This Is Your Brain on Art

This Is Your Brain on Art
Can neuroscience explain art?

By Morgan Meis

Twenty percent of art can now be explained by neuroscience. That, at least, is what V.S. Ramachandran thinks. Ramachandran is the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Distinguished Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego. He is, in short, one of the top neuroscientists around at the moment. He is also a clear and engaging writer. His 1999 book, Phantoms in the Brain, brought him much popular attention and his most recent book, The Tell-Tale Brain, is doing more of the same.

  • The Tell-Talle Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by V.S. Ramachandran. 357 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.

Much like Oliver Sacks, his friend and admirer, Ramachandran comes to many of his insights about the human brain by observing its dysfunction. Problems in the brain can tell us meaningful things about what is going on in a normal brain. Take, for example, people who claim that one of their arms belongs to someone else due to damage to their brain; they become lessons in how complex and multi-layered are the functions of consciousness. We seem to ourselves, when everything is going well, to be fully unified “selves.” In fact, when we look at various disorders of the mind, we see how tenuous is the ground upon which that feeling rests. In looking at the disordered mind, Ramachandran gets the impression that he is looking “at human nature through a magnifying glass.”

That is also why Ramachandran devotes two whole chapters of his book to the subject of art and aesthetics. Making art and appreciating art seems to be universal in the human species. From prehistoric cave paintings to modern conceptualism, where you find human beings you also find art. At the same time, no one has ever been able to give a very good definition of art, to explain in any rigorous and satisfying way what it is that human beings are up to when they make art and when they like art. It is a subject that touches on the strangeness of consciousness, the felt sense of being human that all of us experience every day but that is so resistant to explanation or analysis. Art is thus a kind of Holy Grail to those who seek to explain the murkiest aspects of human consciousness. But it is this very fact — the experiential and intangible nature of art — that would seem to preclude the possibility that science can intrude into the domain of art. As Ramachandran himself admits, “One is a quest for general principles and tidy explanations while the other is a celebration of the individual imagination and spirit, so that the very notion of a science of art seems like an oxymoron.”

That is, indeed, more or less the problem. Theories of art have proliferated for as long as we’ve had philosophy and theory. All of them have tried, in one way or another, to elucidate general principles. The problem, as Ramachandran understands it, is that we simply haven’t known enough about how the brain operates. Now, he says, that situation has finally changed. He claims specifically that, “our knowledge of human vision and of the brain is now sophisticated enough that we can speculate intelligently on the neural basis of art and maybe begin to construct a scientific theory of artistic experience.”

Speculate he does. Ramachandran identifies what he calls nine laws of aesthetics. Let’s look at one of them — law number two, which he calls Peak Shift — to get a sense of what neuroscience brings to aesthetics. Peak Shift refers to a generally elevated response to exaggerated stimuli among many animals. Ramachandran refers to a study in which seagull chicks were made to beg for food (just as they do from their mothers) simply by waving a beak-like stick in front of their nests. Later, the researchers pared down even further, simply waving a yellow strip of cardboard with a red dot on the end (adult gulls have a red dot at the end of their beaks). They got the same response. More interesting, and crucially for Ramachandran’s law of Peak Shift, is that the gull chicks become super excited if you put three red dots on the cardboard strip. Something in the mental hardwiring of the chicks says, “red outline on lighter background means food.” The wiring does not normally need to be more specific than that. It is enough for survival. So, the chick brains make the leap to interpreting the advent of several red outlines as being several times better. They go nuts.

This fact, Ramachandran thinks, can give us some real, neurologically based insights into the appeal for abstract art. Ramachandran supposes that with abstract art, human beings have learned to tap into their own gull chick response mechanisms. Abstract artists are thus “tapping into the figural primitives of our perceptual grammar and creating ultranormal stimuli that more powerfully excite certain visual neurons in our brains as opposed to realistic-looking images.”

