Walker is de-funding the arts on top of everything else and in spite of art's great economic development benefits.
The art of no-compromise
“Let us put firmly and permanently aside the cliché that the arts are a frill,” said Robert E. Gard in 1969.
Gard, the founder of the Wisconsin Idea Theater and a legendary advocate of community art, died in 1992. That’s the year George Tzougros began working as program manager at the Wisconsin Arts Board (WAB) directed by Dean Amhaus. In 1996, Tzougros succeeded Amhaus as WAB director when the latter headed off to lead the Wisconsin Sesquicentennial Commission.
Gard’s lifetime of work across the state to encourage and support democracy in the arts among community artists and arts organizations hasn’t been forgotten at WAB where he is quoted in the vision statement.
But Gard’s advocacy of the arts, plus cold clear facts gathered over decades about the economic boost provided by a flourishing arts “industry,” didn’t deter Scott Walker’s 2011 state budget from cutting WAB state funding by 73 percent, reducing the staff from 10 employees to four, and “attaching” the WAB within the Department of Tourism.
History is an instructive teacher, if anyone’s paying attention.
The last few years of serious recession are often compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s, remembered as a time of lost farms and shattered hopes in Wisconsin.
But something happened with the arts back then: it was called The New Deal. The U.S. Treasury Department and the Federal Art Project (WPA) commissioned post office and courthouse murals.
Art wasn’t considered a frill during that decade of greatest economic hardship. The public murals painted by notable mid-westerners like Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, and numerous others, decorated public buildings everywhere, and led to discussions about community identity and self-image.
That’s not to say that those public art projects were beds of roses for artists or their employers who may have disagreed about subject matter and such. Karal Ann Marling’s book - Wall-to-Wall America: A Cultural History of Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression - describes fervor, whimsy, misunderstanding, and disinterest, all of which seem endemic to government support for art. Nonetheless, government support for art happened during the Great Depression, and produced treasured results.
If then, why not now during the Great Recession?
George Tzougros is an able, amiable man, unflinching in his optimism and delighted in traveling to the corners of the state to meet with people in the art world.
With the budget cuts, Tzougros and the remaining WAB staffers can be found tucked along a back wall in a sea of Department of Tourism cubicles in the state office building at 201 West Washington Avenue.
“The biennial budget merged us with tourism,” Tzougros said in his office. “We have a very good relationship with the [tourism] department.” Tourism secretary Stephanie Klett’s known support of the arts is appreciated given the cuts to WAB.
Tzougros said, “The challenge at hand is to get people in policy-making to realize that the arts are not a drag on the economy or the recovery.”
Practicing, studying, and living with art is recognized for its positive qualitative (less measurable) value. But when the deciders for state funding are legislators on the Joint Finance Committee and the governor, the emphasis shifts almost entirely to quantitative (money) realms.
“The College Board…reports that students with four years of arts or music average about 100 points better on the verbal and math portions of the SAT,” says the Arts Index, of Americans for the Arts. That’s one example of art benefiting Americans both quantitatively and qualitatively.
In our state, Americans for the Arts’ latest economic impact study showed that 22,872 full-time equivalent jobs were supported in Wisconsin during fiscal year 2010 by non-profit arts and culture organizations and audiences. That figure didn’t include professional artists, a sizeable and important group of self-employed entrepreneurs in Wisconsin who also pay taxes, purchase goods, hire employees, and create profit across the board.
“It’s part of our goal to de-mystify the artist, to keep reminding people that artists pay taxes,” Tzougros said.
The arts and economy survey reported, in addition to jobs, that non-profit arts and culture organizations and audiences paid $479.5 million in income to Wisconsin household residents in 2010, and generated $29.7 million for local governments, and $35.2 million to state government.
Yet Walker’s budget cut state support for the WAB by 73 percent to about $800,000 for 2012. Wisconsin’s 32-year-old Percent for Art Program, which designated funds for public settings, was repealed by Walker and the State Legislature in July 2011.
State funding previously exceeded the amount allotted annually by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), also under attack in Washington. For 2012, Wisconsin will receive $781,300 from the NEA. That’s down from $839,800. “We don’t know what the state is going to do about the feds,” said Tzougros. “In a utopian state,” federal funding could be exceeded rather than matched by the state.
