If you thought the arts were struggling before, just wait.
Once Gov. Scott Walker's budget is adopted, Madison arts organizations could see state aid cut by as much as $542,000. The actual impact could run to well more than $1 million.
The general outlines have been known since March: In the name of job creation, the Wisconsin Arts Board will become a program under the Department of Tourism and lose six positions. While other agencies and departments face 10% cuts, the Arts Board will be cut by 66% to 73%. The board's ability to award grants to artists and arts organizations will be crippled.
So far, there's been little debate on this hit to the state's burgeoning arts industries. Arts officials in Eau Claire have led in pushing back, but results from the city's regional arts economy survey won't be known until 2012.
"It's pretty much a done deal," says George Tzougros, Wisconsin Arts Board executive director.
Even what's left may be at risk. Tzougros adds, "There's always the potential of a negative thing coming out of the Senate or Assembly."
In fact, Kansas' governor recently vetoed all arts funds there. During that debate, Americans for Prosperity - a tea party organization founded by David Koch - issued a letter arguing that no one "should be compelled to have part of their tax bill fund the tastes of those on an arts commission. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Some may enjoy Picasso or listening to Beethoven. Others may prefer a Dogs Playing Poker painting."
We've come a very long way, indeed, from the days when Republican Wisconsin governors such as Lee Dreyfus and Warren Knowles championed the Arts Board. But then, they didn't have to deal with a recession rivaling the Great Depression.
Someone who did face that challenge, however, was Glenn Frank. As a president of the University of Wisconsin, he chose to meet the Great Depression with...art. In doing so, he laid the foundation for what, 50 years later, would become the Wisconsin Arts Board.
As an era passes, what is it we're losing - not just in dollars, but in terms of Wisconsin's quality of life?
Better farming through art
Wisconsin was the last state to create a statutory agency for the arts. Its roots go back to Frank.
When he is recalled today, it's usually as a polarizing figure. Brought in as a famed wunderkind in 1925, the former magazine editor was dismissed by the UW Board of Regents in 1937, after which he campaigned as a Republican for U.S. Senate. He died in an auto accident in 1940.
Before Frank's long term, the UW had already reached out to extend the arts to rural audiences, through tours, correspondence courses and state radio, which broadcast even drawing lessons.
Frank justified these efforts well before the Depression, in his first year as president. "The arts are vital if, in the years ahead, we are to master instead of [be] mastered by the vast complex and swiftly moving technical civilization born of science and the machine," he said.
He coupled his populist arts philosophy to the Wisconsin Idea, the Progressive-era movement that brought the benefits of university study to the entire state. When the Depression hit, instead of cutting back on culture, Frank went even further, hiring Chris Christensen in 1931 as a decidedly pro-arts dean at, of all places, the Agricultural College. Christensen hired the first artist in residence at any university anywhere, acclaimed painter John Steuart Curry, who spent much of his time visiting farm families to encourage their native gifts.
Time magazine lauded the program: "Like the great artists of Renaissance Italy, John Steuart Curry lives on the patronage of states and institutions." Christensen later explained that the Agricultural College "must be broad and must include the cultural side of life as well as practical training in the methods and devices for better farming and more satisfying rural living."
Christensen went on to hire naturalist and author Aldo Leopold, and - to do Curry-like work with rural theater - Robert Gard. Gard expanded the mission by leading the formation of the Arts Board's direct predecessor, the Wisconsin Arts Foundation and Council, in 1956.
Despite its populist roots, Wisconsin politicians long hesitated to subsume the public/private Arts Foundation and Council into a state agency. In 1969, President Richard Nixon added pressure when he asked Congress to double federal arts support. No official agency? No dollars.
Finally, in 1973, Gov. Patrick Lucey signed the Wisconsin Arts Board into law. Funds were modest. Then they declined. In 1992, the state invested 59 cents per person in the Wisconsin Arts Board, placing Wisconsin 30th in the nation for arts agency funding. By 2008, Wisconsin ranked 43rd, allocating 44 cents per person. By comparison, Illinois provided 83 cents and Minnesota $1.97.
But Wisconsin artists did a good job with what they had, leveraging state aid to the hilt.
Cuts mean more cuts
Public arts dollars have served as seed money to create a growing industry. Around 450 artists and arts organizations statewide annually receive Arts Board aid. They use it to gather additional aid. Along with arts groups that aren't publicly funded, these organizations sustain an industry.
