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February 4, 2008

Moving forward, moving backward?

Jennifer A. Smith

The Wisconsin Arts Board recently unveiled a new logo and is now using the tagline "Creativity. Culture. Community. Commerce." All good stuff, and that last bit could be taken as a nod to the fact that, here in the Dairy State, our arts board falls under the department of tourism. As we've discussed previously on Flyover, economic development is increasingly advanced as a rationale for arts support.

Arts Wisconsin, an advocacy organization that partners with the Wisconsin Arts Board on a number of fronts (including professional development workshops for artists), is helping to lead a push to increase state tax support for the Arts Board. Currently, per capita support here is an anemic 44 cents, and Arts Wisconsin would like to see it increase to an even dollar. Meanwhile in Minnesota, our neighbors to the west, per capita support is nearly quadruple ours at $1.67. The disparity is especially hard to fathom when you consider how similar our states are in other respects: we're both northern states with few big cities, fairly progressive reputations and similar demographics. Why, then, do Minnesotans put so much more support towards the arts? How has this been politically feasible? (And I'm asking this seriously, not rhetorically--we here in Wisconsin would do well to emulate Minnesota in this regard.)

On another note, Visit Milwaukee (Milwaukee's convention and visitors' bureau) has announced that sufficient funds ($85,000) have been raised to pay for the "Bronze Fonz" it wishes to erect along Milwaukee's Riverwalk. Although I haven't followed this story closely (because I live nearly two hours west), it does strike me as a disappointment that Milwaukee is going with a relic of a fictitious past rather than installing some forward-thinking contemporary art by a local artist. Of course, there are a number of these TV-themed sculptures in various cities, but I can't see that it is going to add much to Milwaukee. It also seems a deadly dull commission for an artist, with little creative leeway. To my knowledge, Visit Milwaukee has not chosen an artist yet.

A young Milwaukee gallery owner, Mike Brenner, has taken considerable flak for his public opposition to this sculpture. In fact, he's now closing his gallery to focus on other projects. Brenner writes: "I cannot see running a contemporary art gallery in a city whose 'leadership' is so eager to invest its limited resources in garbage instead of fostering its burgeoning arts community... I want the world to see what I see... a city full of warmhearted, hardworking, creative individuals who deserve to be defined by so much more than beer, brats, cheese and Arthur Fonzarelli." Brenner linked to this TV news story on his gallery's Web site; it quickly sums things up for those unfamiliar with the project:

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writer Jim Stingl alludes not-so-subtly to Brenner's gallery closing in his column. Stingl also writes: "Irritating the snobby arbiters of serious art is not the only good reason to erect a Fonzie statue downtown" and closes with "I know it breaks the rule that art is best when it's hard to understand, but it doesn't doom our chances of being a first-class city." (I guess Stingl hasn't seen any of the whimsical, accessible yet contemporary stuff in Minneapolis' sculpture garden, like Claes Oldenburg's "Spoonbridge and Cherry;" love it or hate it, it's easy to grasp and is definitely identified with Minneapolis.)

Sadly, Stingl seems to buy into the mindset that wanting to support new, local work or something less literal than a lifesize bronze of a TV character is snobbery (pardon me while I adjust my beret). The "contemporary art = inscrutable" attitude is a well-worn cliché. I agree with Stingl only in that one statue doesn't have the power to wreck the city of Milwaukee, a city for which I have a lot of fondness even though I have never lived there. (My family moved away just before I was born, but my grandparents were Milwaukee residents for over 60 years.)

I guess the whole Visit Milwaukee / Bronze Fonz controversy points up the conflict between needing to market a city to tourists via familiar icons (though Fonz defender Stingl concedes that a lot of whippersnappers don't even know who the Fonz is; let's face it, "Happy Days" ended its run 24 years ago and was viewed by aging Gen X-ers like myself) and supporting a city's indigenous culture via artists and artwork that don't have instant recognizability.

Posted by Jennifer A. Smith at February 4, 2008 8:00 AM


I'm a big fan of the arts scene in Milwaukee. MKE is doing a lot of things right. Sorry to read that the gallery will close. It can survive 1 bronze statue of Arthur F. Heck...I live in Detroit and we have a huge statue of Joe Louis' fist beckoning people to our waterfront...

Posted by: Kimberly Johnson at February 5, 2008 4:10 AM