By Melinda Childs, ArtStart Development Director
Special to the Star Journal.
The state budget has been in the news a lot lately, but a conversation about arts funding has been conspicuously lacking in media coverage. Arts funding is the topic of much heated debate among politicians, taxpayers, and philanthropists, but it is a conversation we should all be having. Often funding the arts is pitted against funding basic needs like food pantries and homeless shelters, with the arts presented as a luxury or unnecessary. Some think funding the arts is irresponsible. The truth, of course, is much more complex as are the various funding mechanisms that arts institutions and programs utilize.
Arts funding is actually a fascinating topic because it involves business, community development, and entrepreneurial thinking. There is general agreement that the arts are “a good thing” and they should be “accessible”, but often we don’t think of what it takes to make those things happen. I find it helpful to start with the big picture. Here are a few facts and ideas that are helpful for me to keep in mind when I’m thinking about how the business of the arts actually works in our communities.
• Here is a snapshot of how Wisconsin looks in the national arts funding front. Wisconsin is ranked at number 47 out of the 50 states funding the arts at .13 cents per capita, while our neighbor Minnesota is first in the nation with $6.36 per capita going towards the arts. I think many of us would agree, while there may be a lot of differing opinions about where we should fall in the rankings, close to last in arts funding does not seem a respectable place to be–it sends a message about our state.
• Funding the arts is not a partisan issue. Politicians on both sides of the political spectrum can see the economic and community benefits of a robust arts culture. Conversely, both can have a positive or negative effect on the viability of the arts in our community.
• Although it’s becoming increasingly clear that the arts are integral to the human, civic, economic, and educational health of individuals and communities, public funding for the arts is not usually competing for funds with social services. Many state and local officials who create budgets group resources and needs into different “pots” and the complicated budgeting structures don’t dictate that adding funds to one pot takes from another. It is more likely that the arts are all grouped into the same pot and various initiatives will receive more or less funding within the line item. Furthermore, at this point the arts are such a relatively small amount of a state’s budget expenditures that cutting arts funding will not reduce budget gaps. According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, “The arts comprise a very small portion of state spending—less than one half of one tenth of one percent. Reducing expenditures that modest won’t appreciably affect state budgets, but will damage the cultural sector’s ability to provide jobs, goods and services to communities.”
• The arts are a necessity and are part of our everyday lives in ways that we may take for granted. Many of us decorate our homes with images, objects, paint colors and patterns. The plethora of decorating choices is made possible by working artists sharing their inspirations. Our technology, computer programs and apps, literature, and business cards are all examples of things designed by professionals who have studied things like form, function, and composition in art school. Encouraging young people to pursue these careers will keep our country on the forefront of innovation. Think engineering, architecture, graphic design, marketing, entertainment, and music. The list goes on and on. Everyday we interact with countless examples of artistry. Art is not always found in a gallery but it takes the galleries to continue to forward the momentum of an aesthetic based society.
• Artists are taxpaying businesses. My husband is a painter. We pay taxes. We go out to eat. We buy school clothes for our children. We contribute to the economic vitality of our region. There is often a myth of the “starving artist” who is nothing but a drain on resources. This is simply not true. Artists are our friends, neighbors and fellow citizens. They teach our children piano, they paint murals in our children’s schools, they volunteer, and again they pay taxes. I’m an arts administrator. I pay taxes too. Many artists are employed in the creative industries that I mentioned above and they all pay taxes. The arts are an industry that is often not acknowledged. In an age when many jobs are moved offshore, those entrepreneurs who are starting businesses, working as consultants, and are self-employed are likely shaping our new economy.
• Individual giving is extremely important to the funding of the arts in Wisconsin. This is a positive thing given the current funding situation of our state. The ownership of and participation in arts organizations by individuals makes them more robust. Organizations like ArtStart are here because you believe we should be and you put your money where your mouth is! This creates a special relationship between an individual and his or her local arts institutions and initiatives. They can be proud in knowing that they are part of giving back to their communities by supporting the organizations that provide culture, education, and inspiration.
With these thoughts informing the rest of this conversation, next week we’ll take a look at where the Northwoods fits into the arts funding ecosystem.
Melinda Childs can be reached by calling 715-362-4328 or mchilds@ArtStartRhinelander.org.
By Melinda Childs, ArtStart Development Director