Peck alumnus Eric Haywood has directed and produced music videos for Usher, Cee-Lo Green and Tupac Shakur. He’s also written for Showtime and the Hallmark Channel, and most recently wrote and directed the independent feature film “Four of Hearts.”

For Haywood, Peck School offered the opportunity to learn filmmaking without leaving his hometown. The equipment and technology available at the school provided him with the opportunity to gain practical experience while studying the underlying theory. Even before graduation, he began his transition to “the real world” by writing and directing music videos for local artists.

“Working with a production company for paying clients (and) the pressures of bigger budgets – it was just a continuation of my education,” Haywood says.

While Haywood’s education at Peck School led him elsewhere, actor James DeVita’s education brought him here to stay. A native of Long Island, N.Y., he originally decided to study at Peck because he wanted to lose his thick accent, and Peck’s theater department has a strong reputation for speech and voice training.

“Susan Sweeney, the voice and speech instructor, changed my life,” he says. “That’s not hyperbole. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. She didn’t just teach me how to speak, but about everything involved with acting.”

Following graduation, DeVita worked for the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and First Stage Children’s Theater. He currently performs with the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, where he also directs and serves as company literary manager. He’s also written two novels.

DeVita enjoys the life he’s made for himself in Wisconsin, especially the relationship he has developed with the theater community over the years: “I meet people all the time who say things like, ‘I saw you perform as a student at UWM!’ Or a 25-year-old will come up to me and say, ‘You taught me at First Stage when I was nine!’ The community has a sense of ownership – they’ve seen us succeed and fail, they watched us grow up. That’s an exciting part of the theater.”

$300M impact

Two recent studies found Milwaukee compares favorably to similarly sized and larger communities in the extent and quality of the arts, as well as their economic impact. Peck School has played a significant role in this success.

Conducted by Americans for the Arts, the nation’s leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts, “Arts and Economic Prosperity IV” looked at the arts’ financial impact on Milwaukee. Researchers found that Milwaukee’s nonprofit arts and culture organizations provide employment for more than just administrators, artists, curators, choreographers and musicians. They also employ financial staff, facility managers, salespeople, and others who contribute to the vibrancy as well as the viability of the local economy.

Given the sluggishness of recent overall economic trends, results from the 2010 fiscal year study are astounding. Arts and culture in the greater Milwaukee area generated $299.6 million in total economic activity in 2010, according to the report. The $220.4 million spent by nonprofit arts and culture organizations, combined with the $79.3 million in event-related spending by audiences, supported 10,895 full-time equivalent jobs, generated $231.7 million in household income and delivered $38.4 million in local and state government revenue.

“This economic impact study sends a strong signal that when we support the arts, we not only enhance our quality of life, but we also invest in Milwaukee’s economic well-being,” researchers said.

A similar report commissioned by the Cultural Alliance of Greater Milwaukee and the Greater Milwaukee Committee used 2009 data. In that study, researchers Mt. Auburn Associates reported that 4.2 percent of Milwaukee’s workforce operates within the creative industry. That figure compares favorably to communities like Atlanta, which reported 4.6 percent, and bests cities such as Charlotte and Cleveland, which reported 3.6 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively.

National figures show 3.7 percent of all U.S. employees and 3.6 percent of all Wisconsin employees work in the creative industry, putting Milwaukee’s creative impact ahead of both state and national norms.

“Southeast Wisconsin’s economy and prosperity will depend less on how much it produces and more on what it produces, less on its cost of living and more on its quality of living, less on its workers’ skills and more on its people’s talents, less on corporate identities and more on entrepreneurial energies,” Mt. Auburn researchers concluded.

Removing barriers

Faculty and administrators at the Peck School understand the impact their programs have on local, state and even national-level arts organizations. Future plans include increasing efforts that bring together various businesses, both within and outside the artistic disciplines.

“We plan to remain in our various disciplines, but we will increase our collaboration,” Emmons says. “Life doesn’t exist in little boxes, and we’re learning that we need to be leaders in removing barriers to growth.”

An ongoing partnership between the Peck School and UWM’s College of Engineering & Applied Science has some 60 students from both disciplines working together to blend creative approaches and practical applications to create marketable solutions to problems and opportunities. Collaborative efforts are spreading to other schools within UWM as well.

Peck has joined forces with various city businesses and enterprises to seek solutions to issues that are both financially viable and esthetically sound as part of arts’ evolving approach in society, Emmons says.

An excellent example is the Harmony Initiative, says Christine Harris. The project has united the resources and the missions of the Peck School and the Milwaukee Ballet with Froedtert and The Medical College of Wisconsin. Together, these organizations will develop an estimated 90,000-square-foot building, probably at the site of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts parking structure, to fill their individual and collective needs.

The structure will house the Milwaukee Ballet’s offices, bringing the group from an obscure building in the Fifth Ward into a more central and visible location. Studios for the ballet and its school, as well as a performance center with upt to 400 seats for small dance performances, will also occupy the building.

In addition, the facility will have a sports medicine clinic for the ballet and the general public to use.

“It will be one of the finest dance facilities in the country and a showcase for dance performance, dance education, dance therapy and dance research,” according to the Harmony Initiative’s website at www4.uwm.edu/psoa/harmony.

“This is an example of a really integrated, collaborative partnership that will grow support for and access to all three of those organizations,” Harris says. “UWM sees itself as an urban resource for the community, not just an isolated campus. This is an example of how they reach out and participate in the community. It’s an example of how UWM has been inventive and proactive in its thinking.”

The National Endowment for the Arts awarded the ballet a $100,000 grant for the project last summer. 

A year of cultural opportunities

Peck School’s Year of the Arts, which began last fall, encompasses more than 400 on and off campus programs, including world premiere works and signature events involving relationships with more than 60 community and campus partners. The celebration began with the college’s annual LGBT Film/Video Festival, which is considered one of the nation’s best. The festival continues all year with monthly screenings.

Upcoming events for the celebration’s second season include:

• “Winterdances,” a program offering a variety of works choreographed by award-winning Peck alumni, Jan. 24–27 at UWM Mainstage Theatre.

• “The Wild Party,” an acclaimed musical by Andrew Lippa, plays at Helen Bader Concert Hall Feb. 8–10.

• On March 7, “Beyond the Score,” a multimedia presentation of the history of Antonin Dvorák’s “New World Symphony,” is followed by a performance of the work at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. The unique event brings together the UWM Music Department, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

For a full listing of events, go to http://yoa.uwm.edu/event-calendar.