What Will Happen to the Marcus Center?

The performing arts venue’s ownership is in question, and no one seems willing to do the job.

At the time, it seemed to be the smallest part of a $500 million deal, barely worthy of attention from the Legislature or the news media. All focus was on paying for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena. Hardly any public debate was devoted to a provision tucked inside the arena legislation that could, eventually, transfer ownership of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts from Milwaukee County to a restructured Wisconsin Center District.

Within a few months, the proposed ownership transfer started to fall apart, as first the County Board and then the district board rebelled. While they raised questions, uncertainty enveloped the fate of the millions of taxpayer dollars that help the Marcus Center present more than 1,600 concerts, ballets, plays and more to over half a million visitors every year. Its four stages are home to resident groups that include the Black Arts Think Tank members, First Stage, Milwaukee Ballet, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO), Florentine Opera Company and Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra – a varied collection of artists who are often regarded as standard bearers in their respective fields.

“We’ve been in limbo,” says Marcus Center President Paul Mathews.

Now the center’s ownership may not change for at least four years, if ever. As of early March, county and Marcus Center officials were scrambling to put together a plan before the April 5 election to preserve long-term county financial aid to the performing arts center.

Left unanswered, however, was the question of why the transfer was written into state law in the first place. Legislators agreed to potentially alter the future of a leading regional performing arts hub without any financial analysis and with less scrutiny by local public officials than in any other transfer of a major cultural asset in Milwaukee history.

So how did we get here? An explainer.

Photo by Andrew Slater Photography.
Marcus Center 101: Formerly the Performing Arts Center, the Marcus Center was built in 1969 with private moola, but the building was deeded to the county, to be managed by a nonprofit entity, as it is today. Other entities doing this public-private tango include: Milwaukee Public Museum, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee County Historical Society, Milwaukee County Transit System. Photo by Andrew Slater Photography.

How did the Marcus Center become part of the arena legislation?

The Marcus Center transfer was included at the request of County Executive Chris Abele, during the closed-door negotiations between state and local officials over the arena financing deal. In the first public indication that anyone opposed Abele’s idea during those talks, Mayor Tom Barrett, who was also at the negotiating table, released a one-line statement to Milwaukee Magazine saying, “I wasn’t supportive at the time and I’m not supportive now.”

Others who might not have been supportive had no say. Officials from the Wisconsin Center District, the Marcus Center and its tenant groups say they had no advance word of the transfer plan. And the legislation specifically foreclosed a County Board vote, following the state’s recent pattern of shifting power from the board to Abele.

Supervisor Gerry Broderick, chairman of the County Board’s parks committee, says he can find no precedent for the state ordering a local government to turn a public facility over to a third party without a local vote. Indeed, historian John Gurda says, the Common Council and/or County Board – or city voters – approved every similar ownership change for major cultural assets.

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‘What Will Happen to the Marcus Center?’ appears in the April 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.