When Art Was a Stimulus Package: My Argument for a Reprise

Imaginary Headline, 1934: “Over 3,000 un/under-employed American artists put to work in last six months. Direct aid recipients produce 15,000 unique works of public art to enliven spirits and landscapes of America. Cost: a mere 1.3 million dollars with 90% of budget to artist wages. Project begun and ended on time! Successful government stimulus package! Keeping people off breadlines!”

Real Headline, 2010: “Obama’s budget proposals for arts institutions largely hold flat” ( February 2, 2010 Washington Post)


As we’ve watched the glacial pace of trickle-down stimulus monies making their way into the pockets of hungry and out of work Americans in the past year and as we’ve more recently seen the stagnation and cuts for arts funding in the President’s proposed 2011 budget it strikes me that as a nation we would do well to take some guidance from that “other” really bad economic moment in our nation’s not-so-distant past: The Great Depression. Yup, there are many lessons to be learned and many a comparison to make between the “Depression” and what so many seem to be calling a “really bad recession” (what, precisely is the difference if you are out of work? Please, my economist friends…help!)…but what strikes me the most is the degree to which stimulus money and revamped budgets have trended towards all things pecuniary and away from things aesthetic, as though the two were mutually exclusive.

Such a misunderstanding is a bit surprising given our new administration’s general arts-friendliness—at least rhetorically. But it makes perfect sense in light of nearly a generation of publically supported federal efforts (in education policy and elsewhere) to focus on the quantifiable and the economically. “Measuring” outcomes of arts funding is a slippery thing and often harder to share with funders and voters than the number of schools that have been “turned around,” the number of miles of asphalt laid or number of mortgages saved. Furthermore, for much of American history artists and cultural workers were viewed as “extras,” art was something that many celebrated (and not-so-celebrated) artists in the 18th and 19th centuries did in addition to their “day jobs.”

So it might seem only natural that artists and other cultural workers are feeling the effects of this recession particularly hard. With the notable exceptions of the Smithsonian, the Holocaust Museum and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, most major arts/culture organizations connected to or supported by the federal government are expecting decreases in their upcoming budgets according to the proposed 2011 federal budget made public in early February. Cuts range from the somewhat modest two million dollar decrease for the Kennedy Center to the more than 50% cut in funding to the Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs, which funds local D.C. cultural organizations. The NEA and NEH, two of the nation’s leading grant-making organizations (fueling local and regional arts & humanities projects across the nation) saw their funding stay relatively stagnant which, given rising costs elsewhere, will be felt as a loss. [The New York Times has created a great graphic of the federal expenditures in different areas as percentages of the total 2011 proposed budget. The size of the squares and their colors denote the relative percentage of the federal budget and the change in funding over 2010, respectively.]

So how can this apparent divide be bridged–help lift the nation out of an economic downturn and support the arts? Is it possible? Yes. Here is where the lessons of the federal government under Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the mist of the Depression of the 30s are instructive. One of the FIRST things that Roosevelt’s administration did in the dark, dark days of 1933 was to embolden Harry Hopkins, lead administrator on relief efforts, to find ways to put Americans back to work—lots of Americans. And as a result, Hopkins quickly and efficiently (sans email, Twitter, Facebook and the like) identified and put to work not only unemployed laborers but thousands of unemployed artists who, as American citizens suffering from the poverty of the time, were seen as workers first and artists second. The project he funded and to which I refer—led by Henry Bruce—was the PWAP (Public Works of Art Project) and it was part of the Civil Works Administration (CWA) whose sole goal was to provide unemployed Americans with public service jobs in the bitter winter of 1933-34. Thus the PWAP was a work relief direct employment program that provided work for those with artistic skills.

Artists/workers had to be “competent” in their media (they had a needed skill) and had to be in financial need. They were paid a regular wage for embellishing public buildings across the nation organized and led by regional directors (Grant Wood served in this capacity in the Midwest). Artists were encouraged to represent the “American Scene” and the works they produced reflect the vast range of regional and local sights, people, industries, landscapes & histories present in this multifaceted and diverse nation. The works were owned by the US government and were displayed everywhere in public buildings; 32 were even hung in the White House.

Over time there would be other New Deal programs to assist artists, but what wasparticularly noteworthy about the PWAP were its relatively low cost, its rapid scale-up, and the demographics of those it helped. This project did not cost the US taxpayers much in relative terms but the return on the investment was immense; by employing artists and asking them to help capture and define “The American Scene,” the Roosevelt administration made an important investment in the cultural history of the United States. In addition, the project kept the arts alive in a dark time and it also supported many young artists and first generation immigrant artists while cultivating the art of African American as well as white artists, female as well as male…thereby ensuring a future for many beginning artists and bringing to life some of the most important and/or well-known American paintings of the 1930s including those by Earle Richardson (“Employment of Negroes in Agriculture” shown here) and Morris Kantor (“Baseball at Night” also shown here). The famous Coit Tower murals in San Francisco were also funded through this program.

