A New WPA Arts Program?

In her December 19, 2008, article for the New York Times, After a Capitalist W.P.A., What Next?, Roberta Smith opined about the impact the severe economic downturn is having on the arts community. “What will the art world be like a year from now?” she asked rhetorically, before informing us that things will essentially remain the same, only “smaller, leaner and, many assume, cleaner.” That is little more than wishful thinking on Ms. Smith’s part, seeing as how the recent financial collapse is spiraling into a full-blown depression. But it is the following passage from Smith’s article that I found distressing:

“(….) the booming art market of the past seven or eight years has amounted to an immense capitalist-driven Works Progress Administration. As with the real W.P.A., it enabled all kinds of artists to support themselves while making art, much of which was forgettable. It became relatively easy to be an artist or dealer. Now things will be different. We’re on the brink of a new phase, teetering between dread and a perverse kind of excitement. A winnowing will undoubtedly begin.”

How does one even begin to argue against the nonsense put forward in such a statement? It defies all rational thought to equate the WPA of the Great Depression era with those layers of the contemporary art world who have been drunk on cash and celebrity - a money cult if there ever was one. And the assertion that it has been “relatively easy to be an artist or dealer” these last eight years is similarly preposterous. In discussing the possibility of a new Federal Arts Project like the WPA, what is required at this juncture is not flippant banter but thought-provoking analysis and discussion.

WPA Poster - 1936

[ Shall The Artist Survive? Artist/Designer unknown. 1936 poster produced by the WPA’s Federal Art Project, announcing a forumn on the status of artists during the Great Depression. FAP Director Holger Cahill was a featured speaker at the free event. Poster from the Library of Congress collection. ]

Until just recently the American arts community has mostly ignored the WPA arts programs - now it is time to open the books and study our past in order to clear a way to our future. A good starting point to learn about WPA arts programs is Lincoln Cushing’s outstanding essay, Privatising the Commons: The Commodification of New Deal Public Art, written for the AIGA website. Cushing’s article reads like a basic primer on the WPA arts programs, but his scholarship is impeccable. Here is an excerpt:

“The deliberately public nature of WPA was a grand experiment, not just in putting artists to work, but in the democratization of the arts themselves. Fine artists worked alongside communities all over the country, reimaging the iconography of the egalitarian principles that this country believes it was founded upon. The process was participatory and inclusive, the results free to the public.”

In 1935 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration. Federal Project Number One, or simply Federal One, was the arts program component of the WPA. It consisted of five key divisions, each with its own director - the Federal Art Project (FAP), the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers Project, the Federal Music Project, and the Historical Records Survey. After only one year in existence, Federal One had employed around 40,000 artists across the United States.

WPA Poster by artist Richard Floethe

[ Artist Richard Floethe designed this silk-screen print for an "Exhibition of Oil Paintings by Artists in the Easel Division of the W.P.A. Federal Art Project." The exhibit was held at the WPA’s Federal Art Project Gallery in New York City. Year unknown. Poster from the Library of Congress collection.]

The FAP alone employed 5,300 visual artists at its zenith in 1936, and the artists working under FAP’s Director Holger Cahill were engaged in a number of endeavors. FAP oversaw the creation of more than 2,500 murals in schools, workplaces, libraries, hospitals and other public locations. It directed a painting division where professionals created some 108,000 easel paintings documenting all aspects of American life. FAP ran a prolific poster division that created around 240,000 prints. There were many talented artists employed by FAP, and quite a number of them went on to become notables, such as Thomas Hart Benton, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Jacob Lawrence, Jackson Pollock, Ben Shahn, John Sloan, Raphael Soyer, Grant Wood, and Ivan Albright.

Will the Obama administration offer even a substantially scaled-down WPA-like arts program for today, let alone provide any significant budget increases for already existing arts programs? The only chance for that will come if and when consistent demands are made upon him to do so. On January 8, 2009, President-elect Obama gave a major speech on his economic stimulus plan, the so-called American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan. In his address Obama said the following: “And as I announced yesterday, we will launch an unprecedented effort to eliminate unwise and unnecessary spending… We cannot have a solid recovery if our people and our businesses don’t have confidence that we’re getting our fiscal house in order.” Obama made clear that his economic stimulus package was “not just another public works program”, insisting that his objective “is not to create a slew of new government programs, but a foundation for long-term economic growth.”

WPA Poster

[ An anonymous artist depicted a raised mailed fist in this silk-screen poster designed for the Federal Art Project. The print announced a city wide forum in Des Moines, Iowa, on the subject of "Civil Liberties in War Times." The featured speaker at the event was Max Lerner. Year unknown. Poster from the Library of Congress collection.]

Every artist and arts supporter knows that funding for the arts, whether on the federal, state, or local level, is always the first thing to be axed from government budgets, usually in the erroneous belief that such monies are being spent unwisely and unnecessarily. Based on the above comments, I have no confidence that Obama will substantially increase arts funding or expand arts programs. In a speech delivered in 1939, FAP’s Director Holger Cahill made the following observations regarding Federal Project Number One:

“The Project has discovered that such a simple matter as finding employment for the artist in his hometown has been of the greatest importance. It has, for one thing, helped to stem the cultural erosion which in the past two decades has drawn most of America’s art talent to a few large cities. It has brought the artist closer to the interests of a public which needs him, and which is now learning to understand him. And it has made the artist more responsive to the inspiration of the country, and through this the artist is bringing every aspect of American life into the currency of art.”

Contemporary artists should pay close attention to Cahill’s words, especially his insistence that the FAP “brought the artist closer to the interests of a public which needs him.” There was a time when American artists enthusiastically integrated themselves into the broad currents of U.S. society, taking inspiration from the people and working hard to incorporate art into daily life. That is largely the legacy of Federal Project Number One. Detractors will no doubt call me old-fashioned, but I think that is a spirit to recapture.

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