by Jennifer Smith, PortalWisconsin.org
Wisconsin's Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton sees art not only as a matter of beauty or talent, but also as a means of engaging with society and social issues. It's a view shared by many in the art worldbut there are probably few Lieutenant Governors who have such a clearly articulated vision for the arts.
Lawton has made the arts a vital part of her work as Lieutenant Governor for both their intrinsic aesthetic value and for the ways in which they dovetail with two of her office's main responsibilities: economic development and civic engagement.
Says Lawton, "I see art as provocative in our political conversation." She adds, "It's important to a healthy democracy, part of the civic infrastructure. Art provides a way to express new or difficult ideas when language doesn't suffice."
The Lieutenant Governor's commitment to the arts is not merely abstract; she has launched a series of rotating exhibitions in her office that are open to the public. They typically last six to eight weeks, and many thematic shows are timed to coincide with special events or holidays. Says Lawton, "This is a wonderful gallery space to showcase Wisconsin artists. I get a lot of traffic through this office." Her visitors often comment on the works hanging on the walls of her office which, like the rest of the Capitol, has been elegantly restored. (View a short streaming video about the Capitol restoration.)
For Wisconsin artists, the exhibitions have provided a prestigious opportunity for visibility. Comments Lawton, "It's interesting and very encouraging, the exposure that they've had." Many state Supreme Court justices and legislators are regulars at the openings that she hosts. The public is also welcome to stop by and view the exhibitions; visitors can enter Lawton's front offices whenever they are open, and can view her personal office whenever it is not being used for a meeting.
The themes and mediums of the exhibitions have varied. A November 2003 show highlighted the work of Oconomowoc artist Anthony Stencel. Titled "A Tribute to the Wisconsin Army National Guard," the show was scheduled to run during Veterans' Day.
Stencel's work takes a historic look at the Guard, from the Civil War era to current operations. Part of what makes his work so compelling is that is he able to echo the artistic styles of the periods he depicts. The artist himself is a veteran; he was a U.S. Army sergeant and illustrator with the 64th RAOC/Wisconsin National Guard for nine years.
During December 2003, Lawton's office is displaying the work of Madison photographer Kathryn H. Lederhause, whose subject is the architecture of the capital city.
The cost of the exhibition program is kept at a bare minimum, since the artists are not paid; rather, Lawton says, "This is done in collaboration with the artists and owes to their generosity."
Lawton's role in promoting the arts extends beyond these exhibitions, however. She also serves as chair of the Wisconsin Arts Board, the first Lieutenant Governor to act in this capacity. She enjoys that role since it meshes not only with her personal interest in the arts, but her official duties in promoting economic growth and engagement in public life. "The work I do at the Wisconsin Arts Board is critical in both of these regards," she says. "Arts and culture are not frills in our life that can be pushed to the side when money and time are tight." Such claims are supported by recent research by authors like Richard Florida ("The Rise of the Creative Class") and groups such as Americans for the Arts, which prepared the report "Arts & Economic Prosperity: The Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts Organizations and Their Audiences."
Indeed, when Lieutenant Governor Lawton speaks of the "wealth of talent" among Badger State artists, the phrase has a fortuitous double meaning. Not only is a strong arts climate good for Wisconsin's economic health, it presents a wonderful array of chances for the publicyoung and old, urban and ruralto engage with works of art that bring them enjoyment and meaning.