A Conversation with Former Lt. Governor, Barbara Lawton

by Colleen Kappeler
Wisconsin is facing tumultuous economic and political times, so what is the role of art? According to Barbara Lawton, former Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin and current Chair of the Arts Board for Wisconsin, the “arts and culture sector play multiple roles in these unsettled times: they bring resiliency to the economy, which is important in Southeast Wisconsin, and, as we’ve gone through period of hemorrhaging businesses, new businesses look for a place that is supportive of the innovations they need and has a strong cultural heart beat.”
Lawton points to Eau Claire where in 2009, during the worst moment of economic downturn, two high-tech businesses from New York City relocated there with the promise of 200 high paying jobs because they were confident they’d attract the workers they needed because of Eau Claire’s cultural resources.
“Arts are also the way that we manage the difficult ideas before us,” says Lawton. “During confusing times, people turn to creative means. Experience in the arts allows you to lift intellectual filters that keep us from seeing things in their wholeness.”
Arts organizations are an important part of what constitutes the community. When times are tough financially, people turn close to home for entertainment and so local arts play a valuable function in the economy.
Arts are important to Wisconsin and the long-term economy of our state. “Arts animate local and regional economies and bring in innovators and entrepreneurs. Arts bring employment, pay taxes, circulate money locally, and incredibly improve the region by every measure.” Lawton is concerned that the Governor has proposed cutting state funding by 73% and moving the Arts Board under tourism. The Arts Board employees who are being let go offer thousands of dollars worth of information to artists and non-profits. “To dissolve the Arts Board is to lose expertise and a resource that has helped across the state. We wouldn’t eliminate commerce, so to eliminate this is to cut off what animates and directly affects our state.”
Currently, the Arts Board is petitioning the Governor to restore it as independent agency. They are willing to take the necessary cuts that are coming across the state, but, as Lawton reminded me, their last increase in funding was in 1992. One thing people may not be aware of is that there is federal money available for arts, but only to states with independent Arts Boards. Eliminating the Wisconsin Arts Board will cut off much funding for arts.
Lawton recommends communicating with the chairs of Joint Finance, letting them know how important the arts are for jobs and as an economic outlet. Communicate with state senators as well, asking them to petition the removal of the Arts Board. She wants people to know that the Arts Board is about community and economic development, while the tourism department is about marketing. “We are not redundant in what we do.” The Arts Board has raised the visibility of creative economy, such as the film incentive which they led. The work of the Arts Board has put Wisconsin on the map!
When it comes to Kenosha, Lawton exclaims that this is very exciting place! “Every fall we have annual meetings in different parts of the state and see what is happening there and what we can do there to help. With Lemon Street Gallery, the restoration downtown, the shared symphony and Racine’s art galleries the area is defined by the arts and can bring people in with its strong magnetic force.”


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