Christina Martin-Wright

My day job is executive director for ARTS for ALL Wisconsin (we were formerly known as VSA Wisconsin, a member of the Very Special Arts International Network). We provide opportunities for people with disabilities to learn through, participate in and enjoy the arts.  

I’ve always been in the arts, which is no surprise when you learn my parents met at a community theater production of My Fair Lady. My mom handled hair and makeup; my father played Colonel Hugh Pickering. 

I grew up in the upper peninsula of Michigan, which didn’t have a lot of art-related opportunities. But my parents were artistic, and they encouraged me to find creative outlets. I grew up in a household where costumes were normal, where there were always books and music. I learned to play several instruments in public school and was active in the drama and forensic clubs. 

I went to college for theater and went to grad school in Chicago to study directing. At the time I was dating a guy from back home who lived in Madison. This was in the era when Pleasant Rowland and Jerry Frautschi were first investing in the Overture Center and I saw that Madison was a community that valued the arts and valued nonprofits.  

“The guy” became my husband and I’ve been in Madison for 22 years, raising our two boys and working in nonprofits the entire time. I’m one of the founding members of Stage Q, an LGBTQ Theatre and a member of the Bartell Theatre Foundation. 

As I continued to work in the arts, I came to realize how hard it is to be a working artist in the U.S., and that if you want to make a living in the arts you’re likely going to need to raise the money for your projects. I backed into my career in development and fundraising as a way to continue doing what I loved. And I’ve found tremendous satisfaction in using my skills in this area so others can do what they love. And that’s how I ended up where I am today.  

In my role at ARTS for ALL, the focus is on ensuring people with disabilities are part of the creative process across all mediums—creative writing, music, dance, theater, the visual arts.  

As we’re navigating COVID, I’m finding that it’s been a time for creative people to really strut their stuff. One of the most encouraging things I’ve seen—and something I’d love to see replicated in other places—is the arts’ community’s willingness to share and collaborate.  

The amount of vulnerable sharing that’s gone on in recent months has made us much stronger. We’ve been willing to hold each other up, to share the do’s and don’ts of what we’ve learned. When we’re on the other side of this, I think the art we produce is going to be even more amazing because of how much we learned together.  

If anyone is on the fence about investing in art nonprofits, I hope you’ll see now is the time to do so and with confidence. Many of the people we serve are already in marginalized groups, and it’s so important to continue to provide ways for people to connect—even if it’s only through a Zoom choir practice. This is work we can do with the support of others. 

My most memorable caffeine was in the summer of 1989. I was home from my first year of college and my uncle got me a job being a “flag girl” on a road construction crew in Sault St. Marie. I’m pretty sure my family bet I wouldn’t last 24 hours, but I stuck it out all summer and it paid for a whole year at Michigan State. It was a miserable job, standing holding a flag for 16 hours, near the border of Canada and Michigan. In the morning it would be freezing and I spent the entire day varying the number of layers I was wearing to manage the changing temperatures.  

One day it was especially cold and a woman who lived in the house closest to where I was working brought me a cup of coffee. I wasn’t a coffee drinker, but I loved the smell and I was overwhelmed by the kindness. It was a pretty memorable first cup—the first time I really experienced the power of sharing a cup of coffee.   

My current caffeine of choice is an iced coffee I make from beans roasted and sold at Emy J’s Café in Stevens Point. It’s women-run and owned by the sister of a friend of mine.  

My favorite place for caffeine is the cottage on Lake Wisconsin where my family and I relocated to in March and have been living ever since. We never thought we’d still be here—and if the septic system cooperates, we’ll stay for the winter.  

The person I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with is Scott Hansen. Scott was one of the artists we work with at ARTS for ALL Wisconsin. I have one of his paintings, Agamemnon, hanging in the kitchen at our cottage (Editor’s note: It’s the painting in the back of Christina’s picture)

Each year we do an annual call for a statewide art exhibition and this year Scott entered the painting I bought. A commission check was sent to Scott—the artists get 70% of the sale price of the work we sell. But the check got returned.  

That’s how we found out that he’d passed away from cancer—we didn’t even know he was sick. I didn’t really know Scott; I just knew he was a gentle, quiet soul. Hearing he had died, I was struck by so many different feelings. One of the strongest was the regret that I hadn’t gotten to know him better. I see his painting every day and it’s in the back of every Zoom call. It’s teaching me to remember to reach out. I always pictured the handwritten note I was going to send, telling him how much I love this painting. Knowing he can never receive that note makes me sad. I wish I could have coffee, right here, with Scott and tell him how much I love his painting and how much we will miss him. As a side note, we recently decided to name our Visual Art Studio in Scott’s honor.  

World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: That’s such a big question. I don’t exactly have an answer, but what I do know is that the pandemic is motivating me to ask, “What do you want to do?” And to just do it. We’re living in a time when all bets are off. It’s a time of new discovery where so much is possible if we just take the risk. 

Take a risk, allow yourself to fail. Allow yourself to discover.  

Often there’s much to learn in discomfort. In my own creative practice, that’s always been true. And in my professional life as well, frankly. That willingness to be fully present in the moment, even in uncomfortable moments, teaches you something about yourself and about the world around you. To do otherwise is to cheat yourself out of an opportunity of discovery.