A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum provides numbers to back up the scary reality: Wisconsin’s arts and culture sector is facing an unprecedented crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Arts and Culture in a Pandemic: An Existential Threat, released today, crunched data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, an independent federal statistical agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce, to show that Wisconsin’s arts and culture organizations have been devastated by the pandemic. The report, by senior researcher Joe Peterangelo, notes that Wisconsin’s arts economy was already lagging behind our neighbors. And it suggests that paltry support for the arts and artists — some of the lowest in the nation — has contributed to even greater losses for venues and individuals than elsewhere in the country. 

Peterangelo says the Wisconsin Policy Forum decided to do a deep dive into the arts economy after doing more generalized research on the pandemic’s impact on the Wisconsin economy. “We wanted to take a closer look, partly because of the uniqueness of the sector and how difficult a lot of these organizations would be to replace,” Peterangelo says in an interview with Isthmus. “Not only do they contribute a lot to the economy but also to education and our quality of life.”

He says he found the size of the arts and culture sector “striking.” “One hundred thousand people are employed either directly or in a job that is supporting arts and culture. It’s a lot of employment.”  

The report finds that between March 15 and July 5, one-third (33.9%) of people employed in Wisconsin’s arts, entertainment and recreation fields filed unemployment claims. Only accommodation and food service (39.1%) and manufacturing (37.1%) had higher job losses. 

Peterangelo also looked at the economic contribution arts and cultural organizations make to the state’s economy. In 2017, those activities added $10.1 billion in value, or approximately 3.1 percent of the state’s gross national product. But the report shows that it’s not a two-way street. Wisconsin lags far behind its neighbors when it comes to state aid to support the arts. Wisconsin’s per-capita support for the arts in 2020 was 13 cents, compared to just more than $7 for Minnesota.

Peterangelo points out that the state of Wisconsin this year appropriated $770,000 in funds to support the Wisconsin Arts Board, a state agency that promotes the arts and provides grants to artists, among other things. Its Minnesota counterpart received $41 million.“We are dead last when it comes to state support,” says Peterangelo.

A little more than $1 million in aid has flowed to Wisconsin through the federal CARES act, which provided $75 million to the National Endowment for the Arts to distribute to regional, state and individual arts groups. Some organizations, including the Overture Center Foundation, are utilizing loans from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), also part of the CARES Act. 

The report looks at data from the Milwaukee-based organizations that are part of the United Performing Arts Fund — the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Milwaukee Ballet and others — and finds that event cancellations resulted in $6.7 million in lost revenues. Federal aid has helped these groups survive, but most do not have the resources to continue for long without an injection of further aid. “Six of the 13 UPAF organizations do not have the resources to sustain normal operating expenditures past 180 days (six months),” the report reads. 

“COVID-19 has brought about unprecedented challenges for arts and cultural organizations and individual artists throughout the U.S.,” the report states. “The problem may be particularly acute for Wisconsin where, even before the pandemic, growth in arts and cultural production was not keeping pace with national growth, and employment in arts and culture was declining at a faster rate than nationally.”

The signs do not point to a safe opening of major cultural venues in the near future, and these activities may be the last to resume. “While there are other sectors that some believe are in greater need of immediate attention — like child care and health care — the negative impacts on the arts and culture sector clearly are severe and likely to surpass most others,” the report concludes. It also includes a call to action: “Lawmakers in neighboring states have taken action to ease the pain, and such consideration may now be merited by state policymakers in Wisconsin.”


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