These excerpts are from the “Historical and Theoretical Underpinnings” section of New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development. They are offered as a resource in the dialogue on public service employment for artists as an initiative of the Obama administration. Note that the book was published by New Village Press in November, 2006, so references to “now” pertain to that time.
The New Deal
U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal engendered employment and subsidy programs designed to put people back to work during the Great Depression of the 1930s. From very early on, New Deal programs included arts initiatives. It is said that George Biddle, a signer of the American Artist’s Congress call who had studied in Mexico with the painter Diego Rivera, put the idea of a publicly supported mural program into FDR’s head. The first New Deal art initiative was the Public Works of Art Project, a section of the Civil Works Administration created to help ameliorate unemployment during the bitter winter of 1933-34 by commissioning murals for schools, orphanages, libraries, museums and other public buildings. By 1935, “Federal One” of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was in full swing, with major divisions covering visual art, music, theater, writing and history.
New Deal cultural programs began in response to massive unemployment—with the arts treated as a sector of the work force, like farm or factory labor—the primary aim being to give jobs to artists who could not hope to make a living in the private economy under prevailing conditions. That included writers such as Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, painters such as Jackson Pollack and theater artists such as Burt Lancaster (who was then a circus performer).
But once so much talent had been harnessed to public purposes, visionary leaders such as Hallie Flanagan, head of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), comprehended the potential for social change inherent in these programs. “In an age of terrific implications as to wealth and poverty,” Flanagan wrote, “as to the function of government, as to peace and war, as to the relation of the artist to all these forces, the theatre must grow up. The theatre must become conscious of the implications of the changing social order or the changing social order will ignore and rightly, the implications of the theatre.”(1) To consider a single example of Flanagan’s response to that changing social order, the FTP’s “Living Newspaper” productions treated such controversial and urgent topics as poverty and exploitation (One-Third of A Nation) and the spread of syphilis (Spirochete) before they were closed down in 1939 by the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, a harbinger of the anti-communist witchhunts to come.
Beginning in the 1970s, young community artists in the United States manifested keen interest in the WPA. To cite examples from my own experience, the Bicentennial Arts Biweekly (I served for a time on the editorial group of this newsletter published as part of the countercultural “People’s Bicentennial” in San Francisco, formed to counter the triumphalism of the official U.S. government celebration planned for 1976) began with its second issue in November 1974 to feature stories on the New Deal for artists. The third issue included a memoir of WPA mural painter Robert McChesney, “to see what relevance those years might have for artists today.” A later issue featured WPA muralist Bernard Zakheim, a signatory of the American Artist’s Congress call. A centerpiece of the People’s Theater Festival in September 1981 was a panel of veterans of the Federal Theatre Project. The January 1982 issue of Cultural Democracy was devoted to a survey of New Deal cultural programs on the 50th anniversary of FDR’s election.
In the United States today, community artists continue to be inspired by the New Deal. It established the importance of oral history as a basis for cultural preservation; for instance, most surviving slave narratives were collected through the WPA. It suggested the possibility of a permanent role for artists in community service. As Stuart Davis said at the time, “The artists of America do not look upon the art projects as a temporary stopgap measure, but see in them the beginning of a new and better day for art in this country.”2 This possibility was revived in the 1970s with the advent of CETA (the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, discussed later), the first public service employment program since the 1930s to make extensive use of artists.
(1) Hallie Flanagan, Arena, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1940, pp. 45–46.
CETA and Public Service Employment
In the U.S., the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) has come to be used as shorthand for a whole constellation of public service employment programs created by the Nixon and Ford administrations during times of high unemployment in the mid-1970s. CETA was ended almost overnight when Ronald Reagan took office; but at its height in Fiscal Year 1979, the Department of Labor estimated that US$200 million had been invested in CETA arts jobs in that year alone. CETA was demonized by Reagan-era politicians as a pork-barrel program; the same rhetoric that would later be deployed to condemn putative “welfare queens” was used to evoke the specter of taxpayer-subsidized employees goofing off in painting and theater workshops while having the temerity to call it work. But to community artists, it was indeed work and it was a tremendous boon.
Thanks to a fortuitous combination of personalities and circumstances, San Francisco was one of the first places CETA arts jobs took off. John Kreidler, at this writing, director of Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley, worked during the Nixon administration for the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) where he was responsible for a portfolio of Federal programs involving youth employment and occupational health. He took his OMB-derived knowledge to the San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Program, turning it into jobs for community artists.
For instance, the Bicentennial Arts Biweekly of December 18, 1974, featured an article describing “a queue of 300 unemployed artists—each hoping to get one of 24 new art positions recently made available by the Emergency Employment Act” (a CETA forerunner). An article in the January 9, 1975, edition began, “Unemployed artists are being hired with federal funds in San Francisco in a program reminiscent of the WPA during the ’30s Depression.” At that time, 23 artists had just begun work at the San Francisco Art Commission’s Neighborhood Arts Program and the de Young Museum Art School at the subsistence salary of US$600 a month. Due to open any day were applications for 90 additional jobs for muralists to work in schools and housing projects, performing artists to fill residencies with community organizations and writers to work on oral histories of San Francisco’s neighborhoods.
By June of 1977, many CETA-funded artists were employed not just by city agencies and institutions, but through private nonprofit organizations. The June 1, 1977, issue of the Bicentennial Arts Biweekly noted that 899 proposals had been made by nonprofits to use the 1,500 CETA jobs then available to nongovernmental organizations, many from arts and community organizations.
Similarly, Britain’s Manpower Services Commission devised job creation programs in the 1970s that supported many community arts jobs with pioneering groups such as Free Form Arts Trust and Cultural Partnerships, Ltd. (which have since morphed into other types of arts and media groups); and other nations had their counterparts.
There is scarcely a U.S. community artist who was around in the mid-1970s who did not either hold a CETA job or work directly with someone who did. Most community-based groups in the United States dating from that time were launched on their labor-intensive path with CETA support. The way many community artists speak about the experience evokes Stuart Davis’s comments on the WPA: that the public employment of artists was a foretaste of a “new and better day for art in this country.” But in this era of privatization, in the U.S. as in most industrialized nations, it’s off the menu now.