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An SOS for ART

Photo of Jason A. Smith

Most days, I sit at the table on our screened-in porch and work. The spot affords me a nice view of our late-summer garden and, now that online school has started, the kids are too occupied to bother me much. 

I realize the privilege I have in working from home, and I’m also grateful to have a job at time when many arts and culture organizations are struggling to survive. This struggle might seem minor when compared to the massive societal problems we face at the moment. But ask any of the 100,000 or so people working in and around the arts in Wisconsin—a third of whom are currently unemployed due to the Covid-19 pandemic—and you will see the struggle is real. 

At just over $10 billion, or 3.1% of Wisconsin’s GDP, you might think that the arts and culture sector is doing pretty darn well. But, like many local restaurants and small businesses also hit hard by the pandemic, arts organizations operate on relatively thin margins. Partly because Wisconsin offers very little in the way of public funding for the arts (we rank dead last in the U.S.), there is little if any safety net for arts organizations. As such, many ushers, concessions workers, graphic designers, and administrators, as well as people we typically think of as “the talent,” have been furloughed or let go from their jobs.

If you feel moved to help, near-term aid can come in the form of purchases of artwork, gift certificates, commissions, and online event tickets, as well as through donations that support artists and arts-related staff. Long-term solutions are more difficult. One approach to the crisis is to advocate for more public funding for the arts; another is to expand our awareness of the role the arts have played in shaping the Wisconsin we know and love.

In this issue we encounter many people and organizations that have worked over the past century to cultivate the arts and creativity across our state. One of the unsung heroes of this tale is UW Extension, which was responsible for countless projects and programs—“Let’s Sing” and “Let’s Draw” on WHA-FM, the Rhinelander School of the Arts, the Wisconsin Idea Theatre, and the Wisconsin Regional Arts Program—that worked to improve the creative lives of hundreds of thousands of residents. Perhaps you are one of them.

However, it’s important to note that these projects and programs are greatly diminished or gone. I was especially saddened to learn of the recent suspension of the Wisconsin Regional Arts Program, which suffered from the Walker Administration’s dismantling of UW Extension, only to fall to pandemic-related budget cuts at its new home in the UW–Madison Division of Continuing Studies. 

But it’s not too late to help WRAP or the thousands of out-of-work arts industry professionals. If we commit today to making both near- and long-term investments in our creative economy, we can build upon—rather than walk away from—our proud history of supporting the arts in Wisconsin.

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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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