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  • Writer's pictureAdam Braatz

The Economic Case for Public Arts Subsidy in Wisconsin

Imagine MKe's executive director, adam braatz, shares his expert perspective on why and how the arts are of critical importance for the future success and sustainability of wisconsin's vitality.


A conductor stands at her stand and leads a youth symphony.
Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra. Credit: Rob Ran.

While most every American appreciates and benefits from creative labor in various forms such as music, film, art, and entertainment, it can be tempting for some to consider the arts and arts education as non-essential, particularly during periods of economic uncertainty. This is a mistake. Sure, the arts create lively and engaged communities, inspire and entertain us -- but they also play a significant role as a powerhouse of economic opportunity and workforce development. The Wisconsin state legislature is currently in the process of crafting revisions to Governor Evers’ 2023-25 biennial budget proposal, which included a one-time $100 million investment into the Wisconsin Artistic Endowment Fund. Undoubtedly, there will be disagreements on how to allocate our record multi-billion-dollar surplus, but this particular line item must be maintained. The alternative would be an unnecessary forfeiture of a generational opportunity to cultivate long-lasting vibrancy and economic viability.

More than “Hearts and Minds”

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to witness firsthand the transformative power of the arts. As an active-duty enlisted Airman serving under the greater wing of Air Force Public Affairs in the Middle East, I saw art and music leveraged diplomatically to bridge divides and ease tensions in the most unlikely of scenarios. The Air Force called it “non-kinetic weaponry.” Our team on the ground colloquially referred to our efforts as “hearts and minds.” Here in the US, I have seen arts and cultural activations and education unite, empower, and advance people from all walks of life.

A group of young artists work collaboratively on a creative project.
Milwaukee's Creative industry Summit 2021. Credit: Samer Ghani.

True stories of the arts’ impact on “hearts and minds” aren't enough to make a compelling, bi-partisan case for public subsidy, though. The austere among us will still consider them to be frivolous niceties. The data bears out a different story: arts and cultural initiatives are economic amplifiers.

Wisconsin’s Creative Economy

The arts are an integral part of Wisconsin's economy, and public arts funding plays a crucial role in promoting growth in this sector and all the areas it touches, including hospitality and tourism. The arts contribute $10.8 billion annually to the state's economy, including direct and indirect spending, and employ almost 90,000 workers. This makes the arts industry one of the largest and most significant economic drivers in the state, surpassing even the beer, paper, and biotech industries.

Despite these impressive numbers, Wisconsin ranks last in per-capita funding for the arts among all 50 states, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. This lack of funding is a significant barrier to the growth and development of Wisconsin's arts sector, which in turn limits the economic impact of an industry that boasts a 7:1 economic return on public investment, nationally.

Graphic that depicts the amount of public art spending in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. Each state has its abbreviation and the total amount of funds allocated per person for the arts in each state.
Source: Wisconsin's Creative Economy Coalition

Though it is true that Wisconsin is home to some of the most incredibly generous private arts and culture donors in the country, a lack of diversified revenue creates dangerous vulnerabilities to non-profit organizations. This was made apparent when COVID landed in full force, decimating arts and cultural nonprofits throughout the state. If we wish to experience the economic prosperity that a thriving creative sector can bring, enduringly, public funding must be a piece of the puzzle.

Without stalwart, balanced revenue streams the economic impact of the creative sector in Wisconsin has lagged behind the nation (8.44% vs. 14.43%), hand-in-hand with Wisconsin’s overall economic growth (down to 41st). Meanwhile, our neighboring states have accepted this reality, passed bi-partisan legislation for public funding of the arts, and have been reaping the benefits.

The Arts and Workforce Development

In recent years, advancements in artificial intelligence and automation have led to growing concerns about the future of work. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, these technological advancements are estimated to displace more than 38 million full-time American workers by 2030. As the workforce landscape is poised for rapid evolution, it is necessary to consider which abilities, skills, and traits will be most marketable for Wisconsin's workers in the future.

A study by Georgetown University reveals that the abilities and skills that make humans unique, such as ingenuity, creativity, communication skills, empathy, perception, and inventiveness, are the top attributes that employers are looking for. These skills are associated with significantly higher earning premiums, and employers prioritize them above direct technical proficiency. Moreover, the aforementioned traits have been proven to develop most effectively in arts- and culture-rich environments, particularly in arts education in and out of school.

Investing in arts education programs can prepare our children with the skills they need to succeed in a rapidly changing workforce and build more resilient and engaged communities. Arts education and engagement has been shown time and time again to improve cognitive, emotional, and behavioral outcomes in children, including enhanced critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and collaboration skills. Moreover, students who participate in arts programs are more likely to attend school regularly, stay in school, stay out of trouble, and graduate on time. By investing in arts programs, we can empower our children to thrive in the workplace of tomorrow.

100% Upside

Public investment in the arts ecosystem would provide crucial support to artists, arts organizations, schools, and cultural institutions, enabling them to create new work, reach broader audiences, and expand their impact. It would improve our community’s ability to attract and retain talent, future-proof our workforce, and drive growth in associated industries, including tourism, dining, travel, and hospitality. We must recognize the essential role that the arts play in our lives and invest in them accordingly.

A musician plays the violin while being filmed by a camera man as a crew member watches on.
Performer with Milwaukee Ballet and Johnson Media Productions. Credit: Rob Ran.

Arts, cultural, and creative initiatives are not frivolous niceties. They are economic imperatives. A historic $100 million allocation to the Artistic Endowment Fund would be a giant leap in the right direction for our city and state. Please join Imagine MKE in supporting this important budget initiative. Here’s how you can get involved:

Together, we can build a more vibrant and prosperous Wisconsin.


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