To measure what that means, sources like ArtBistro.com calculated per capita spending for 2010. That was before Scott Walker. Even so, Wisconsin ranked only 43rd of 53 states and territories with a meager 43 cents - that’s $0.43 - per capita art budget.
The District of Columbia was on top with $11.11 per capita, followed by Minnesota at $5.80 per capita, Hawaii at $4.78, and Puerto Rico at $3.92.
Puerto Rico? ArtsBistro noted, “Puerto Rico…takes great pride in its crafts movement. The arts and crafts are taught religiously in the schools and give the population a greater love for their heritage.”
And Minnesota, our neighbor across the Mississippi? In 2008, the people of Minnesota passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the state Constitution. The referendum vote increased state sales tax by three-eighths of one percent until 2034. The funds are to be distributed thus: 33 percent to both the clean water fund and the outdoor heritage fund; 19.75 percent to arts and cultural heritage; and 14.25 percent to parks and trails.
“Government money comes with strings attached,” said realist Tzougros, which ultimately encourages “more diversity.”
Is government’s role to fund the arts? How will the WAB role as a developer of the arts mesh with the tourism department’s role focused on marketing? That debate will forever embody, at its heart, questions about the role of art in challenging the way society and government is run.
Ask the Cato Institute, and its anti-government radicals like David H. Koch and George F. Will, and you’ll find comparisons saying that art is like religion and should be kept separate from the state. (See "Separation of Art and State" by David Boaz, Cato Institute vice president).
George Tzougros and the Wisconsin Arts Board walk the line between such raging controversies all the time, with skill and compassion. Artists do also, and they are expected to meet the needed criteria in order to receive state support. As Tzougros said, “If you don’t give a damn what happens, then don’t come for public money.”
Nor is art funding in Wisconsin or the U.S. alone in facing lawmakers who view “any public funding of the arts a form of grand larceny.” See David Edgar’s Why should we fund the arts? (guardian.co.uk of January 5, 2012). In Britain, like Wisconsin, the arts are being required to define themselves too heavily on the quantitative end of the balance. Margaret Thatcher-ism promoted “our country, our cultural heritage and our tourist trade,” as pointed out by Edgar. That philosophy prevails with Scott Walker as well.
A myopic conservative obsession with cutting state support for the arts fails twice: it ignores the market-place and quantitatively measurable job- and profit-creating benefits of art; and it ignores how art so safely and peacefully enriches life, learning, and understanding of a complicated world.
“When you cut the arts,” said Tzougros, “you’re effectively saying the state doesn’t care.”
You can study the programs and grants supported in the past by WAB on its website. While you're looking, notice the eight-page listing of 2011 grants provided by the arts board. The grant locations read like a Wisconsin atlas: Rice Lake, Siren, Cable, Iron River, Oneida, Ephraim, Eau Claire, Spring Green, Wausau, Milwaukee, Madison, Kenosha, Appleton, Minocqua, Cedarburg, Pepin, St. Croix Falls, Reedsburg, Shawano, Hudson, Lyons, Oshkosh, Waukesha, and on and on.
Last year, arts board grants totaling $2,018,689 went to 227 groups, schools, institutions, organizations, and people in more than 40 counties. The “return on investment,” as noted in the economic impact study above, was likely to be well over $500 million. You’d think that would have appealed even to Margaret Thatcher.
For 2012 and 2013, however, while the WAB will try to continue serving a large number of grantees, the grant amounts will take a nosedive to reflect the 73 percent reduction in state funding.
Robert Gard was correct four decades ago when he asked Wisconsinites “to put firmly and permanently aside the cliché that the arts are a frill.” But his sound advice didn’t reach the ears of the Walker administration in 2011 when choices were made to rip off the people of Wisconsin and the economy by ripping off the arts.
August 19, 2012
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David Giffey is a freelance journalist and FightingBob.com contributing editor who lives in Arena. He is the author of "Long Shadows: Veterans’ Paths to Peace" (Atwood Publishing), "Struggle for Justice: The Migrant Farm Worker Labor Movement in Wisconsin," and "The People’s Stories of South Madison."