That is the argument. I, for one, suspect that there is a genuine insight here, mixed with a battery of oversimplifications that could be picked apart by any art historian. Ramachandran, to his credit, admits that fact. He does not want to be seen as a reductionist and his points about Peak Shift are not meant to exhaust the possible reasons for the emergence of and enthusiasm for abstract art. Neuroscience is not meant to replace other standpoints from which we appreciate and analyze art. Ramachandran thinks, in general, that neuroscience can make significant contributions to aesthetics without otherwise encroaching on the humanities. Our love of Shakespeare, he argues, is not diminished by our understanding of universal grammar. “Similarly, our conviction that great art can be divinely inspired and may have spiritual significance, or that it transcends not only realism but reality itself, should not stop us from looking for those elemental forces in the brain that govern aesthetic impulses.”

Why the qualifications then? Why does Ramachandran continuously feel the need to reassure us that we can gain knowledge about art from neuroscience without losing anything? It seems to presuppose, at the very least, that the other option is a possibility, that looking for (and finding) elemental forces in the brain that govern aesthetic impulses could, in fact, transform our actual experience of art.

Perhaps past experience comes into play here. We are broadly aware of the fact, for instance, that there has been a vast accretion of knowledge about the natural world and about ourselves over the last two centuries. We are also broadly aware that the understanding we have gained has not been neutral. It has not left the world as it was. The understanding has transformed our relationship to the world, to one another, to ourselves. Maybe that is a simple way to describe the sense of crisis that has always been a constituent part of the experience of modernity. As we understand differently, we act differently. And how you act is, in some fundamental way, how you are. So, we have changed in who we are. We have become different. How different? No one can say, exactly. Has it been for the better or for the worse? Opinions are divided. The feelings of anxiety, though, are real and they’ve always been real.

The subtitle of Ramachandran’s book is “A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human.” The underlying assumption of that subtitle, I am suggesting, is that the quest is a fundamentally benign one. Philosophy, Aristotle said many years ago, begins in wonder. We want to know. We have always wanted to know. That is part of what it means to be human. Ramachandran thus presents his book as both a study in the things that make us human, and a contribution to the practice of being human. But is there another possible subtitle to Ramachandran’s book lurking in the shadows? Would it be something like, “A Neuroscientist’s Quest to Utterly Transform What It Means to Be Human?”

There is an interesting aside during Ramachandran’s discussion of Peak Shift. He wonders, after discussing his principle of ultranormal stimuli and its relation to abstract art, whether our brains are simply hardwired to appreciate art. This raises the question, however, of disagreement in the appreciation of art. If we are analogous to chick gulls in our gut reaction to certain abstract forms, mustn’t it then be the case that everyone actually likes, in some deep way, the sculptures of (for instance) Henry Moore? Ramachandran goes for the surprising answer here. He supposes that maybe everyone does. They just don’t know it, or they suppress that root “liking” with their higher cognitive functions, adjusting what they “like” to specific cultural mores or other similar considerations. Ramachandran goes even further. He proposes that we could actually test this hypothesis out. We could hook people up to sensors that test whether they are having a root response to Henry Moore’s sculptures (even if they say they dislike the sculptures) and find out whether we share some basic and primitive response to the work. If nothing else, it could prove that basic universal aesthetic laws do apply, and that they play a role in our appreciation for art.

One can make easy fun of such examples. There is something creepy about the idea that we are forced, in some sense, to admit a liking for Henry Moore that we would otherwise deny. But I propose that we take it seriously for a moment. If, in rigorous test after rigorous test, neuroscientists such as Ramachandran can begin to establish many of these universal laws and fine tune the analysis of how they operate, is it possible that this would have no effect on how we then continue to appreciate and even to produce art? Maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe the Shakespeare analogy holds. Maybe there is something so solid, so intransigent to our humanness and to the way that we experience the world no amount of such knowledge can shake it apart.

I suspect, though, that we have no idea what the implications of discovering the laws of aesthetics would be. Ramchandran basically agrees. The final sentence in the last chapter of his book explicitly says it. He is speaking more broadly about the project of explaining human consciousness in total, but the thought applies to the specific realm of art. “We don’t know,” he writes, “what the ultimate outcome of such a journey will be, but surely it is the greatest adventure humankind has ever embarked on.” Probably he is correct about this. To understand our own origins and to understand exactly how we got to be the kinds of creatures we are — this is the ultimate quest. It is also appropriate that such enthusiasm, such optimism guide the adventure.

