The Surprising Story Behind Milwaukee Film’s New Grant

The new Ruth Foundation for the Arts is giving out major funds – and sparking unexpected connections.


RELATED: A Journey to Understand the Life and Works of Ruth DeYoung Kohler II

On June 1, Jonathan Jackson received an unexpected email: “Congratulations! Grant notification!”

“I’m always skeptical of subject lines that have multiple exclamation points,” Jackson says. “So I was a little leery.”

Jackson, the CEO of Milwaukee Film, opened the email to find that his organization was, apparently, being awarded a $20,000 grant to support its work promoting cinema in Milwaukee and hosting the Milwaukee Film Festival. But as far as he knew, the group claiming to be behind the money didn’t exist – The Ruth Foundation for the Arts.

He forwarded the email to the leadership team at Milwaukee Film with a message: “This seems legit? Wow. Anyone know anything about this?”

No one did. They started looking into it and quickly found that it was more than legit – the new Ruth Foundation for the Arts, founded in June but not yet made public, was one of the biggest artist-driven philanthropic organizations of its kind in the country. Milwaukee Film was one of 78 arts nonprofits across 29 states that had received a similar email that day, awarding a grant between $10,000 and $50,000.

That money came from the organization’s namesake Ruth DeYoung Kohler, who founded the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan and spent a long and storied career supporting lesser-known and self-taught artists. When she died in 2020, she left behind $440 million for the foundation to continue her work.

Ruth Kohler; Photo by Aliza Baran

Karen Patterson, a former senior curator at the Kohler Center, was chosen as the executive director of the foundation, which is headquartered in Milwaukee. “This was an exceptional opportunity,” she says. “How do you acknowledge the legacy and shoulders you’re standing on, but also show that you’re forward-looking and willing to try new things?”

Patterson landed on a unique grant nomination process. She reached out to 20 artists, calling on them to nominate nonprofits they believed were doing great work. That group expanded to nearly 50 artists, each of whom chose organizations to receive the first round of funding, totaling $1.25 million. 

As Jackson started to dig more into this good news, he asked who had nominated Milwaukee Film. He learned that it was fellow Milwaukeean Michelle Grabner. 

“She’s an artist, curator, writer, teacher, Guggenheim fellow, this completely established and amazing artist,” Jackson says. “That was validating, but also unexpected because, to my knowledge, we hadn’t had any direct connection with her before.”


 

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Equally as interesting to Jackson was that Grabner, in her nomination, emphasized the work Milwaukee Film does to promote experimental filmmaking. No major fundraising organization had recognized that before, Jackson says. He was struck and reached out to Grabner to see what had influenced her decision.

As he was soon to learn, he and Grabner actually share a significant connection that goes back decades. They both attended UW-Milwaukee, Grabner in the ’80s and Jackson in the late ’90s, during the tenure of Dick Blau, now professor emeritus and co-founder of the school’s film department. 

“The film program at UWM is known internationally for its emphasis on experimental film,” says Mary Louise Schumacher, former art critic for the Journal Sentinel. “The program has been a critical engine for artists in Milwaukee for many years. It generates people who think like artists. Michelle was influenced by that milieu, and it’s part of what drew her back to Milwaukee. Jonathan and his artistic vision, which have made Milwaukee Film possible, were a product of that program. … It’s a great story.”

That story starts in 1975. Blau, a recent Yale graduate with a Ph.D. in American Studies, was recruited by UWM to be the associate dean of its school of fine arts, and to head up the effort to start a new film department. He focused on experimental filmmaking. The decision wasn’t purely artistic. Simply put, experimental was cheap, and a fledgling program like UWM’s needed to save money however it could. 

But, at the same time, Blau had a vision. He didn’t want to teach students rote film techniques, but to instead build an artist’s mindset. “If you only have 100 feet of film, you can make a movie with 100 feet of film,” Blau says. “The basis of it is cultivating the imagination. … In most film schools at the time, you were an editor, a cinematographer, a director. We demolished all those categories, and our idea was to make what I would call the complete filmmaker.”

