‘The arts save lives’: Dane Arts looks to support creators through crisis

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Dane Arts Mural Arts. Photo supplied.

Each Friday at 5 p.m., Emida Roller has been hopping on Facebook Live to highlight the creativity bursting out the doors of Dane Arts Mural Arts (DAMA) on Madison’s southeast side. As the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated things for artists and creators across the globe, DAMA has reacted by setting up a virtual gallery on their website to encourage folks to support their artisans and outreach programming. 

DAMA, which was created as a Dane Arts program in 2014, has since gained independent non-profit status. Their staff of artists have been working with community members to beautify underserved neighborhoods in the county for the past five years, plastering feel-good messages in a range of public spaces. 

From the whimsical soccer-playing sandhill cranes at Glendale Elementary to a sidewalk campaign about water contamination and the importance of drainage, DAMA is all about creating a more equitable — and aesthetically pleasing — future. 

Photo supplied.

“As a mural program we strive to level the playing field by providing artistic opportunities to urban and rural youth who may have limited access to arts education,” said Roller, who has served as DAMA’s Executive Director since 2019. “Young people benefit by working alongside skilled, trained artists who understand that deliberate practice leads to success. Through their hard work, youth learn how to complete projects on time, increase their critical thinking abilities, and find a sense of belonging in their school and community.” 

In targeting children in underserved areas, Roller and DAMA hope to not only empower and build character within the youth they work with, but to build community-wide character and solidarity too.                          

“[Our] vision is to use mural making to help develop a network of communities whose members, especially youth, feel safe in their neighborhood and proud of their community,” Roller said. “Each DAMA mural project presents a unique opportunity to address inequities and support unity by engaging at-risk youth, developing neighborhood partnerships, and inviting community members to participate in each step of the collaborative process.” 

Each time they complete a mural, DAMA is leaving behind more than just a vibrant piece of art or reminder of a unique experience — they are leaving behind a static reminder that we as neighbors should always be working to make the world around us more beautiful in whatever way we can. 

Professional or not, the pandemic is greatly impacting the livelihoods of artists at many levels. As nationwide unemployment swells to 30 million over the course of six weeks, financial restraints or other concerns are likely to be exacerbated within the arts industry. 

“Artists and organizations are being hit hard across all disciplines here in Dane County and throughout the country. And yet, where are people turning to in these horrific hours of COVID-19?” Dane Arts Executive Director Mark Fraire said. “They are turning to the arts… to music, dance, visual, literary, theater, performance and more, seeking creative outlets to soothe their spirits.”

And thus, organizations like Dane Arts have scrambled to put together relief funding for artists unable to supplement for this loss in income. On March 17, Fraire was able to open up DANG!, or the Dane Arts Need Grant program. 

However, in just two short days, funds were exhausted across 60 slots and 90 requests. 

While Fraire is working to pull together more funding, the organizations under Dane Arts are getting creative to be able to sustain their services. This is where DAMA’s virtual gallery comes in. 

By live-streaming each week and opening up an online platform for patrons to appreciate (and purchase) the work put in by DAMA artisans, Roller and her staff are pulling out all the stops to remain open. 

“The pandemic has halted all physical community-engagement programming, projects are being canceled, and contracts are being revoked. So, the monthlong celebration of art provides viewing, purchasing and donation opportunities, in addition to unique, weekly at-home participation experiences shared on our Facebook page,” Roller said. “This is our first virtual gallery event and more than anything we’re just happy to find a way to bring public art to people at home right now.”

DAMA will continue their weekly social media engagement through May 22, and are asking community members to consider donating online or purchasing artwork through the virtual gallery. Five percent of proceeds will be donated to the Lussier Family Heritage Center, while remaining funds will directly go to DAMA’s community engagement. 

“The arts build community,” Fraire said. “The arts save lives.” 

For updates on DANG! funding and operations at Dane Arts, refer to their website. 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that Emida Roller became DAMA's Executive Director in 2019, after taking over for Sharon Kilfoy.

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