At a time when certain members of Congress are speaking in opposition to including a mere $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts in the $850 billion stimulus, some of us have the audacity to suggest that they do more. Thousands have signed a petition asking that one percent of the stimulus package be spent on the arts.
Arts organizations in the United States employ more than 6 million people; most of these institutions are struggling in this economy. Many more artists are self-employed. Like other sectors of the economy, the arts are in peril.
Let us learn from history. The last time the US economy plunged into depression, the administration heard the pleas of unemployed artists. Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to alleviate unemployment during the Great Depression. The WPA created jobs for more 40,000 artists, musicians, writers and theater workers who were paid a living wage to create public works of art.
WPA writers collected folklore, oral histories and ethnographies, and wrote everything from children’s books to tour guides for states, cities and roadways. WPA musicians provided music classes to low-income people. Federal Music Project ensembles, chamber groups, bands and orchestras offered free performances to millions of people. Visual artists created murals in public spaces, as well as countless sculptures, paintings and prints. The Federal Theatre Project introduced many new audiences to theater.
The WPA arts programs were an experiment in open society. In a time of crisis, immigrants and the children of immigrants took part in artistic dialogue, as performers or audience members, as readers or musicians, as writers conducting interviews or as former slaves asked to tell their stories. Jobs were created and hunger was alleviated, but most important, a conversation took place among all walks of life about pressing social issues and how to solve them more equitably.
The arts projects were always a target for social critics. Support for the program ended in the 1940s when the government shifted WPA monies into the war effort. In the 1950s, the chilling effect of the House Un-American Activities Committee communist witch hunts put many writers, artists and performers on trial. This country did not get another federal program for the arts until the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the 1960s.
Some Republicans have taken aim at inclusion of the arts in the stimulus package. Support for cultural workers is “pork”; artists are “elitist.” And yet, the accessibility of the arts to the public is largely an issue of funding. Who can afford to take their family to a concert or theater production? Why should only wealthy school districts have access to arts and music programs?
Without public funding, the arts are produced on behalf of elite interests, which is another kind of censorship. A democratic and free society is exactly the kind that needs public art. While it’s true that the battle over censorship is never ending, art by necessity pushes at boundaries. It challenges and often offends. It is at these edges and boundaries where our minds are stretched and democratic conversation begins.
Our new president recognizes the value of the arts. His platform for the arts is ambitious and, in addition to restoration of NEA funding, includes an expansion of partnerships between schools and arts organizations and creation of an “Artists Corps” of young artists trained to work in low-income schools and their communities. We support these ideas, as well as the promotion of cultural diplomacy and a national healthcare plan, and suggest that now is the time to recognize the power of the arts to creatively engage the public at this moment when we need imagination and courage most.
How would a New Deal for the arts work this time? We support the idea of Bill Ivey, head of the arts/culture Obama transition team, to create a secretary-level post for culture and the arts; indeed, the United States and Germany are the only wealthy nations without a minister or secretary of culture. The new secretary of arts and culture could then help allocate funds on a much grander scale than simply a small new infusion for the national endowments for the arts and the humanities.
Educational institutions, especially public school systems in low-income communities, could be supported to hire artists and writers for in-residence positions. All of the schools about to be refurbished could sport new murals created by local artists. Artists could be employed creating art in parks, metro stations, airports and other public spaces. Every major city and rural community should have access to concert series, public theater programs and readings in their major parks and community spaces, especially in times of economic hardship. Let’s enliven literacy by bringing poets and writers into the workplace for readings.
Fellowships would allow low-income individuals to enroll in arts and writing programs. Many older people wish to return to school to pursue the arts but have no money for tuition. Money should be set aside to develop creative writing programs at minority and historically black colleges; currently, no creative writing program exists at any black college. This would create teaching jobs for many African-American authors.
Let’s not forget our great public commons: the library. We can support library infrastructure and provide writer- and artist-in-residence programs for our libraries, especially those in low-income communities. And let us support the preservation of literary archives across the country. Many collections need to interface with modern technology; staff needs to be hired at various institutions. We cannot afford to lose our past.
Building on the WPA oral history program, let’s document US literary and cultural history on a city, state and national level, in part with written interviews, in part through film.
Let’s employ artists as cultural diplomats as we reinvent our place in the world. American artists could be employed overseas for three- to six-month periods, with an emphasis on countries with which the United States has been at odds. They would serve as cultural ambassadors and give lectures and performances. Visiting artists in the United States could likewise enliven our understanding of other cultures.
Author Michael Chabon put it well: “America’s artists are the guardians of the spirit of questioning, of innovation, of reaching across the barriers that fence us off from our neighbors, from our allies and adversaries, from the six billion other people with whom we share this dark and dazzling world.”