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Monday, May 2, 2011

Why Art Matters: Milwaukee's Performing Arts Groups Speak Out Against NEA Budget Cuts

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Several performing arts companies around Milwaukee stepped onto a different type of stage—the public arena— offering a critique on government cuts and uttering the same line: THE ARTS MATTER!

On April 13, the final budget agreement for fiscal year 2011 was negotiated by President Barack Obama with House and Senate leaders. A proposed cut of 7.5 percent from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was debated, giving NEA $155 million for the current fiscal year. This may seem like a more reasonable compromise compared to an amendment passed last February by the House to cut an additional $20.5 million on top of the $22.5 million previously taken from NEA. Because the NEA provides grants for many Milwaukee-area performing arts groups as well as arts education in universities and middle schools, the federal cuts will likely trickle down and hurt them.

When Annie Jansen Jurczyk, development director for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, was asked how NEA funding cuts could affect the Rep, she admitted, "I don't know the answer to that because the Wisconsin Arts Board (WAB) gets a portion of NEA funding. When NEA funding gives a certain amount, the state matches it and Gov. Scott Walker has a major change in his proposal to cut WAB by 73%." Cutting funds from WAB will likely affect how NEA funds will get proportioned out to many arts companies.

But when Jurczyk was asked about the importance of government funding for arts education, she added,

"It's making me nervous right now, especially with education budgets being slashed. I firmly believe that the arts should be a part of the curriculum. We need to teach kids to be curious and creative...it's the way they are going to survive in this age... no matter what field they're in."

According to Milwaukee Chamber Theater managing director Kirsten Mulvey, her group "is in a lot of schools teaching. As arts education is being cut, teaching is the only exposure to theater that those kids will have...it's harder and harder for arts groups to provide services." Mulvey believes that the arts are important for the economy as well. "The Third Ward neighborhood has been built up and around the theater here. Restaurants and parking garages are created. The arts create jobs and revenue in communities."

Mulvey was not the only one to comment on the art's economic benefits. Producing director Julie Swenson at Renaissance Theaterworks commented, "I hope they—the government—will recognize the ancillary benefits of bringing people downtown. Without the arts, there will be economic issues. It impacts a lot more than just the theaters directly. By reducing NEA funding, this reduces the amount of money going through WAB and its distribution!"

Michael Pink, artistic director for the Milwaukee Ballet, argued that arts funding is important for community building. "The tax revenue for people who work in the arts in the city is substantial, generating for new organizations... it helps the quality of life and helps a community speak through its art. It's alarming that too many politicians regard the arts as less than anything for the community."

Florentine Opera general director William Florescu agreed. "It's important what the arts bring to society in its totality," he said. "Soon as it becomes too much a part of politics, it loses meaning and becomes a 'political football match.'" He hopes that "levels are maintained and increased as a part of an on-going conversation."

Discourse about arts' place in society and its funding is strongly encouraged by members of Milwaukee's performing arts scene, but David Cecsarini, producing artistic director for Next Act Theater, spoke a bit more boldly.

"Arts groups are not profligate spenders and there is little fat or even meat, to cut off the bones," he said. "An arts company's income is comprised of many different kinds of support: Ticket sales, retail sales, rentals, foundations, corporations, individuals and government.  It is very sad that a group such as Americans for the Arts must put a positive spin on a 7.5 percent decrease of an already paltry budget for national arts support.

"It's time that America stop being ashamed of its artists and their endeavors, and stop allowing bigoted, reactionary politicians and clergy the ability to denigrate the pursuit of truth through art. God knows, we could all use a little more truth."

These Milwaukee performing groups story-tell and create in hopes of innovating and building their community. Says Michael Pink: "If only government could recognize good quality art across the nation and have pride in its' operas, ballets, theater groups, and children's theaters...it is the most powerful way to talk to people of the community, all nations and religions."