An artist exposes art’s value

This shutdown could result in a ‘local, cultural renaissance,’ says Jenie Gao, but basic needs for a side-stepped sector need to come first.
Jenie Gao in front of art
Photo by Latasia Dhami

By Jenie Gao

As a full-time arts entrepreneur, I am a statistical anomaly. I am a woman of color from a working-class immigrant family and an unlikely candidate to have built a successful arts business, when only 1% of artists make it full time. Like everyone, I’m nervous. With so many things vying for our attention, can arts and culture workers survive this? My path to this life has taught me the importance of the unlikely story, and about the value of the arts in unprecedented times. Here’s what I see in the wake of this pandemic.

Wisconsin is already 50th in the nation for arts funding, and the U.S. is last among developed nations. In 2011, the Walker administration slashed the state arts budget by two-thirds. Wisconsin’s annual arts budget is $790,000, or 14 cents per person. In the last nine years, we have neither restored previous funding nor kept up with inflation.

This economic crisis will make it harder to convince people that arts funding matters. But anyone who has studied even the highlight reel of history knows that destroying art and books usually spells the end of civilization. Paltry support has put the arts industry at a disadvantage during good times and on the brink of collapse during crises.

Then there’s the issue of representation. In 1989, the Guerrilla Girls created their iconic poster asking, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.”

Pieces by women artists still make up only 13% of the artwork in U.S. museum collections. Art by women of color makes up less than half of 1% of U.S. museum collections, even though we are 18% of the population (we have yet to catch up to where white women were in the 1980s). This conversation finally became mainstream in 2019. But as museums lay off their staff, it’s unlikely that they will be buying art from women of color anytime soon. We value the people we represent. If we don’t see diverse people in our art, our system won’t see them either.

If this all sounds like bad news, understand that none of it is news. Public infrastructure was important before the crisis. Fair pay for labor was important before the crisis. Cultural representation was important before the crisis. All of this was true before the crisis.

The only way out is to fix these issues now. A crisis is an opportunity for a correction.

The federal response to COVID-19 has fallen short, so it will be up to state and local governments to define priorities. When I applied for a Small Business Administration loan, art businesses were not listed as a category. We need local government to do better — to treat the arts as equal to other industries. We need art to be on every economic agenda, including those of state legislatures and of municipalities’ community and economic development teams. The states and municipalities that protect arts and culture will be the visionaries on the other side of this.

In lieu of public infrastructure, arts nonprofits have become the scaffolding for artists’ careers. But apart from token $100 honorariums, most organizations don’t include artists’ pay as a part of their budgets. We need nonprofit leaders to use this crisis for a paradigm shift and to be the visionary model of diverse, creative labor for the for-profit sector. Maybe it’s a hard sell to tell arts nonprofits that are losing money to have artists’ pay and representation at the top of their agendas. But if not now, when? Cash is king during a recession, and cash needs to make it into the hands of laborers. Nonprofits exist to close social gaps. The organizations that use this time to redefine themselves, and include the well-being of laborers at the core of that definition, will be the frontrunners in an economy that works better for everyone.

Finally, we have to overcome “busy culture,” even in our search for solutions. Tip jars are a fine bandage, but they are no more the solution than GoFundMe is a replacement for affordable health care. We need the leaders in our public sector, our businesses and our nonprofits to work together to stabilize the industry and alleviate the pressure on individuals to make up the difference.

The gift that could come from a shutdown is that suddenly a lot of people will have space and time. With everything canceled, what if this could be our local, cultural renaissance? This will only happen if we relieve people of the urgency to take care of their basic needs. If we can reclaim our time and space, we can turn a crisis into a chance to rebuild a society as resilient as it is visionary.

Jenie Gao is a full-time artist, creative director and entrepreneur based in Madison. She consults organizations on the landmark ideas that define who we are. Learn more about her work at