Thoughts on 25 years

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.                                                                                           ~ Arundhati Roy, 4-3-20


Madison, April 5, 2020

I’ve had plans for several months to share some thoughts about my 25 years of Director of Arts Wisconsin, but this is certainly a different message than I would have written even a month ago.

I started work as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Assembly of Local Arts Agencies (the name we started out with) on April 1, 1995.   I wrote about the joys and opportunities of the work five years ago (Thoughts on 20 Years, April 2015).  At that time, I wrote about how much I had learned over the course of twenty years, in particular about:

  • helping the creative spirit come alive in every corner of the state
  • the interesting and often mysterious ways of politics and power, human nature, the psychology of change, about how personalities and politics shape events and ideas, how to build and sustain community, how intangible, global forces affect our daily lives;
  • human interaction with the arts and creativity, the creative instinct that is inherent in every person and can’t be stifled no matter how difficult the circumstances.

At the 25-year mark, these lessons and values are top of mind in the time of coronavirus.

While I mourn the forces that are currently testing our communities and our creative spirit, I am convinced that Wisconsin’s people and communities will continue to inspire us, challenge us, and bring us together in the days ahead.  I’m also more certain than ever that Arts Wisconsin’s fundamental message: investment in the arts and creativity is an investment in Wisconsin’s future, bringing economic vitality; education for the 21st century; healthy, vibrant communities; and engaged residents, is key in this time of uncertainty.

For over 25 years, the work of Arts Wisconsin has been all about growing Wisconsin creatively.  Right now our job is to keep Wisconsin’s creative economy strong.

Like you, my days and sleepless nights are filled with worry.  I worry about all the creative businesses that have closed their doors, hopefully, for only a little while; about independent creative workers whose ability to earn a living in their chosen profession has radically changed, seemingly overnight; about small businesses,  main streets, and communities; about my family, friends and neighbors, across the street and around the world; about Arts Wisconsin, facing the same difficult issues as every small business out there.

Right alongside the worry, though, there’s hope, energy, and a fierce sense of pride.  In the midst of uncertainty, people, businesses and communities are stepping up and figuring things out.  There’s an abundance of amazing creativity and connections.  Ideas are churning.  We all have more questions than answers at the moment, but we are pursuing the questions with determination.   The real work is in this moment in time.   We will – we must – get through.

Arts Wisconsin has stepped up its leadership, advocacy and service to keep Wisconsin’s creative economy strong.  We have jumped into gathering resources, telling stories, offering listening sessions and webinars, providing counsel and a sympathetic ear, churning our partnerships with the Wisconsin Arts Board, League of Wisconsin Municipalities, and economic development organizations, as well as developing new partnerships with the health care sector and other social service providers.  We’ve launched April as Creative Wisconsin Month and are planning for Creative Wisconsin Day (coming soon) on Thursday, April 16-virtual, but no less meaningful.

We will all learn something from this moment in time and nothing will be the same. Although at times I’ve been struggling to figure out what those lessons can be, I keep coming back to a greater understanding of what is really important, individually and collectively, and with it, the work needed to focus on, to uphold, to benefit, people and community.

We are standing witness to a history that will be told for generations. How all of this will play out, none of us have any real clue at the moment.  We persevere.   We inspire.  We act.  We help.  We create.  We seize this opportunity to make things better, to continue to make meaning and community, and do better than simply live.  We’re ready to imagine another world.

Grateful for the work, and the friends and experiences along the way.   Stay well, all.

Anne Katz, Director
Arts Wisconsin