Photo: Milwaukee Ballet Company, 2010 by Rick Brodzeller

The work is done in the 4 areas…creativity, culture, community, and commerce…talking about the creative economy…and its real importance…

George T. Tzougros

Executive Director, Wisconsin Arts Board

We have a moment to talk with George T. Tzougros, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Arts Board, we talk about the purpose and programming of the board, how people can get involved, and what’s next for the organization.

This podcast is sponsored by Balancing Act.  
Balancing Act.
Transcript

George T. Tzougros 00:45
George Sucrose. And I was born in Queens, New York. And my parents decided in 1971, it was time to go to Wisconsin. So we went from Queens to Syracuse to Wisconsin. And I think what’s interesting about that right now is that one of the lures to come to Wisconsin was that the Milwaukee Bucks were there. And of course, ’71 was when they last won a championship. So it took a while. But we got to the second one. So that’s exciting. I got to the Arts Board by being a choral singer all my life, a theatre person in high school and college, and an arts administrator in graduate school had done many things. But I’ve been at the Arts Board now. In October, it’ll be 25 years as director, and in December it will be 30 years as a member of the art support staff.

Brent Hanifl 01:36
Wow.

George T. Tzougros 01:37
That’s not too bad considering the Arts Board will turn 50 years old, in August of ’23.

Brent Hanifl 01:43
Wow, I didn’t realize it was that established for this long?

George T. Tzougros 01:45
Yeah.

Brent Hanifl 01:46
So for someone who maybe doesn’t know of the Wisconsin Arts Board, I’ve been following it along for last couple years, what is the purpose of it?

George T. Tzougros 01:53
So the work is done in four areas, we call them the four C’s, creativity, culture, community and commerce. And so you know, creativity is obvious. Culture is all of the cultures of our people of our state, from our Native American predecessors to our newest arrivals and all of the cultures of the state. Community is something that Wisconsin is known for because of the Wisconsin Idea. And then commerce is something that we’ve really ramped up over the last number of years talking about the creative economy, and the creative industry, and its real importance to the state. The NEA and the Bureau of Economic Analysis tell us that creative industries are a $10.9 billion industry in Wisconsin. So that’s not a number that people understand. Usually you say 10 point 9 billion, they said, Do you say million? I said no, no, we said billion. Because that takes into the nonprofit, the artists, the sort of informal arts, and of course, the for profit arts as well.

Brent Hanifl 03:01
You have different programming, everything from arts education, to folk arts programming, can you share some of those projects that you guys are involved in?

George T. Tzougros 03:09
Sure. I mean, we’re best known as a grant maker. So we have programs that support a season’s worth of work. That’s called creation and presentation. And nonprofit organizations who do that work can come to us for a season’s worth of support. It’s a fairly easy application, because it’s based on the three year average income of the organization. But obviously, there’s some questions to be asked as we need to be accountable to not only the taxpayers, but the legislature and others. And the other grant program of note is the creative Communities Program, where we really emphasize arts education, local arts, development, and the traditional and ethnic arts. So that’s grant making, we get into all kinds of other issues. Like, for example, we were founders of the national creativity network, which is an organization that deals with imagination, creativity and innovation, in education, culture, and commerce. Right. So the arts are, of course, core to creativity, but they’re not the only discipline where creativity lies, right? It can be in business, it can be in science, it can be in math, it can be a lot of places. And it’s great for the arts board to be a proponent of that way of thinking, because artists then can puff themselves up and say we are creative, we are part of this. And they can be also reminded that there are others who are creative, who they might like to meet, know and maybe riff with, come up with new projects, etc. We did a thing recently called the Wisconsin Telestories, because COVID had, we had observed, really isolated some of our elders and communities. So it was an opportunity funded by the Aroha Philanthropies in the National Assembly of State Arts agencies, to get artists to connect with elders. And to get them thinking and talking creatively. And to sort of mitigate that isolation that would be felt. It was taken off of a project that Time Slips did in Milwaukee, and was expanded out to marathon county and Brown County to see if it would work in a more rural and a more suburban kind of space.