In 2008, Americans for the Arts, a national advocacy organization, released a survey of arts spending and employment in all 50 states, based on figures culled from the decidedly neutral Dun and Bradstreet. It remains the most current comprehensive look at the U.S. arts economy.
The study showed that Wisconsin's overall arts employment grew 4.19% from January 2007 to January 2008. In south-central Wisconsin, arts employment was even more robust, with a 10.62% increase.
Despite the recession that began in 2007, the survey ranked Wisconsin 20th in the nation for its number of arts businesses, but 44th for its number of arts workers who were paid. In other words, we stretched our arts dollars by adding a lot of volunteer hours, many more than other Midwestern states. By comparison, Minnesota ranked 17th for its number of arts businesses and 23rd for its number of arts employees.
The study also showed that one in 5.45 Wisconsin arts professionals was employed in south-central Wisconsin's 2nd Congressional District, and that employment was growing fast. As of 2008, the district had a total of 1,617 arts-related businesses, an increase over 2007 of 12.84%. These businesses had 8,326 employees.
Gov. Walker's proposed changes could make arts organizations lose much more than their public grants. Let's look at why that is.
Under Walker's budget, $2.4 million in state aid to the arts will drop to $759,000. All Wisconsin artists and arts groups will suffer. Just in Madison - not counting Dane County - they stand to lose $542,000 annually. The Madison Arts Commission receives $15,000 a year from the Arts Board, which it uses for "re-granting" to artists and organizations. More than 50 other Madison organizations and artists receive aid directly from the Arts Board.
In the 2010 state fiscal year they included the Chazen Museum of Art ($16,292), Children's Theater of Madison ($19,287), Kanopy Dance ($31,024), Madison Ballet ($41,348), Madison Children's Museum ($21,273), Madison Museum of Contemporary Art ($21,420), Madison Opera ($24,610), Madison Symphony Orchestra ($26,632), Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra ($24,609), the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras ($17,048), Very Special Arts-Wisconsin ($13,976) and many more.
But the figures at risk will be twice as bad; private grantors typically require that organizations receive matching public funds. In other words, without public money, organizations risk losing equal amounts of private donations. Thus, the impact of Madison's $542,000 cut could actually amount to more than $1 million.
And the impact could even be worse. Take Overture Center for the Arts, for example.
Its own financial impact study showed in late 2009 that Overture audiences annually pump $9.8 million in ancillary spending, such as dining, into the economy. Overture and its resident companies also directly spend another $27.6 million for goods and services, providing 1,471 area jobs totaling nearly $26.4 million in household incomes.
Such economic impact by arts groups around Wisconsin will now be damped. Ironically, it will hurt the state most of all. Forget the income taxes of arts employees; for its modest $21,361 Arts Board grant to Overture, the state got back more than $2.8 million just in sales tax revenue alone.
The creative class
These sorts of results are common to any arts industry survey, and are part of what is identified as the "creative economy," outlined in 2002 by urban studies theorist Richard Florida in his book The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida's continuing work has been used as ammunition by arts advocates who argue that support of culture brings to communities the best, brightest innovators and their high-tech industries.
"I believe that the arguments of the creative class and creativity are more important now than they've ever been," says the Wisconsin Arts Board's Tzougros. "Going back to Florida, the basic argument is that if you want these new industries, you have to nurture creativity in all its forms, and make these places where people who are creative want to live.
"People will not incubate a job in a place where they don't have a qualified workforce, and they're not going to start a business and become entrepreneurs in a place where the environment doesn't encourage it."
Madison was identified by Florida as a leading creative city for its size, and he suggested that Milwaukee was ripe for transformation - with the encouragement of a creative economy.
Art as an economic development tool was always at the core of the Arts Board. Gard anticipated Florida by decades when he wrote, in 1966, "Business has reached a point where aesthetic considerations have become almost as important as economic factors."
Under Tourism, the Arts Board will technically continue - as a 15-member board. Tzougros will stay on, and he's hopeful, noting that the board has long enjoyed a good relationship with tourism.
"As we shift and pivot our attention, one hopes that possibly arts visibility is rising up in a way it couldn't before, because tourism has a PR arm that the Arts Board never had," he says.
But will public relations be enough?
"The need for advocacy for the arts, arts education and creative economy as 'part of the solution' for Wisconsin's future is greater than ever before," says Anne Katz, executive director of Arts Wisconsin, the state's private nonprofit arts advocacy organization.
"We have to make the new reality work," she says, "and continue to advocate with decision- and policy-makers so that we can rebuild and grow."