Growing Wisconsin Creatively: Arts Wisconsin is Advocating for a Creative Economy

The Latino Arts Strings Program performs in Milwaukee
Photo by Arts Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, nearly 5.8 million people are involved in the arts, according to Anne Katz, executive director of Arts Wisconsin. If that number sounds large, it is; it’s the entire population of the state. “Everybody is involved in the arts in some way, whether they call themselves artists or not,” Anne says.

Anne, who has been the executive director of Arts Wisconsin since 1995, travels around the state advocating for the arts and helping people notice their artistic, or creative, tendencies. Many people don’t initially realize that the arts have a place in their lives. Perhaps they sing at church, do woodworking, or cook for their family. Everyone faces creative decisions every day, whether choosing what to wear or even how to word an email.

Anne promotes the arts because she sees value in them beyond enjoyment and appreciation. “The arts make us human,” she says. They can boost the economy, strengthen communities, and improve the quality of life.

Arts Wisconsin acts as a resource for nonprofits, individuals, and businesses in the arts by organizing conferences and facilitating collaboration. “Lots of organizations are concerned with the arts. We’re the one that tries to bring everybody together,” Anne says.

Photo provided by Arts Wisconsin

Creative Economy Legislation

Arts Wisconsin has been pushing for state legislation to kickstart creativity in Wisconsin. The organization employs a lobbyist who garnered bipartisan support for the cause. “I’ve been talking about the creative economy since the last century, but it’s only in the last few years, with a new economy in front of us, that people are actually paying attention,” Anne says.

Both the Wisconsin State Senate and Assembly have proposed bills that would award grants to promote development of creative industries and jobs throughout the state. Similar bills were introduced two years ago and received a lot of support, but were never taken up for a vote. Anne hopes this time is different.

Under the proposed legislation, grants would be administered by the Wisconsin Arts Board in the Department of Tourism. Individual grants would be up to $40,000 each, and each recipient would be required to secure nonstate resources that would, at minimum, match the amount of the grant. This means private funds will at least double the value of each grant.

“What we’re promoting is that this is a very small investment by the state that will have a big payoff,” Anne says. She hopes that stimulating the creative economy will help fill the void left by large manufacturers and the departure of Oscar Mayer from Madison.

The grants could be used in several ways. They could fund downtown development projects, public art installations, or artist live-work spaces. Fond du Lac, for example, has a revitalized and expanded downtown art center that hosts exhibits and events. The grants could also help nonprofits and for-profit companies expand program offerings or grow their businesses, or they could be used to strengthen arts education in school districts across the state.

Photo provided by Arts Wisconsin

Arts Education in School

Art, music, and writing courses in public schools are the only way that many children get exposure to the arts. “If they pull the strings program from my kid’s school, as a middle-class person I’m probably going to get my kid private lessons,” Anne says. “But what about all the kids who don’t have that opportunity?”

The amount of arts education in Wisconsin schools depends on the district and the school. When Madison West High School needed to redo seats in their auditorium, parents chipped in a substantial amount of money to make it possible. But there are many places in the state where parents are equally concerned about their children but don’t have an easy way to get together and raise the money. Grants could fund programs at schools in these communities.

Arts Wisconsin’s program manager, Erin Carlson, says the creativity taught in art classes is an increasingly important skill in today’s economy. “Careers are less structured,” she says. “It’s becoming ‘well, what skills do you have’ and ‘what can you make of that’.” The arts prime children to problem-solve in situations without right or wrong answers and develop emotional literacy that can benefit them in other subjects and areas of their lives. “The answer to doing better in math and science is not more math and science,” Anne says. “It is having a well-rounded education where you don’t just take tests.”

Photo provided by Arts Wisconsin

Anne regularly travels around the state, speaking with community members and surveying the status of arts initiatives in places like the Northwoods. “Eagle River, known as the snowmobiling capital of the world, has two new arts centers,” she says with a smile.

Arts Wisconsin helps people embrace the arts however it exists in their lives, and benefit from its presence. “It’s about that creative spark. It comes out as the arts a lot, but it’s really about encouraging and helping that creative spark to come alive in every person, every business, and every community,” Anne says.

For more information about Arts Wisconsin, including the status of the creative economy legislation, visit artswisconsin.org .

Cara Lombardo is a writer and graduate student.