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Civic Elevation

Civic Elevation
Editor's Notes

Spring is in the air and the election season is upon us here in Wisconsin. Across the state, citizens turn out in droves to fulfill what is known as perhaps the most important of our civic obligations.

Of course, there are other obligations for us citizens that aren't quite as easily executed by checking a box or filling in a little black arrow.

I got to thinking about one of these challenging civic obligations as I was reading historian Robert McCarter's Frank Lloyd Wright biography in preparation for an article on the famous architect's Wisconsin home, Taliesin. In Chapter 3, "White City and New World Monumentality," McCarter writes about the closing years of the 20th century in which a young Wright leaves Chicago's top architectural firm of Adler and Sullivan to begin his own practice. The city was booming with new construction and new ideas at this time, and many great turn-of-the-century industrialists and philanthropists—Marshall Field, Charles L. Hutchinson, Bertha Honoré Palmer and Potter Palmer, Lambert Tree, and Martin A. Ryerson, to name a few—were pouring money into the creation of public cultural institutions like the Field Museum of Natural History, the Art Institute, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Historical Society, and the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

Certainly poverty and inequity were pervasive at the time, but Chicago's leading citizens truly wanted a better city, and they saw the support of the arts as an obligation of the civic-minded and as a means of social uplift—not just for the rich, but for the general public as well. They sought to elevate everyone by making accessible opportunities in which to engage with the arts and what today we would call the humanities.

In his biography of Wright, McCarter notes how members of the business community were bringing into their homes—the one building Wright saw as the embodiment of American democracy—a new kind of aesthetic awareness, too. By living in a home unlike any other, a work of truly American art, Wright's clients indicated the essential nature of art.

McCarter describes Wright's suburban clients at the time as "almost all business men, often self-employed, many involved in manufacturing or industry (often as investors)." Building their dwellings in suburban Oak Park or River Forest, these people were "economically conservative," yet they were "involved in music and art in their home life and supported both in their public life." Too, McCready notes that, "they all shared a strong support of women's suffrage."

These were complex individuals, not easily characterized by their politics (though, McCarter mentions that they mainly voted Republican) nor by their proclivities. Yet they understood the role of the arts in culture—and its potential of leading fellow citizens toward something better.

Today some might argue that art and cultural programs need to be suspended or even eliminated until the fiscal fundamentals of our state or nation are once again "sound." Why support the arts at all? Painting and music and dance might be food for the soul, they'll say, but people need jobs, need food on the table.

There are two problems with this statement: 1) I believe that even the most atheistic among us will agree that a body cannot thrive while the soul starves, and 2) the arts can and do generate jobs.

People tend to forget that school and public arts programs are not only the primary conduit for learning creativity, which applies to all elements of economic development, but they also bring—yes, bring—real revenue to our beloved Wisconsin.

Think about the hordes of "creative types" hard at work in the graphic design, marketing, media relations, editorial, and other departments that drive the most successful businesses today. Name one Fortune 500 company that got there without a brilliant marketing department (which would employ all of the aforementioned positions), and I'll eat my MacBook Pro.

If you still don't think we don't need more creative types around, consider this: According to a 2010 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Creative Economy Report, "In 2008, despite the 12% decline in global trade, world trade of creative goods and services continued its expansion, reaching $592 billion and reflecting an annual growth rate of 14% during the period 2002-2008. This reconfirms that the creative industries have been one of the most dynamic sectors of the world economy throughout this decade."

Let's look at some figures closer to home, and focus in on the arts a little bit more carefully. There are 668,267 businesses in the U.S. involved in the creation or distribution of the arts, and they employ 2.9 million people (4.05% of all businesses and 2.18% of all employees, respectively.) As of January 2010, Wisconsin was home to 10,207 arts-related businesses that employ 45,938 people.

These arts-centric businesses play an important role in building and sustaining economic vibrancy. They employ a creative workforce, spend money locally, generate government revenue, and are a cornerstone of tourism and economic development. According to a 2007 study by Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit arts and culture industry in Wisconsin generates $418.06 million in local economic activity. "This spending—$247.13 million by nonprofit arts and culture organizations [not including for-profit galleries, movie theaters, and nationally touring theater] and an additional $170.93 million in event-related spending by their audiences—supports 15,103 full-time equivalent jobs, generates $276.42 million in household income to local residents, and delivers $61.84 million in local and state government revenue.

Of course these economic impact figures about are old news to some. But others who might be struggling to articulate why—beyond making our state a better, more enjoyable, place to live—they need to do everything they can do to ensure that arts and cultural programs survive, even thrive, in these challenging economic times might look to these figures and see an argument based on pragmatism rather than musty, old civic obligation.

Still, the Chicago families that put their fortunes behind the cultural institutions of the day and those who asked that Wright use his artistic gifts to construct their homes, must have simply known that these activities would elevate the world. 


Jason A. Smith is the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of the organization's quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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