Last month, Representative George Miller introduced the “Local Jobs for America Act,” H. R. 4812, much-needed legislation “To provide funds to States, units of general local government, and community-based organizations to save and create local jobs through the retention, restoration, or expansion of services needed by local communities, and for other purposes.”
The bill contains a formula for allotting funds to states and local governments, and for community-based organizations to apply for grants from them. Although it’s a long way to actual dollar allocations, the goal is a hundred billion dollars, a million jobs. It also specifies allocations for education, law enforcement and firefighter jobs. It places stringent limits on using the funds for administration or executive positions, prohibits using the funds to displace existing employees, and frees employers from the obligation to retain the positions it funds once the bill’s funding is gone.
It does not contain a single use of the words “art,” “artist,” or “culture.”
The Local Jobs for America Act, now in committee, is a good thing, as Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change summarizes effectively on the Huffington Post. True Majority and other activist groups have petitions going, and in the time it takes to move the bill through committee, there will be many ways to signal support. They are overstating in calling it a new WPA (Works Progress Administration, the New Deal’s massive public employment program of the 1930s), but in illustrating their messages with photos of young men building roads and so on during the Great Depression, they are definitely striking the intended tone.
As with all public support for job creation, if it passes, there will be opportunities for enterprising artists to apply to local governments or through community-based organizations for jobs in cultural development. Whether or not jobs will be allocated for public artists, teaching artists, and community artists will depend on how deeply the allocators understand the public interest in culture and the importance of investing in it—and how much competition there is from states and cities prioritizing jobs for police, firefighters, and other forms of work they consider essential to public infrastructure.
In the 1970s, similar provisions in the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) were used to hire artists. The Department of Labor estimates that at their height, CETA arts jobs amounted to $200 million a year, which would translate into $800 million in today’s dollars.
As I said in my recent talk on a new WPA for WomenArts (you can see text and video here), in both the WPA and CETA,
[T]he arts were treated as just another sector of the workforce, like farm or factory labor. Jobs were made available for men and women who could not make a living in the private economy under prevailing conditions. But once artists filled these jobs, it became evident that employing them was a particularly good public investment, because they could help many objectives for recovery to be actualized. When you give an artist a public service job, you get the individual and social benefits that attach to all job creation: that person pays rent and buys food and other necessities, often helping to support a family, and also putting money into circulation that creates other jobs with similar individual and social benefits.
But with an artist, you also get someone skilled at making beauty and meaning, who invests those gifts in the public good. You get music lessons and performances for kids who would otherwise have far less opportunity to experience the pleasure, magic, self-discipline and sense of accomplishment that entails. You get sites of public memory, such as murals, in communities that otherwise have few opportunities to claim public space and public notice. You get young mothers attending writing workshops that enable them to share their stories and see that their private troubles are actually public issues, enlarging their sense of belonging and cultural citizenship. You get elders and people coping with serious illness, who would otherwise be parked in neglected and depressing environments, coming back to life through caring, creative attention.
I greatly admire George Miller for leading the call for public service jobs, but I am very sorry he has not responded to many entreaties to build something in to his legislation that specifically lists community arts work as a valid form of job creation and community investment. I know that he has seen the videos Peter Coyote, Bill Irwin, and I did for NCHAWS last year explaining the value of past investment and urging more.
So far, it has not been possible to break the frame that holds arts work in a too-tight grip, the old frame that sees it as nice but not necessary, a frill instead of the secret of our survival and resilience. That is why my current focus is on reframing the public interest in culture, and I am giving talks and workshops toward that end wherever I can, and developing a new book for that purpose. We may have to shift the underlying ideas before there’s a realistic hope of new WPA for the arts, something this nation urgently needs.
In the meantime, Representative Miller, here’s a chunk of legislative language that could be added as Title V to H. R. 4812. (I originally crafted it months ago for inclusion in another employment and training bill whose sponsor decided to pass.) It would open for the kind of transformative job creation and community development that artists and cultural activists been ready to contribute at every moment of crisis in U.S. history, placing their gifts at the service of democratic public purpose. Raising the cost of the bill by a mere two percent would create 30,000 jobs for artists working in community.
Having been brave enough to propose this bill, Representative Miller, just a little more social imagination and chutzpah could make it sing. Just a thought, on the 75th anniversary of the WPA, where the largest project of all, and by far the best-remembered, was “Federal One,” creating jobs for artists.
Readers, if you agree, please contact Representative Miller and Education and Labor Committee members to let them know.
TITLE V–COMMUNITY CULTURAL DEVELOPMENT JOBS
For necessary expenses for a Community Cultural Development Job Fund, in addition to the amount appropriated under Sec. 111, $2,000,000,000 shall be appropriated for States, units of general local government, and community-based organizations to save and create local jobs through the retention, restoration, or expansion of community cultural development services needed by local communities. The provisions of Sec. 101. through Sec. 112 shall apply.
Such services may include the following:
(a) Collaborations between visual artist-organizers (including muralists, sculptors, photographers and other visual artists) and members of a neighborhood or other community to jointly create a mural, park, sculptural installation, exhibition, publication, Web site or other public art project;
(b) Collaborations between performing artist-organizers (including dancers, actors, musicians, choreographers, composers, directors and other skilled performing arts personnel) and members of a neighborhood or other community to jointly create a play, dance, concert, recording, series of events or other performing art project;
(c) Collaborations between literary artist-organizers (including poets, fiction writers, non-fiction writers and other literary artists) and members of a neighborhood or other community to jointly create a publication, Web site or other literary art project;
(d) Collaborations between media artist-organizers (including film and video producers, multimedia producers and other media artists) and members of a neighborhood or other community to jointly create a film, video, Web site, installation or other media arts project; and
(e) Participatory learning experiences facilitated by teaching artists in any or all of the arts media and practices listed in (a) through (d).