No adventure, especially an adventure of such magnitude, has ever been embarked upon without a driving optimism. And no adventure has ever proceeded for very long without melancholic notes creeping into the affair. Thus the need, I think, for Ramachandran to pause along the way and reassure his reader (and himself?) that the outcome of this whole affair will not transform the object of his quest — “what makes us human” — into something unrecognizable. There is a passage in Ramachandran’s discussion of his ninth law of aesthetics (Metaphor) where he begins to wax eloquently about the Nataraja, The Dancing Shiva sculpture that is India’s greatest icon. It is clear that the sculpture is deeply meaningful to Ramachandran. Perhaps it evokes his childhood. Maybe he once had an intense experience with the sculpture. He doesn’t tell us. Instead, he takes a moment to explain the statue, to interpret it. He mentions that Shiva is shown stomping on a demon, Apasmara, who represents the illusion of ignorance. What is this illusion?

It’s the illusion that all of us scientific types suffer from, that there is nothing more to the Universe than the mindless gyration of atoms and molecules, that there is no deeper reality behind appearances. … It is the logical delusion that after death there is nothing but a timeless void. Shiva is telling us that if you destroy this illusion and seek solace under his raised left foot (which he points to with one of his right hands), you will realize that behind external appearances (Maya), there is a deeper truth.

Finally, Ramachandran breaks away from his reverie. He apologizes for straying too far afield. He assures us, once again, that his non-reductionist approach to neuroscience will in no way diminish great works of art. He wants it to be the case, and you can feel the desire in the passage, that the insights gained from neuroscience and his interpretations of the power of the Nataraja are deeply compatible. Maybe so, maybe so. Maybe the insights of neuroscience will “actually enhance our appreciation of [art’s] intrinsic value.” But the insistence strikes me as conveying a lingering sadness that Ramachandran never acknowledges. The sadness lingers in the between-spaces of his sentences, in the silent moments that fill up the pauses as he moves from one argument to another. He doesn’t know, he can’t know, what we will lose or what we will gain. And he is aware, as we are all aware in our heart’s heart, that we aren’t going to stop doing this anyway. We are going to go forward into the unknown in the quest to make art fully knowable and we’ll deal with the consequences when we’ve arrived, joyful in our accomplishments and sad, too, at the inevitable loss of all that has been left behind. • 17 March 2011

Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for The Believer, Harper’s, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. He can be reached at

Homepage photo via Anand Krishnamoorthi / CC BY-NC 2.0


Wis. Labor Bill Could Vex District-Union Relations

DeForest, Wis.

One recent Wednesday night, Superintendent Jon Bales received a pair of phone calls at home that dismayed but did not surprise him.

The president of the local teachers’ union called him with updates from the state Capitol, a short drive away in Madison, Wis. Dozens of teachers from the DeForest Area School District had joined the burgeoning protests there, Rick Hill told him, and many educators were unlikely to report to work the next day.

Mr. Bales soon realized he would have to call off school. That night, the two men—who are on friendly terms—worked out an agreement. Teachers in the district would not call in sick, but would make up the lost time by working a day they were scheduled to have off. Mr. Bales began calling administrators and arranging outreach to parents, whose plans for the next day would be disrupted.

Massive protests have been the norm in Wisconsin in recent weeks, since Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, unveiled a plan to strip many collective bargaining rights from teachers and most other public employees. GOP elected officials are pursuing similar measures in Ohio and other states.

But here in the DeForest district, like some others around the state, collective bargaining, while often difficult, has produced agreements that generally satisfied both sides.

Gov. Walker’s plan would upend existing relationships, a number of superintendents and local teachers’ union leaders say, and create the potential for more division. It would give leaders in the DeForest district, which has 3,250 students, far more power to determine everything from teachers’ health-care coverage to school assignments and class sizes—matters that would fall outside the scope of collective bargaining.

“In the end, on a local basis, what we have is still each other,” Mr. Bales said in an interview in his office this week. “Our culture here is built around trying to engage everybody in [the] conversation.”

The furor over the governor’s plan has left administrators like Mr. Bales, as well as teachers and parents, with an unfamiliar and still-evolving challenge: How to work through the upheaval and go about the business of educating students—while trying to hold their school communities together.

