The Impact of Arts Funding

by GEORGE T. TZOUGROS, Executive Director, Wisconsin Arts Board

The Wisconsin Arts Board? What’s that, and what’s it been doing for 50 years? And what does any of that have to do with Door County? Turns out – a lot!  

On Aug. 2, 1973, Governor Patrick Lucey signed the state budget that included the creation of the Wisconsin Arts Board, the state arts agency of Wisconsin. The Arts Board is one of 56 such agencies across the United States and its territories. 

Over its 50 years, the Arts Board has partnered with artists, arts and community organizations, local and tribal governments, and school leaders from pre-K to higher education to support and nurture the creativity of everyone in Wisconsin. The results include 50 years of grants, technical assistance, information, convenings and research.

Why do this work?  

Our work allows the state to focus resources on the arts and creative sector of Wisconsin and that sector’s contribution to our collective creativity, culture, communities and commerce. Even before the formal creation of the Arts Board, Wisconsin Idea Theater pioneer Robert Gard articulated a vision that continues to inform our work: “If we are seeking in America, let it be a seeking for the reality of democracy in art. Let art begin at home, and let it spread through the children and their parents, and through the schools, the institutions, and through government.”

More recently, the national service organization, Americans for the Arts, articulated: “The arts are fundamental to our humanity. They ennoble and inspire us – fostering creativity, empathy, and beauty. The arts also strengthen our communities socially, educationally, and economically – benefits that persisted during a pandemic that was devastating to the arts.”  

What impact does the Arts Board’s work have in Door County? 

Read the program when you go to an event at one of Door County’s outstanding theaters, music organizations and performance venues. You’ll probably see our logo and the words: “This program is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.”  

You also may hear this credit announced from the stage. You’ll see it in the materials of the visual and multi-disciplinary arts organizations in the county. It means that the Arts Board invested grant funding to support what you are experiencing. 

One of my favorite Door County stories involves the Gibraltar Schools and its unveiling ceremony for the tile mural that the Arts Board had helped fund. Made by the 4th graders and led by local artists David and Jeanne Aurelius of Clay Bay Pottery and Gallery, the mural’s theme was “peace.” On the day of the unveiling, the Door Community Auditorium was filled with people. The artists described the context and process of the piece. High school students performed an original work entitled “What Butterflies Prefer” for which they had written the words and the music and created the choreography. You would have thought it was professionally done. A student who had just learned that she’d won third place in a national essay contest about peace read her essay. In front of the capacity crowd, she began, “All that I’ve learned about peace, I learned from my dad. He was a police officer killed in the line of duty.”  You could have heard a pin drop until she finished to applause that was long and loud. 

Following this remarkable and moving ceremony in the auditorium, the students proudly unveiled the mural by leading the audience down the hall to the mural, where each pointed out the tile that they’d created. 

This event happened in the 1990s, but I still tell the story around the state and nation. It was a profound educational experience for those kids. The process not only taught the students about art but also concepts surrounding peace – and they passed along their knowledge to the audience.  

Artists and arts organizations engage and educate audience members every day in Wisconsin. In doing so, they also happen to strengthen the economy. Door County’s economy is animated and vibrant because of the cultural and natural activities that you create and support here. 

The arts are a significant part of our state’s economy, too. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that arts and cultural production accounts for $10.8 billion and 2.9% of the Wisconsin economy, contributing 87,185 jobs.

The Arts Board doesn’t do things for people, but with them. For 50 years its work has actively engaged the wisdom, experience, and perspective of the people of Wisconsin whom it is our mission to serve. It has done so to support, nurture and strengthen Wisconsin’s arts ecosystem so that in turn our artists and arts organizations can engage successfully in the business of art and, in some cases, be worthy recipients of public funding and private philanthropy. It’s a critical partnership that brings value in so many ways.

So lift your favorite glass of Door County wine, spirits, or cherry juice and say Happy Anniversary, Wisconsin Arts Board. Then join us when we come to your region later this year and help us imagine the next 50 years!

Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance, which contributes Culture Club, is a coalition of nonprofit organizations whose purpose is to enhance, promote and advocate the arts, humanities and natural sciences in Door County.