Opening Letters

Economic Envy for Minnesota Arts

There’s one important endeavor in which Minnesota walks all over Wisconsin. In fact, it’s 50 times better ...

Tom Giffey |

I recently spent two consecutive Saturday evenings enjoying theatrical productions in the Twin Cities. This is noteworthy for several reasons. First, as the father of a 2½-year-old boy, my typical Saturday evening cultural experience consists of reading Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go aloud for the umpteenth time. Second, as managing editor of a magazine focused on the Chippewa Valley’s cultural offerings, trekking to Minnesota to enjoy the arts almost feels like cheating.

Of course, countless western Wisconsinites frequently make the same trip for the same reasons: From music to theater to the visual arts, the Twin Cities is a cultural Mecca. That’s in part because it’s an enormous metro area, but a great deal of it also has to do with a gap in attitudes between the civic leaders of the two states – a philosophical divide wider than the physical one formed by the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers.

When you consider the price of the tickets, as well as the money my wife and I spent dining out, filling our gas tank, and shopping, we provided a healthy little arts-inspired stimulus package for the Minnesota economy.

Wisconsin, which so often ranks highly in measurements such as school test scores and quality of life, does abysmally poorly when it comes to state funding for the arts. We’re talking bottom-of-the-barrel, almost laughably poorly. According to a report released in July by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, Wisconsin ranks 47th for per capita state government arts funding. The elected leaders of the Badger State set aside just 13 cents per Wisconsinite annually for the Wisconsin Arts Board – or about $781,000 per year. (That figure leverages an equal amount of federal funding, and doesn’t include arts funding from other levels of government or the UW System.) While it’s embarrassing enough to be ranked so poorly nationwide, what’s even worse is how we stack up to our neighbor to our west. Minnesota spends a whopping $6.36 per capita on the arts – nearly 50 times what Wisconsin spends – making the state No. 1 in the nation. Minnesotans love funding the arts so much they actually wrote it into their state constitution: In 2008, voters passed an amendment that, for 25 years, will divert some sales tax revenue to arts and the environment.

If the current condition of state arts funding in Wisconsin were a theatrical production, it would be a tragedy. And not just “tragic” as in “sad,” but tragic in the classical sense: a situation in which a hero makes an error in judgment (or has a fatal flaw) that leads to his downfall. In this case, the hero is the state of Wisconsin, and the error in judgment is the shortsighted belief that the state has no role in fostering culture and art. The oft-heard argument goes like this: “Why should our tax dollars go toward frilly stuff like art? If people want art, they can spend their own money, and the free market will provide it.”

 That’s true – to a point. Much art and culture is created and consumed entirely commercially (Hollywood, the recording industry), while a lot of it is underwritten by individual and corporate donations (theater troupes, symphonies). However, private and public investment isn’t an either-or prospect. Consider, for example, the fabulous Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where I spent one of those Saturday evenings. The Guthrie opened in 2006 at a cost of $125 million, most of it from private donors, but the project wouldn’t have been possible without $25 million in bonds issued by the state of Minnesota (part of a bill signed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, in 2003). Likewise, the other theater I attended, the gloriously unique Minnesota Centennial Showboat – the theater is aboard a paddle-wheel boat docked on the Mississippi River in St. Paul – is supported by both public and private dollars: It’s operated by a private boat company for the University of Minnesota Theatre Department.

So kudos to the taxpayers of Minnesota, you say, but were their investments worth it? In my case, they certainly were. When you consider the price of the tickets, as well as the money my wife and I spent dining out, filling our gas tank, and shopping, we provided a healthy little arts-inspired stimulus package for the Minnesota economy. As in so many areas – from transportation to education – strategic public investment is a boon to the private sector and citizens as a whole, both economically and culturally. According to the Arts & Economic Prosperity Study, nonprofit arts groups and their audiences directly spent $535 million in Wisconsin in 2010; by comparison, the arts have an estimated $1 billion economic impact in Minnesota.

Wisconsin’s per capita arts spending has never ranked very highly – at 43 cents per capita, it was 40th in 2009 – but funding has slid even lower in recent years. And while shrinking budgets have hurt the Wisconsin Arts Board’s ability to make grants and fund fellowships, even worse than the cuts have been what they represent. Arts Board Executive Director George Tzougros said financial support from the agency – even just a little – is the equivalent of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that a recipient can use to leverage far greater donations from others.

“The point of it is to say: A) The state values this; B) The state invests in this; and C) It would be good for you to do so, too,” Tzougros said.

Wisconsin’s 47th-place ranking – our 13 cents per capita is even terribly low compared with the national average, 93 cents – should be a call to action. But does anyone notice or care? Those in the arts community certainly do – and it’s inevitable that many of them, especially young people who hope to make a living from the arts and other creative endeavors, will vote with their feet. As Max Garland, Wisconsin poet laureate and UW-Eau Claire professor, is quoted in a recent Arts Board email as saying, “I need someone to tell me how I’m supposed to hide from my students the fact that they live in a state that supports the arts at 13 cents per capita, but that they can drive a little more than an hour and be in a state that supports the arts at $6.36 per capita.”

Considering all that Wisconsin has going for it, narrowing that funding gap even a little could make a big difference to the arts – and the economy – in our state. Perhaps Minnesota’s leaders, both public and private, have more foresight than their Wisconsin counterparts. Or perhaps Minnesotans are just more willing to demand funding for the arts. Fellow Wisconsinites, it’s time to get creative in calling for more state arts funding – or to get used to Minnesota’s robust arts scene permanently pulling creative talent and dollars over the state line.

STATE ARTS AGENCIES by the numbers

Midwest States' National Ranks & Per Capita Funding
   Minnesota – 1st  ($6.36)
   North Dakota – 13th  ($1.07)
   Ohio – 17th  (98¢)       
   South Dakota – 18th  (88¢)
   Michigan – 20th  (82¢)
   Illinois – 36th  (50¢)
   Indiana – 39th  (45¢)
   Iowa – 43rd  (40¢)
   Wisconsin – 47th  (13¢)

Top Five States (per capita)
   1. Minnesota
   2. Hawaii
   3. Maryland
   4. New York
   5. Wyoming

Bottom Five States (per capita)
   46. Arizona
   47. Wisconsin
   48. California
   49. Kansas
   50. Georgia