David and Art - A New Deal for Artist, pt.1

May 18, 2020

Artists are not some kind of abstraction in our culture.  They are real people with real concerns.  It’s good for governments to remember that.

I have to admit, that when I taught the Great Depression this semester, both I and many of my students were struck by the parallels to today. Anyone who knows about American history in the 1930s knows the rough outline. And today, again, when we turn on the news or listen to the radio we’re met by headlines like an unemployment number that’s the highest it’s been since Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated.  Right now, the federal government is enacting economic assistance programs of the sort that were 

pioneered by the Roosevelt administration from 1933 on.  Many of my students in writing responses to our discussion of the Great Depression picked up on the parallels pretty clearly.  It always delights me to see students make connections and discoveries that are as vivid to them as today’s headlines, even if those headlines are not the stuff of good news.

One of the things I talked about with my classes in conjunction with New Deal jobs programs, like the “Works Progress Administration,” was the support for working artists that was incorporated into many of these programs, and how much art was created by them.  Even if they’d heard of the WPA, most of my students didn’t have a clue it contained a cultural component.

A program called the Public Works of Art Project, which ran from 1933 through 1934 was followed by a bigger program within the WPA called the Federal Art Project.  Among other things it established 100 community art centers around the country (the majority of which were not in big cities).  It commissioned a huge body of public art everywhere.  And it provided work for 10,000 artists.  Artists who worked in the program were paid weekly wages.

It’s true perhaps that these initiatives aren’t as well-known as the heavy construction programs of the CCC or the TVA, but in fact they were closely related. They fit right with them actually.  The thought in the Roosevelt administration was that if you’re going to build things like post offices and other public buildings, they ought to have art in them. 

Federal assistance to artists was based on the assumption that artists were people too.  People who needed work in their field.  And moreover, people who uniquely contribute something substantive to American society. The cultural goal behind the aid was for these works to reach as many Americans as possible. 1,400 murals were painted just in post offices alone by New Deal-supported artists in 1,300 different cities and towns.  Many of them still exist today.  That’s getting a good return on investment.

It’s good news that the emergency assistance programs that are in play now in our current crisis have not overlooked the importance of art and culture to who we are and what we value.  More on this next week.