The greatness and range of these PWAP works was recently on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in a fantastic exhibit of paintings produced during the program’s short tenure. The exhibit was titled “1934: A New Deal for Artists” (February 27, 2009 – January 3, 2010) and while no set of works is “representative” of the project as a whole, a sense of the scope of the PWAP–thematically and formally–can be seen in the selection of some of my exhibit favorites shown here. And remember, all of this was produced and paperwork completed within six months in the winter/spring of 1933-34! (For a slideshow of the exhibit and an interactive map showing the geographic distribution of the works click here).

But to get back to my original conundrum: How to link the arts today to large-scale social and economic recovery?

The PWAP did not just help the individual artist/workers who were on the government payroll. Nor did it simply add to the art collections of the US government. Part of the hope of this project (as with many of the New Deal arts-related programs) was that it would produce works of art that could, by their public presence, revive and renew and assist in the emotional/spiritual recovery of the American mind during the troubling years of the 1930s. And it is in this regard that Hopkins and Bruce and the Roosevelt administration can be seen as leaders, even visionaries. Roosevelt believed that curing the Great Depression would require addressing the economy for sure, but he recognized that it would also require addressing and healing the American spirit. All involved in the PWAP ran with and promoted the idea that art–especially public art–was an essential part of restoring, uplifting and enlivening the spirits of America and Americans in a challenging time. The works produced represented and reflected the diverse, multicultural, pluralistic lives and experiences that made up the past and the present–and in so doing helped Americans imagine a future.

I can hear some of the criticism now “The government will do anything to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the people.” But lest we too easily dismiss Depression-era arts programs as mere attempts at organizing a pep rally while so many suffer, it is worth noting the way in which this idea (public art=civic pride and rejuvenation) was ahead of its time. After all, for the past decade scholars in the field of the Creative Economy have been making the very same case. While arts organizations have long articulated the central role that the arts (especially public arts) can and do play in civic life, so too have people like the celebrated creative economy promoter Richard Florida. Florida has repeatedly highlighted public art as a factor in the economic and social success of cities and communities in this new millennium. In a recent article in Public Art Review he makes clear that successful cities–those which are dynamic and desirable–need public art for “Public art can… help highlight a community’s soul, history, and uniqueness. An authentic place offers to us characteristics by which we can define ourselves, and a physical and figurative space in which to live…Art, especially public art, helps to give a community an identity.” Furthermore, he makes a direct link between public art and economic viability. Investments in the arts, he says, can be a more cost effective way of renewing a city than a host of more expensive projects. He does not waver on this point. Not only does more art entice creative, innovative people to a city but “Investment in the arts (galleries, public arts, common spaces, etc.) provides public leaders with a viable alternative to the large capital investments such as stadiums, convention centers, and so on.”

So what are artists to do? And what are cities—and our nation—so badly hit in this economy, to do?

Some local and statewide arts organizations (notably the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Artist’s Fellowships) are still offering direct funding to individual artists. And there is some hope for the success of the new “Our Town” initiative by the NEA which aims to use the arts to revitalize communities (although program funding in the coming year may be at the expense of other projects). But what if artists did not have to wait for funding from agencies that are themselves being threatened? What if some of the stimulus funds could go—based on need, yes—directly to artists as well as to construction workers. Would we not, in the process, be addressing two concerns at once: 1) keeping American citizens employed and therefore consuming (I know, I know, this is the dark underbelly here) AND 2) creating public art works that could help revitalize, encourage and enliven the spirits and places of American community. I wonder how that might work? If the 1930s programs are any indication the answer is “Quite well, thank you!”

One final thought: In the forward to the exhibit catalog that accompanied the exhibit “1934: A New Deal for Artists”, Elizabeth Broun reminds us thatA glance back to the 1930s shows that many New Deal programs were innovative, even radical, in treating artists, writers, and playwrights as workers deserving of support.” Perhaps (although I know “radical” is not in vogue at the moment) the 2010s might try to match the “radicalism” of the 1930s and support the arts at a fraction of the rate we are supporting the banks.

Paintings, top to bottom:

Ross Dickinson “Valley Farms,” 1934

Earl Richardson “Employment of Negroes in Agriculture,” 1934

E. Martin Hennings, “Homeward Bound,” 1933-34

Author: Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello

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