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Budget cuts to arts adds new urgency to annual 'Arts Day' lobbying event

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For years, arts advocates from across the state have gathered in Madison in early March for an annual "Arts Day" of lobbying and networking. This year, however, tight security at the Capitol gave the effort a new sense of drama. 

So did proposed cuts to arts funding in Gov. Scott Walker's budget announced Tuesday, including annual state support for the Wisconsin Arts Board from $2.4 million to $759,100, an amount to match the federal dollars the board receives from the National Endowment for the Arts. The governor's proposal also would slash the board's staff from 10 people to four and make it a program within the Department of Tourism.

At the Madison Children's Museum, whose new building on Capitol Square has attracted visitors from 32 states, "We get between $15,000 and $21,000 from the Wisconsin Arts Board," the museum's executive director, Ruth Shelly, told state Rep. Keith Ripp (R-Lodi) in the second of nine lobbying appointments she and development director Cheri Buckner had set up with legislators Thursday. "That would be a huge hit for us." 

Walker's budget also would eliminate the Percent for Art program, established in 1980, which requires that 0.2 percent of the total cost of construction or remodeling of selected state buildings be spent for public art, including iconic works such as the Kohl Center's 130-foot-wide glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly.

Wisconsin Arts Board executive director George Tzougros called the proposed cuts "significant on many levels." The board makes grants to large arts institutions such as the Madison Symphony Orchestra, but also to smaller groups who use state funding to leverage funding from private donors. "Government support is not only money, but it's sort of a seal of approval," he said. 

Anne Katz of Arts Wisconsin, which sponsors Arts Day, said proposed cuts to education and local government could also have a negative impact on arts funding, and urged supporters to talk to lawmakers about the jobs and economic ripple effect created by a strong arts community.

"We must make the case that (a cut to arts funding) is a very short-sighted action for the state," she said. "We should be investing in our creative assets, because that's what the 21st century is all about."

Speaking to an audience of about 130 at an Arts Day breakfast, Secretary of Commerce Paul Jadin talked about his support for the arts as former mayor of Green Bay and said he believes in a "holistic approach to economic development."

"I don't know where we're going to be heading with respect to this budget and how much we're going to be able to devote to the arts, but I do commit that the place that arts has had in my heart for the last 16 years as a local leader is not going to change at all while I'm at Commerce," he said.

Restrictions on entry to the Capitol on Thursday also forced cancellation of the first of a series of student concerts planned for the building for "Music in Our Schools Month" in March. Local artists launched a Facebook campaign asking others to bring work they would normally do in their studios to the Capitol Friday.

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