“You have to have respect for the fact that people are being impacted personally,” said Mr. Bales. “But from our perspective, and from the teachers’ leadership as well, you have to keep the kids in mind first. You have to separate the personal impact from the impact on the system.”

Mr. Hill, a 58-year-old educator who teaches special education, worries that the cooperative approach will be replaced by one that encourages both sides to “get the best you can, when you can.”

“I’m really worried,” the local union president explained. “It’s the Wild West if you’ve taken away all sense of what’s reasonable, of how you work through things.”

Consensus Bargaining

DeForest district officials and members of the teachers’ union, an affiliate of the 98,000-member Wisconsin Education Association Council, or WEAC, and the National Education Association, use an approach known as consensus bargaining in their contract negotiations, in which they begin by laying out broad principles and gradually move into contract specifics.

During contract negotiations, the two sides sometimes meet in the district’s offices. On other occasions, they gather at the local library in DeForest, whose 9,000 or so residents include workers employed in manufacturing, farming, and government, often in Madison, just to the south. Votes on various provisions are taken by hand, with participants signaling thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs sideways. A single thumbs-down is sufficient to nix a provision, so participants work to reach an accord in which all parties have at least a neutral, or sideways, position, explained Vickie Adkins, the district’s human-resources director.

The district’s contract gives teachers average salary increases of about 2-4 percent a year, when step pay raises and additional raises for different classifications of educators are included, Mr. Bales estimates. He puts the average teachers’ salary at $52,600 a year. Gov. Walker’s plan would limit yearly raises to no more than the Consumer Price Index—which rose by 1.6 percent for the most recent year ending in January—unless voters in local communities approve a higher increase.

The pay increase was made possible partly because the district, which has a total budget of $35 million, and union agreed to revise the contract to move to a lower-cost insurance carrier, school system officials said. Under the governor’s plan, health-insurance decisions at the local level would no longer be subject to bargaining, meaning district officials could set health-coverage policy on their own.

Gov. Walker argues that requiring teachers to pay for pensions—most chip in nothing now—and restricting collective bargaining on health care and other issues will help districts save more than enough money to offset more than $834 million in reductionsin state aid to schools over the coming two years.

Mr. Bales, now in his 13th year as superintendent, worries the proposal would bring more costs than savings to his district, though he says he can’t yet predict the size of the gap. Districts across Wisconsin faced a deadline this week to send preliminary notices to employees who would be laid off. Mr. Bales and Ms. Adkins hope to avoid layoffs for next academic year by not filling an anticipated 12 to 20 vacancies that will be likely be created by retirements and other departures.

A higher number of the DeForest district’s 258 teachers than usual have indicated that they plan to retire after this year, citing concerns about either losing or having to pay more for retirement benefits, because of shrinking local budgets and potential reductions created by the governor’s proposal.

Mr. Hill says he also hears worries and frustration, particularly from teachers who say educators are being unfairly targeted in the state, and around the country, by those who blame them for budget woes and longstanding problems in schools.

“I’ve never heard as many people say, ‘I’m getting out,’ ” he said.

Labor Clout Criticized


Stephanie Griggs, a parent of three public school students in Watertown, Wis., supports Gov. Scott Walker’s plans. The former school board member believes teachers and other public workers need to contribute to their pensions and healthcare, and says the state needs to curb collective bargaining rights to lower the cost to taxpayers.
—Adam Ryan Morris for Education Week

Critics of teachers’ unions, and advocates for tighter controls on government spending, sometimes argue that collective bargaining tips negotiating scales heavily in favor of labor organizations and prevents management from making changes to district operations that can save money and improve student achievement. Some say that the prospect of angering politically active teachers’ unions can put pressure on district leaders to accept deals they might not like.

In that context, some Wisconsin school administrators’ qualms about the governor’s proposal are easier to understand, said Mike Antonucci, the director of the Education Intelligence Agency, a California-based organization that researches and is often critical of unions. Should Gov. Walker’s plan win approval, school officials in local districts will be left dealing with frustrated employees at a time when their schools are facing painful budget cuts.

“District administrators don’t want any trouble,” Mr. Antonucci said in an e-mail. Administrators, he said, “are the ones who have to live with the new arrangement—with angry unions that haven’t been eliminated, just defanged.”

