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David and Art - A New Deal for Artist, pt. 2

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

Whether dancers, painters, or sax players, artists are a central part of American society.  When economic trouble hits, it’s good if the rest of us remember that.

Last week I mentioned that within the relief and recovery programs of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression, there were measures specifically designed to help artists who needed relief as much as any American worker.  In helping artists, these programs also nourished American culture.

When you look over the roster of artists who were involved with the New Deal, you’ll find some names you’ve likely heard of.  People like Jackson Pollock, Marsden Hartley, Diego Rivera, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, John Sloan, Stuart Davis, and  

Jacob Lawrence, all took part in one or more of the Federal Art Projects.  For some of them the assistance came toward the end of productive careers; for others, it was the thing that gave them a boost at the beginning.

Today with social distancing measures still in place, galleries, museums, art fairs, and music venues large and small have all had to close their doors for months now.  The artists who depend on these outlets for their survival have been hit hard, and the entire arts ecosystem is at risk.

Back in March, Congress passed a $2 trillion package called the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” and it contains some provisions to help American artists and arts organizations weather the economic disaster caused by the pandemic.  Within that $2 trillion was $75 million for the arts.  (That’s 0.00375% of the total in case you’re curious.)

The money is being distributed through the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the way it should be.  No one in the federal government knows more about the needs of the national art scene and the way arts funding works than does the staff at the NEA, many of whom have worked there for years through multiple presidential administrations.  The Endowment distributed nearly half of the money directly to state and regional arts agencies by the end of April, and those organizations will themselves channel it on down to the local level. 

The Texas Commission on the Arts, for example, received $668,500 in emergency funds to distribute throughout the state.  That money has to go a long way.  It designated 500 arts organizations in the state to receive help.  Artists in Texas are also eligible for emergency grants from the Mid-America Arts Alliance.

The rest of the aid will be distributed by the Endowment itself via direct grants to nonprofits all across the US.  The money can be used for salary support for critical positions.  It can be used for fees owed to artists and other personnel.  And this money, because it’s emergency funds, can even be used for facilities costs such as rent and utilities.

The arts are a crucial part of who we are and one of the central elements that help us flourish as humans.  Tending to them now as best we can will help them survive in the future.

David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.