Grabner enrolled in the school of fine arts’ undergraduate program in the mid-’80s.

“She was one of the most extraordinary presences,” Blau says. “She had that mind, her wonderful personality, this wide range of interests, all combined to produce the extraordinary person that she is.”

After graduating, Grabner spent years in Chicago building a celebrated career as an artist, and returned to Milwaukee in 2015 where she founded The Suburban gallery in Walker’s Point. She points to Blau’s influence as helping to shape her approach to creating art, with his emphasis on experimentation and boundary-pushing.

“[Blau and the film faculty] were not only influential and inspiring teachers,” Grabner says, “they were actively developing the conditions and discourses shaping film, video, photography and theory.”

Photo by Aliza Baran

In 1998, after Grabner had graduated, Jackson, then 19, was in search of film schools that pushed outside the box. On a lark, he gave the UWM film department’s main office line a call. Blau answered.

“I ended up having a 30-minute conversation with him,” Jackson says. Blau pushed Jackson to explain why he wanted to go to film school, to discuss the artists who inspired him. “I showed up a couple months later to go to school at UWM based on that conversation.”

Blau took Jackson under his wing, influencing him as he had Grabner. During his time there, he encouraged Jackson to take over the curation job at UWM’s Union Cinema. “He brought an extraordinary finely tuned curatorial sensibility,” Blau says. “When he took [the Union Cinema] over, it became the cultural center for media not only at UWM, but in Milwaukee and in the region.”

Jackson credits Blau and the UWM film program with cultivating the imaginative approach that he brought to Milwaukee Film when he was named the artistic and executive director in 2009.

Then, in the 2010s, a new dean decided to chop the film department’s budget to unsustainable levels. “The end was in sight,” Blau says. He asked Jackson for help, and Jackson turned to the Milwaukee Film community to marshal support for his mentor.

“I vividly remember the meeting he arranged with the board of directors of Milwaukee Film,” Blau says. “With [UWM’s film department] gone, their nuclear reactor, so painfully built, would simply run out of fuel. With their aid … we were able to hang on and eventually even prosper. … In fact, we were actually just granted two new tenure track lines. If I could, I’d name them after Mr. Jackson.”

So this year, when Grabner was contacted by the Ruth Foundation to find worthy organizations, she remembered the exceptional artistic ecosystem Blau had built in the city and saw how Jackson is continuing to expand it. 

“I believe that Milwaukee Film is our city’s cultural lodestar,” Grabner says of her decision to nominate the organization. “Milwaukee has no shortage of community arts organizations that have big hearts and social good will, but Milwaukee Film sets the bar even higher.”

The grant comes with no strings attached. Jackson is planning to use it to expand Milwaukee Film’s year-round programming, bolster its youth education work and support individual artists. 

“Both Michelle and Jonathan are extremely generous to local artists – they share that,” Blau says. “They are there for others, and it’s made an enormous difference.”

Having already been nominated by Grabner, Jackson and Milwaukee Film are eligible for further grants in the years ahead. The Ruth Foundation is planning to award over $17 million to arts organizations annually, with a focus on unconventional and innovative groups.

“The scope of annual giving is indeed going to be stupendous, but I also believe it will change how arts organizations think,” Grabner says. “The Ruth Foundation, like Ruth herself, believes that this work can and should be done by artists, not devised by administrators, bureaucrats or development officers. … [It] is a game-changer for artists and for cultural institutions large and small.” 


Photo courtesy of Historic Milwaukee.

Arts @ Large

THE RUTH FOUNDATION for the Arts gave one other grant to a Wisconsin organization – the Walker’s Point-based Arts @ Large. The organization’s goal is to expand access to the arts, hosting educational and career development programs, residencies, exhibits and more. “They’re building pathways, literally and figuratively, in their community here in Walker’s Point,” says Patterson


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s September issue.

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Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.