In the DeForest district, meanwhile, Mr. Bales’ efforts to mitigate the impact of the state tensions have also included reaching out to parents, many of whom were outraged at seeing school canceled even for day (some Wisconsin districts were out much longer).

The superintendent estimates that about 90 percent of calls and e-mails he received were from people who were upset over the district employees’ staying away from school to protest.

The reaction was more mixed in the 6,000-student Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, which canceled two days of classes because many teachers and other employees did not report for work, said Superintendent Don Johnson. Opinion from parents, he said, seemed to be roughly divided in thirds, either supporting the teachers’ action, opposing it, or ending up somewhere in between.

Some parents in the district, located in suburban Madison, worried that educators would promote a “union point of view” in their classes, Mr. Johnson said. As the public protests played out, the superintendent sent a memo to teachers, referring them to a policy that requires educators to present controversial topics impartially. He also advised teachers to avoid discussing the Wisconsin fight entirely if it had nothing to do with their classes.

“We need to understand that our charge is to help students understand issues,” Mr. Johnson said. His message was that the controversy is “right here, right now,” he noted, “but it doesn’t really belong in a chemistry classroom.”

During the protests, reports emerged that some teachers around the state had asked doctors to give them notes reporting that they were sick—and as a result would be paid for the days they missed—when in fact they were attending the protests. Mr. Johnson also asked teachers who did not report to school and instead attended the protests to take leave without pay, rather than reporting sick, which, he explained in a Feb. 20 memo, would “clarify for the public that we are all acting honestly and honorably.”

Many educators are scared for the future of their profession, and worried about the quality of education declining with budget cuts, said Pat Keeler, a social studies teacher and union member. A lot of his colleagues have spoken to him about other career options.

“People are mad,” the 44-year-old said. “They don’t understand why they’re scapegoats for Wisconsin’s budget ills.”

Some public resentment over the canceled classes lingers. Mr. Johnson said he had received eight public-records requests related to the work stoppage, the majority from people in the community wanting the names of district employees who had not reported to work and what reasons they had given.

No ‘Paid Guns’

In the Watertown Unified School District, a 4,000-student system in a city less than an hour east of Madison, Superintendent Douglas Keiser and Rusty Tiedemann, who helps negotiate for the local teachers’ union, have spoken regularly during recent weeks, meeting for breakfast and exchanging phone calls.

District officials have a history of working through vexing issues with the union, Mr. Keiser said. The two sides avoid bringing what he calls “paid guns”—outside union negotiators and the district’s lawyer—into the negotiations.

Both men say they hear questions every day from teachers and other employees about what’s ahead for the school budget and staff members’ contracts. But until they know the fate of the governor’s proposal, they can’t provide answers.


“It’s been challenging to know how to act and what to do,” said Mr. Tiedemann, a health teacher. “Everyone’s afraid that actions that we take may be interpreted as an affront to our community, or to our district, which is not what it’s meant to be at all. We’re very happy with our district, and with our community.”

Stephanie Griggs, a parent of three students in Watertown, has a different perspective. The former school board member believes teachers and other public workers need to contribute to their pensions and health insurance, as is the norm in the private sector, and says that the state needs to curb collective bargaining rights to change to keep costs to taxpayers low.

Wisconsin’s largest teachers’ union, WEAC, has said it will accept the governor’s proposal to pay more for pensions and health coverage, but not the collective bargaining changes.

“Everyone is feeling the pinch,” Ms. Griggs said. “I don’t know anybody but maybe two or three people who have gotten pay increases in the past five years.”

She also worries that the ongoing controversy will make it less likely that local voters will approve important future spending measures to help schools in the district.

“What’s happening now is pitting parents against teachers,” she said. “Parents don’t feel comfortable talking to teachers about it, and teachers don’t feel comfortable talking to parents about it. So it’s kind of like they just don’t talk.”

Mr. Keiser, the superintendent, says he’s tried to reach deals with the local union that are fair to teachers and taxpayers. Whatever becomes of Gov. Walker’s measure, he hopes some measure of cooperation continues.

Neither side would accept “just acquiescing to the other,” Mr. Keiser said. In most negotiations, “you don’t come away feeling like you won, you don’t come away feeling like you lost. … You have to be reasonable,” he added, because if you aren’t, “you’ll pay the price the next time around.”

Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation,

 Now is the time to speak up for the arts, arts education and creative economy

  Take Action!


On March 1, Gov. Scott Walker presented his 2011 – 2013 Biennial Budget Address to a jointsession of the Wisconsin State Legislature.  The budget contains many obvious and not-so-obvious ways that the budget will affect the arts, arts education and creative economy in Wisconsin and the artistic and creative opportunities that Wisconsin residents deserve. 

Please note that the Governor’s proposal is the biennial budget’s starting point, and the numbers included in the final budget can go up or down from here in the state Legislature.  It should not be taken for granted that the Governor’s proposal will stand in the Legislature.  Some legislators may think the Governor’s budget went too far, others may think he hasn’t gone far enough.  

If you believe that the arts are “part of the solution” for Wisconsin, you must speak up!  Committed citizens – not just people who are directly involved in the arts, but everyone who cares about Wisconsin’s future – will need to advocate and educate in this environment.  If we want the decision-makers to recognize the public value of the arts for Wisconsin, we must take action. Our motto must be, “Don’t mourn, organize.”

Making change will take more than just sending emails to legislators.  We need to “surround” and educate legislators with information, data and stories about the value of state funding for their constituents. 

The focus of our advocacy right now will be the members of the State Legislature, since they will be engaged in the process of reviewing the budget for the next few months. 

Arts Day on March 3 (you can still register!) is the first step in this campaign, but the budget will unfold over the next few months and it’s up to all of us to get involved.  (Click here for Nine Reasons why you must be an advocate for the arts). 

Part #1 of this message is information on the proposed cuts to the Wisconsin Arts Board, with additional information about other budget proposals that will affect the arts in the state.  Part #2 is a brief overview of the budget process.  Part #3 is information on what YOU can and must do to advocate and educate, if you want to see change.

Please know that this is just the beginning of information from Arts Wisconsin and partners about the state budget and advocacy efforts.  We will continue to analyze the budget and its impact and facilitate the campaign for action.  We will keep you up to date and equipped with the information and tools you need to make your voice heard. 

Please make sure you – and others who care about Wisconsin’s future – are signed up for Arts Wisconsin’s Legislative Action Center and as a FaceBook “fan” to get the latest info, and up-to-the-minute information will be available on our website and using our Arts Activist Center.

Thanks for your good work.  Keep in touch with questions, comments, thoughts, and ideas.  Remember:  don’t mourn, organize!

Part #1:  Here’s how the proposed budget would affect the arts, arts education and creative economy in Wisconsin: 

Wisconsin Arts Board
The big news is that the Wisconsin Arts Board’s budget will be reduced by 58%, severely reducing its ability to serve the people of Wisconsin.  Here are the numbers:

Governor’s Budget Action – Arts Board

            FY 11 FY 12 Change % Notes
General Purpose Revenue (GPR) 2,417,700 759,100 -1,658,600 -68.6% General state funding
Program Revenue – Federal                   759,100 759,100     Funds from the National Endowment for the Arts
Program Revenue – State 525,600             24,900                      -500,700 -95.3% Percent for Art Program eliminated
Program Revenue – Other 20,000 20,000     Other Gifts or Grants Received
Total 3,722,400  1,563,100  -2,159,300     

The details are:  

  • Match GPR Funds to Federal Funds
    “The Governor recommends reducing expenditure authority to match GPR appropriations to PRF appropriations in the amounts shown to balance the budget.”  A state must have a state arts agency in order to receive funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and it must be able to match the funds it receives.  Until now, the State of Wisconsin has invested more than its federal award in the publicly valued programs and services of the Arts Board.
  • Consolidate the Arts Board into the Department of Tourism
    The Arts Board would cease to be an agency attached to tourism for administrative purposes.  Governor Walker’s budget would consolidate the Arts Board and make it a program of the Department of Tourism.  The result of this action will be the elimination of six employees, the transfer of four employees to Tourism, and the Arts Board and its now executive director reporting to the Secretary of Tourism.  The details of this reporting structure are unclear and will need further explanation from the Governor and/or the Department.
  • Elimination of the Percent for Art Program
    “The Governor recommends eliminating the Percent for Art program and associated expenditure and position authority to balance the budget.”  The Percent for Art program would cease to exist.  While no new public art projects would be begun, it is unclear if the Governor intends to void existing contracts.

