Meet George Tzougros

May 13, 2009

When politicians, pundits and government watchdogs use appropriations for the arts and education in the same sentence as “pork,” I first want to debate the meaning of the term “government pork.”

Then, I want to introduce them to the Wisconsin Arts Board‘s Executive Director, George Tzougros. Who better than he to explain why investing in the arts and arts education pays off  for Wisconsin communities? Now, thanks to Arts Midwest, YouTube and the Portal Wisconsin blog, I can.

So, politicians and pundits, meet George Tzougros.

Next, meet Sue Martinsen. Up north in Ashland, Wis., she has embarked on a decade-long mission of bringing revenue to her community through the arts.  The mural artist and businesswoman says she concocted the idea for an Ashland Mural Walk after watching tourists pull over to view Ashland’s first historic mural (completed in 1998),  take a snapshot, get back inside their cars and speed off to their intended destinations. With the Mural Walk, now twelve murals strong, Ms. Martinsen’s goal is to make Ashland the intended destination.

“I make no bones about it,” she says. “These murals are about getting people to come to Ashland, shop in Ashland, vacation in Ashland, move to Ashland, work in Ashland. It’s all about Ashland. It’s about jobs and commerce.”

The Asaph Whittlesey mural painted by Kelly Meredith and Sue Martinsen was Ashland's first of twelve mural projects.

This mural, the first of 12 painted by Kelly Meredith and Sue Martinsen, depicts Ashland's founder.

Ashland is not alone in recognizing the relationship between art businesses, education and community prosperity. The Web pages at PortalWisconsin.org are filled with stories of arts and culture organizations that serve as economic anchors for their neighborhoods–the sea of dots you see on Mr. Tzougros’ map land in Menomonie, Milwaukee, Hollandale and places too numerous to mention.

Still, with all the talk about bridges to nowhere and three million dollar projectors, even as Americans continue to lose jobs and homes, it’s no wonder many are angry about what they see as government waste. Unprecedented federal spending proposals have ramped up the squabbling, with accusations aimed in every direction. Republicans and Democrats alike promise theirs will be the party to provide greater transparency in the legislative spending process:  “I will make them famous and you will know their names,” John McCain famously said of lawmakers who insert earmarks into federal legislation.

We should know their names, I think. As citizens, we should be frugal, vigilant and skeptical. But let’s not confuse sound investment in communities with wasteful spending. As a statement released by the National Endowment for the Arts reads, “the arts and culture industry is a sector of the economy just like any other with workers who pay taxes, mortgages, rent and contribute in other ways to the economy.”

Remember one person’s pork may be another’s bread and butter.

At the Arts Board Web site, artists and others can find a “Toolkit for the Economic Crisis.” Meanwhile, please watch for more about the ongoing Ashland Mural Walk project in PortalWisconsin.org’s feature section later this month.

–Tammy Kempfert