It’s time to grow Wisconsin creatively

Governor Tony Evers should use federal relief funds to make historic investments in the arts.

Governor Tony Evers should use federal relief funds to make historic investments in the arts.

Photo by Barry Dale Gilfry on Flickr.

It’s always been the mission of Arts Wisconsin, the state’s community cultural development organization, to advocate for the arts, culture and creativity as powerful 21st century resources. Arts Wisconsin has continuously recognized those facets are essential to grow Wisconsin’s economy, educational systems, and civic life.


As Arts Wisconsin’s executive director, I know there’s powerful info to make the case. Before the pandemic hit, the creative industries leveraged more than $10.1 billion to Wisconsin’s economy and employed over 96,000 of its residents—more jobs than in the state’s beer (63,000), biotech (35,000), and papermaking industries (31,000)—according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The ebbing-away of the pandemic is the relief we’ve all been waiting for. Unfortunately, as we all know, the effects will linger in ways we can’t even imagine, and the creative industries are no exception. Wisconsin’s creative sector has been one of the hardest-hit industries and still faces an existential threat due to long-term loss of work and revenue. 

There’s an opportunity to make a better future, by investing in Wisconsin’s creative people, businesses and communities. It’s up to Wisconsin’s elected officials to seize that opportunity and truly treat the arts as a policy priority.

The State of Wisconsin is receiving $2.5 billion in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds, and there are possibilities of additional federal infrastructure and jobs funding coming along later in the year. The U.S. Department of Treasury guidelines state that “the funds can be used by state and local governments to help turn the tide on the pandemic, address its economic fallout, and lay the foundation for a strong and equitable recovery, including the specific use of funds for assistance to small businesses, nonprofits, and hard-hit industries like arts, tourism, travel, and hospitality.”  The guidelines also state that funds allocated to states cannot be used to directly or indirectly offset tax reductions or delay a tax or tax increase, or deposited into any pension fund.

Governor Tony Evers’ administration has sole discretion to distribute ARP funds as permitted under federal law. Since the funding was announced, Gov. Evers has vetoed several bills giving the Legislature more control over the funds.  

So the door is open for a historic investment in creative economic, workforce, and community development and resilience. Arts Wisconsin is asking the State of Wisconsin to establish the Grow Wisconsin Creatively Fund, to invest $20 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds over the next four years in rebuilding and revitalizing the state’s creative infrastructure. These funds can activate the full power of creativity statewide. 

Wisconsin needs local and regional creative economic development to recover and grow jobs, businesses and income, through downtown and community revitalization, civic engagement initiatives, and cultural tourism programs; to strengthen resilience, capacity and entrepreneurship for creative economy businesses and entrepreneurs: relief, recovery, and start-up programs; increased access to arts and cultural opportunities; core operating and programming grants to re-engage and grow audiences and community involvement; and venue-centered community development projects and facility adaption to accommodate post-pandemic public health guidelines; and to develop creative workforce development and strength, including cultivating an equitable, career development pipeline and support system for creative industries; expanding apprenticeship systems in creative businesses; establishing a “Creative Workforce”/ArtsCorps program to put artists to work on community-based projects and programs; and supporting and empowering creative workers to apply their skills in other sectors, such as health care, environmental, and advanced manufacturing.

Creative workers and businesses have been hit particularly hard by COVID. Wisconsin needs a competitive creative workforce, since creative talent fuels economic, workforce, and community growth. Many creative workers are still jobless or are not able to work at full capacity due to lack of opportunities, even as the pandemic eases. Arts venues and businesses were among the first to close when the world shut down, and many are still grappling with re-opening restrictions, making this sector the likely last to fully reopen. A Brookings Institution report estimates losses of more than 2.3 million jobs and $74 billion in average monthly earnings for the creative occupations across the United States.

These funds also support equity in the arts world. The 2020 unemployment rate among BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) artists in Wisconsin was higher than the rate among white artists, according to a report from Americans for the Arts.

And, in-demand fields need creative workers. The healthcare, marketing, and IT fields need digital video editors, graphic designers, writers, and communications specialists, to name a few. Over 70 percent of companies rate creativity as a primary concern when hiring.

“The arts should be included when decisions about investments in state and local infrastructure are made,” says Jerry Deschane, director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. “The role of the arts within the broad context of economic recovery, and how the arts can be of service in addressing priorities for infrastructure development, is critical.”

Of course, the real, fundamental reason the arts are so important to Wisconsin, its people, and its communities, is because the arts make us human. Humans have been expressing themselves creatively since the beginning of time, and the creative spirit that lives in all of us can’t be stopped. Artistic experiences bring people together, bolster neighborhood vitality, address long-standing inequities, and help heal and rebuild our spirit, especially critical at this historic moment in time. 


And intertwined in that fundamental need for creative expression is the fact that the 21st century demands creativity to transform our economy, educate our children, bring people together, and add vibrancy to civic life. According to a recent article in Governing Magazine, the arts revitalize communities in many ways, especially important to places that have lost key industries. In addition, the arts add a special spark in rural regions, according to the National Governors Association, by mobilizing homegrown creative assets to spur economic growth. 

It’s well past time for Wisconsin to step up when it comes to creative economy investment. We have been long at the bottom of the heap when it comes to state arts funding, and right now other states are ramping up their investment in this arena.  Illinois is campaigning for a $500 million funding package; New York just passed a one-year budget that gives that state’s arts sector over $200 million in dedicated funds, plus access to $800 million in recovery grants; California legislators are championing a $1 billion package for the arts.  The Resilience Fund will help level the playing field for Wisconsin. 

Investment in the arts and creativity as economic, workforce and community development will help Wisconsin recover from today’s economic shocks and better equip our people, communities, and the state overall, to withstand economic and civic ups and downs in the future.  The Grow Wisconsin Creatively Resilience Fund is the right initiative right now.

The Resilience Fund is strongly supported by a diverse, growing, statewide coalition of people, businesses, organizations and communities. You should join this coalition: click here to join. And, click here to send a message to Gov. Evers to invest ARP funds in the state’s creative sector. For more information, you can visit www.artswisconsin.org or contact me at [email protected] or 608-255-8316.

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