Brent Hanifl 05:22
Working with the seniors, that population, how can other community members get involved with the Wisconsin Arts Board? Is there a way to either contribute or?

George T. Tzougros 05:32
So yeah, so the best way is to call on us if there’s something we can be helpful. We try to help people do what they want to do in community. So often, somebody will call and say we’d like to do a mural, did you ever do anything like that? And we can point people to those who have. How about, did you start a theatre company? What does that look like? Do I have to get permits from the DLR Department of Revenue? What do I need to do in those spaces? So we’ve got staff who are really knowledgeable in presenting of the performing arts, traditional and ethnic arts, community development through the arts. And so we can answer questions, we can come and speak to audiences that want to hear about certain topics, how people can contribute to us is, there are a couple ways, and one of them is really interesting and timely, given our conversation, we actually have a vacancy on the Arts Board right now. And we’re looking to get somebody from the southwest on the board. And so we’re just about to roll out a would you consider note to people in La Crosse and other areas of the Southwest. So the governor makes that appointment, right. So we encourage people to apply, and then the governor decides who you’d like to place on the board. But we certainly want to make sure that we’re covering all geography in the state. And then, of course, male/female balance, racial and ethnic balance as best we can. If there are folks with disabilities, we welcome all to serve. So if somebody has an interest in contributing their knowledge, and by the way, it doesn’t mean you have to be an artist, you can be a fine arts patron, somebody who really enjoys the arts, but don’t consider yourself an artist, or an artist, or an arts administrator, just basically, it runs the gamut. So we welcome all to apply.

Brent Hanifl 07:21
It was basically devastating for the arts, you know, COVID, this past 18 months? How did that affect the Wisconsin Arts Board? But also, do you have data about the arts being affected by COVID? This last year and a half?George Sucrose

George T. Tzougros 07:35
So there’s a both end question there. So as far as effect on the Arts Board, from March 16, of 2020, all the way through July 1 of this year, we worked from home. And so we got really good at zoom. And we got really good at first and foremost, we started having conversations with the field, having people come on the zoom and say, tell us what’s going on out there. Let’s think about what’s going on. And how can we help. Sometimes it was just listening. Sometimes it was again, connecting people with resources. So that was the first thing is to sort of scramble the model. Then, of course, we had Cares Act money. So money from the National Endowment for the Arts, that came through to support people, again, nonprofit organizations, with additional dollars that we didn’t have before. Our partners that Arts Midwest brought forward some of those Cares Act dollars, the Department of Administration did a whole separate Cares Act piece, which was really important. And so we tailored our guidelines to make sure that people understood we weren’t going to be holding them to some of the same timelines that we would normally hold them to, because it would have been very detrimental to the field. The answer about what are the numbers Americans For The Arts actually has a weekly report on the numbers for COVID in the nation. And I think the last time I saw it, the impact was $17 billion to the arts in the United States. So I would commend that report to you. They do it every week. And of course, they’re adding things to it. As we look forward to the future, the Arts Board received almost double the amount it got and Cares in the new rescue plan the American Rescue Plan. Our next act is going to be inviting applications for those dollars. And then of course having to go through and adjudicate those grants and, and get the dollars out the door. We have a small but nimble team, so we are total staff of four. And so we have a really good amount of experience in the field. So sitting down and writing new guidelines, with the mind of again being accountable of the citizens and the taxpayers and the legislature, but also making it so the panel’s that review things get their what they need. And that the grantee, the applicant doesn’t have to go through hell and back to write their grant. Because that’s another piece of this puzzle. Sometimes you can get overly bureaucratic and people say, oh, my God, I don’t want to fill out that application. So we’re always struggling to keep it as simple for the grantee, and also accountable for everybody else.

