Public Art & Advocacy

by | Nov 1, 2022 | 0 comments

  • Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway along with common council members and Friends of Madison Arts Commission at the ribbon cutting for Madison’s first rainbow crosswalk.

When Kia Karlan and her family were vacationing in Jasper, Canada a few years ago, they noticed a rainbow crosswalk in town, and her nephew commented about how cool it was that they had a Pride crosswalk so visible. Other crosswalks were popping up in other cities, too, like Austin, Texas. 

Back in 2019, Patrick Heck, an alder for District 2 in Madison, started talking with community members about the Pride symbols they’d seen in their travels, and decided to try to bring that back to Madison. In early 2020, Karin Wolf, the head of the Madison Arts Commission, along with then alderperson Lindsey Lemmer, started reaching out to people like Rebecca Kanner, a planner for the city, and others about how to actually make it happen. 

After passing an initial resolution to start fundraising and putting the project together in spring of 2020, the rainbow crosswalk project all but died with the COVID shutdown and the protest action surrounding George Floyd’s death. No one wanted to steer money away from more pressing projects and community needs. When the “Black Lives Matter” sign was painted on the road outside of the jail, however, the impact that a large, visual sign made on all who saw it motivated those involved with the rainbow project to get back to it as soon as they were able. That time came this past summer.

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The 2020 resolution stipulated that none of the original price tag of $40,000 to $50,000 to put two crosswalks up, one on the top of State Street, and one along the bike path at Monona Terrace, would come from city money. This year, the project was pared down to just the State Street crosswalk, to focus the money and energy of the project to one place. The State Street location was picked based on both the fact that it had the least amount of vehicular traffic of any intersection downtown, and its visibility to locals, visitors, and legislators. Lindsey Lemmer, who was an alderperson when the 2020 resolution passed, and who did a lot of the planning and fundraising for the project, said that she wanted to put it there to “make sure that struggling LGBTQ+ youth are celebrated here.” She continued, “We want legislators to look at it every day and remember that they represent everybody.” But there was still the question of how to pay for it.

The Madison Arts Commission, according to Kia Karlen, handles annual grants, calls for city art, and allocates city money for these projects. “There are always things the city won’t pay for, though,” she said. This is where Friends of the Madison Arts comes in. They are a small board of volunteers who solicit donations from corporate and private donors to fund projects and line items that the city won’t. To date, the rainbow crosswalk, with a $27,000 price tag, is the largest project they’ve raised money for, and they did so in a variety of ways. They put on The Silver Lining Awards, a fundraising awards show to also “honor what happened in the community during COVID, beside just arts,” according to Kia. She also described raising money through a Facebook page, netting about $4,000 there. 

When asked about the individuals who donated to this project, Lindsey Lemmer described them as “Good Madisonians, good progressives, some activists, and many members of the LGBTQ community.” Many of them are horrified by the anti-trans bills, and they wanted to contribute to “a symbol and reminder of who we want to be,” Lemmer continued. Local and national corporations pitched in a great deal of the money needed as well. Financials provided by Kia Karlen outlined the funds donated through corporate gifts and additional funding. American Family Insurance provided $5,000, MG&E $2,500, UW Health $1,000, and CBRE donated $250—all as gifts. Additional funds came from the aforementioned Silver Lining Awards ($2,600), the Facebook campaign ($4,000), and Wisconsin NOW—National Organization for Women ($1,000).

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While there has been some pushback from some who don’t want to put LGBTQ Pride on display, there’s also been some from within the community that this money could be better spent directly on aid to trans people, who are disproportionately housing insecure and face discrimination in the workplace and in healthcare settings. They need health care and legal help, and the $27,000 price tag for this project, a number made higher by the long-lasting materials used in an effort to keep maintenance costs down and make sure the crosswalk is visible for many years, should have gone to those needs. 

While everyone I spoke to about this project agreed that those needs are dire, and Patrick Heck specifically stated he was not interested in making more of these crosswalks and raising and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, they all agreed that symbols are needed. Public art is important to visibly show that Madison welcomes all, and kids who visit from smaller towns who might be in the closet or struggling with a community that doesn’t support them, might feel some hope seeing this large Pride flag. Lindsey Lemmer wants a balance between symbols and effective legislation. “We need to do both,” she said. “Symbols cannot replace transformational legislation, we need to do the right thing, not just showcase that we’re doing the right thing. Having the symbol is not enough, but it is important.” 

There was some disagreement about the future and scope of this project going forward, with some, like Heck, thinking that the State Street crossing was enough. Others wanted to move forward with other crossings, like in front of Monona Terrace on the bike path. Regardless, the message is clear: Madison supports its LGBTQ community, and wants state legislators, and all who visit, to know it.

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