The Governor’s Budget in Brief has this to say about the consolidation:  “Transfer the Arts Board to the Department of Tourism to help focus support for the arts and grow the economy.”

The Arts Board’s section of the budget says this:  “The Governor recommends eliminating the board as a separate agency and consolidating its responsibilities, functions, positions and assets into the Department of Tourism to increase operational efficiency, improve effectiveness and promote tourism development. The Governor also recommends transferring funding and position authority to the Department of Tourism for the support of the arts functions, which include arts community and economic development services, grant administration, initiatives in arts education and in underserved communities, and the Folk and Traditional Arts program.”  

In addition to the severe Arts Board cuts, the state budget reduces funding for education, local governments, the the UW System, and technical colleges.  The specific effects are currently unknown, but we are pretty sure that they will mean reduced access to the arts and arts education for Wisconsin’s students, since too often the arts are the first thing to go when budgets are tight.  David Brooks, in yesterday’s New York Times’ op-ed “The New Normal,” said, “…legislators and administrators are simply cutting on the basis of what’s politically easy and what vaguely seems expendable. In education, many administrators are quick to cut athletics, band, cheerleading, art and music because they have the vague impression that those are luxuries. In fact, they are exactly the programs that keep kids in school and build character.” (Read the full op-ed here).

Additional information about the budget’s impact on the arts will be coming to you soon.

Part #2:  The process:

Now the Governor has released the budget, the bill goes to the Joint Finance Committee (click here for the list of JFT members) for review.  (If your legislator is a Joint Finance Committee member, it will be especially important to connect with them in this process.)  After that, the Senate and Assembly each will have an opportunity to edit and revise, after which the budget bill will go to a “conference committee” made up of senators and assemblypeople for final review.  The Governor has a last chance for review (with the power to make significant changes) before signing the bill into law.  The budget must be signed by June 30 since the fiscal year starts on July 1.  Click here for more on “How a Bill Becomes Law.”

Part #3:  You have the power to make change.  But where to start?

1)       You can send an email message urging support for the Wisconsin Arts Board using Arts Wisconsin’s Legislative Action Center

2)       Think about contacts and connections, for yourself and your colleagues and friends, and how those people might be connected to your legislators.  Those are the people who should help advocate for this cause.  Start getting in touch with them to talk about educating your elected officials.

3)       Plan to make an appointment for you and colleagues to meet with your state Senator and Representative as soon as possible.    Legislative contact information is below. Arts Wisconsin will be happy to help you achieve these meetings.  Get in touch with Anne Katz, Executive Director, to discuss the details. 

4)       Start gathering your stories, information and data about the impact of the arts as part of the solution, and the need for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship in our local and state economies, jobs in the creative sector, infusing the arts into education for all Wisconsin students, and keeping our communities healthy and vibrant by ensuring access to the arts for everyone, everywhere in the state.  You will educate legislators using: 

  • Stories (with pictures, if possible) about the ways in which the arts have had an effect on economic vitality, educational advancement, civic engagement, and healthy communities, in your community   
  • Information about programs and services supported and enjoyed by the community
  • Data about the number and scope of the people involved in the arts in your community

Administration/Legislature contact info:

Making the case – issue briefs to share:


Click here for a recent Wausau Daily Herald op-ed about the critical need for Wisconsin to invest in 21st century development strategies and opportunities.

Go to Arts Wisconsin’s Arts Activist Center for more information and ways to speak up for the arts.

Arts Action Alerts are a service of Arts Wisconsin and its Legislative Action Center.  Arts Wisconsin provides timely and critical information and actions on local and global arts, community and government issues throughout the year.   Please forward this email on to colleagues and peers who should have this information, so they can also stay in touch and involved.

If you are not already a member, please support Arts Wisconsin’s statewide advocacy, service and development work so that we can continue to do our work on your behalf, and so that everyone, everywhere in Wisconsin can continue to participate in and benefit from the arts, culture, creativity and innovation.  Many thanks!