Brent Hanifl 10:30
You know, from interviewing different artists, and things like that over the past 18 months, it seems to be you know, there’s definitely a detriment to it. But it seemed that a lot of these artists and musicians, you know, had something positive come from it. You talked about your kind of small team and kind of maybe reorganizing and using other tools. Was there anything positive by the experience?

George T. Tzougros 10:52
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, for one, I’ll give you an example. Our friends at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation had some money that flowed through in the American Rescue Plan, and also the Cares Act. And it was for small businesses. Well, rarely, prior to this, were the artists considered small businesses. However, this time they were, and that’s going to carry forward from that moment forward. So that’s a major step. You know, up until that point, if you weren’t sort of a big business, or the kind of business, they were used to saying you didn’t count. Now they do count. And that’s, that’s wonderful. I think you’re right to say, the artists found ways to get on zoom and everything else to try to bring their work to the public. The question is, were they able to monetize it? Right? So they did it. They needed to do it, it’s part of who they are, they have to get that out. But were they able to bring dollars back? Maybe not just then, but are they keeping the relationships with their audiences such that maybe down the line, the dollars will flow? That was I think a lot of what happened with arts organizations, they were reaching out to their members, they were providing everything from, you know, storytime from the Milwaukee Art Museum for kids, to concerts that you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to see. But due to COVID. So there was a lot, there’s a lot of positive in it. The challenge, I think, as we face that with positivity is to say, people are still hurting, and the field isn’t back, necessarily, as far because we were the first ones out, right? The arts close down first, they’ll be among the last to get back. And right now with Delta coming on. The question will be, are we going to go backwards again, thinking about that Dane County right now is, of course, going into the masks again. So mask mandate came up? The questions are things like, what does that do for the wind players? Do the wind players get to keep playing or now they’re going to get shut down? Think about the ripple effect of that. What happens to the pit orchestra that of the show or the touring show? If they can’t play their instruments, because you’re telling them they can’t. So there’s more on the horizon. But if we approach it with a positive attitude, and frankly, the resilience of this field is extraordinary, you want to talk about positive, that’s probably the most positive. The resilience of the people in this work.

Brent Hanifl 13:30
Even that just sort of statement is inspiring. Is there anything that’s coming up for your organization or something that you’re really excited for kind of getting out of leaving the past behind us right now?

George T. Tzougros 13:40
Well, you know, for us, 50 years comes in 2023, as I said before. And so, you know, as you said, even at almost 50 years old, people don’t necessarily know the Arts Board exists. And so it’s raising up the visibility of the Arts Board in service to the public, is the first and foremost but making sure that we can document that 50th anniversary in a way that makes folks understand the investment they’ve made in not only the arts board, but in their communities through the arts board. That’s going to be really I think, a wonderful piece.

Brent Hanifl 14:15
So speaking of that, if people want to find out more follow along, you know, maybe get involved, what’s the best avenue to send them to?

George T. Tzougros 14:21
So I think the best place to look is the Arts Boards website artsboardwisconsin.gov. We are also on Facebook and Twitter. And the other thing we do and I should have mentioned, this is one of the projects on a daily basis. We do a thing called the Wisconsin Arts News. And we gather articles from across the state. And we push it out to people not only through email, and it’s a free email service but also on our website etc. We’re proud to link to La Crosse Local, as one of those. It’s always fun to see what you guys have up next that we can include in and have people know about. So that’s another way not only to follow what the Arts Board is doing, but to understand what’s going on across the state. And in the case of artists and organizations, see after opportunities, whether those are for fellowships for artists, or other grants for organizations, or contests, or whatever the case may be. Yeah, the Wisconsin Arts News is another one of those pieces and you can get it directly on our website. And then you could also subscribe to it there as well.

Brent Hanifl 15:31
Cool, so people just head over to artsboard.wisconsin.gov. I appreciate you chatting with me.

George T. Tzougros 15:36
My pleasure.

Amy Gabay 15:41
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