On May 25th, I joined a group of artists and activists at Bluestockings Cooperative Bookstore in Manhattan for a panel discussion entitled, “Sustaining Arts Labor: Past and Present,” organized by City Lore and Artists Alliance Inc., and sponsored by Creatives Rebuild New York (CRNY). This was one event in a years-long project of research, dialogue, and exhibition organized by Molly Garfinkel and Jodi Waynberg, focused on CETA, a 1970s public service employment program that engaged many artists.
The panel was moderated by Tom Finkelpearl, an artist, curator, museum director, and writer who served as Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs. My fellow panelists were Mei Lum, creator of The W.O.W. Project, a women, queer, and trans-led community initiative using art and activism to grow and protect NYC Chinatown’s creative culture; Ximena Garnica, a Colombia-born multidisciplinary artist, choreographer, director, curator, and teacher based in Brooklyn, cofounder and co-director of LEIMAY and the LEIMAY Ensemble and cofounder of the Cultural Solidarity Fund; and Patrice Walker Powell, who served at the National Endowment for the Arts for three decades, including stints as Deputy Chair of Programs And Partnership and as Acting Chair of the federal agency.
I’m a writer, painter, cultural activist, and consultant. Public service employment has been one of my obsessions for decades. At Bluestockings, I discovered that many of those now interested in the topic hadn’t been acquainted with its history and implications. What you will read below is not an account of the entire event, but focuses on my own offerings, designed to help right that omission.
“Sustaining Arts Labor” evokes two quite different themes. One has to do with our commonwealth as a nation: what social goods, what ways of nourishing culture, ought to be priorities for support? That question has to be understood in relation to our collective well-being, rather than the needs or desires or any one sector. The other theme centers artists as a sector that is often especially challenged when it comes to livelihood. What can help them survive and prosper? The difference between these two themes is key to our topic.
I was asked to represent the past. What can we learn from the past? How might it help to shape the future? I offer a few possible answers and a few questions.
Most meaningful past efforts to employ artists for social good in this country have been undertaken by government, in contrast, for example, to the impressive private sector funding enabling Creatives Rebuild New York (an artist employment program and basic income project funded by large private foundations). They were part of society-wide initiatives that engaged many types of workers, rather than focusing solely on artists, but artists had major roles.
The two largest and longest-lived public service employment programs were the WPA—Works Progress Administration, 1935-1943—a massive federal program that was part of the 1930s New Deal to bring the nation out of the Great Depression; and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), 1973-81, also a federal program that supported job training and public service employment across the workforce. The WPA employed 8.5 million people and was allocated approximately $200 billion in present-day dollars. It covered many sectors including construction and education, and lived side-by-side with comparable efforts in agriculture and other fields. Federal One, the largest WPA initiative, comprised five arts programs in theater, music, writing, visual art, and history.
Artists tend to be resourceful, so wherever they could, starting in San Francisco, arts agencies and organizations found ways to adapt CETA to artists’ employment, usually in community settings. The Cultural Council Foundation’s program New York City was one of the largest. It’s estimated that nationally, up to $300 million a year was invested in arts jobs at CETA’s height in 1980; that’s a little over $1 billion in today’s dollars.
Both programs were open-ended, as opposed to most of the private-sector initiatives we’re seeing today, pitched as filling a limited-term need, generally designed to last three years or less. Neither program was perfect, of course, but they weren’t brought down by their shortcomings. The WPA and CETA were ended by politics, the WPA both because the House Committee on Un-American Activities denounced it as breeding communists and because the lead-up to World War II put an end to the unemployment crisis; and CETA because Ronald Reagan was elected President and the Republican right adamantly opposed government providing such jobs.
Imagine an alternate universe in which publicly funded public service employment is part of ongoing social provision—the way we might think of public libraries or public parks, the way it is in many other countries. Sadly, in this actually existing universe, we are highly unlikely to see a federal program soon, because the right still opposes public service employment, and most liberal or progressive politicians have been unwilling to engage that fight. It’s just not a priority for them.
So my first question is this: what can we learn from the moments both these programs were instituted? How did they get over?
A big part of their popularity was that they included all kinds of work, addressing universal social problems. They greatly benefitted artists. But it wasn’t necessary to get into special pleading for artists as uniquely deserving, which may work in places like New York City, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, but in many more places just starts an argument about why other workers aren’t equally or more deserving, one that gathers force from the snobbery of the establishment art world.
The same dynamics are at play in relation to the basic income grants that are popping up in some cities. Most offer $1,000 or so a month for a year or so to low-income artists. A guaranteed annual wage was first proposed as a universal right and benefit, a way to end punitive means-tested welfare, moving the money into an entitlement anyone can get. But today’s initiatives are special programs for artists, also better received in places with a major arts economy. I don’t know if anyone thinks that these projects will lead to the idea being universalized; everything I’ve seen suggests they are understood as experiments with limited scope. In all my years of monitoring arts philanthropy, I have yet to see such an experiment become permanent. But I’m keeping my eyes open. And asking funders this: what is the plan to institutionalize basic income, to keep it from being another short-term philanthropic fad?
That brings me to my second question: Most of today’s artist-focused programs are privately funded, reflecting foundations’ freedom to invest in their chosen priorities without a major political battle. But that also reflects the scale of their interests and resources compared to the public sector. If private funding is the only viable route, how can funders learn from history to counter the special pleading factor and expand support by combining jobs and income for artists with other types of labor?
From there, the questions pile up. Is there a point in pursuing the public interest in culture, in advocating publicly funded programs if we don’t think they can pass anytime soon? My answer is yes, because if we let the possibility drop as hard and long as seems to be the case today, I can’t imagine what could revive it in future.
Success is conditioned on public support. You can mobilize much more support by saying everybody should have a decent job than you can by saying “These people are very special, and even though you’re out of work, and you’ll never make $65,000 a year (the standard CRNY salary), we want you to be sure that they do.” Ours is the challenge of mobilizing public will, and we’re falling down on that job because people are demoralized by looking at the actual existing government. They don’t believe it’s going to happen, so they’ve given up on formulating the arguments and mounting the campaigns that eventually would resolve it. I look at the union campaigns at Amazon, museums, and elsewhere that are just now beginning to succeed after years of organizing, and that reminds me that persistence matters, that people who don’t get their hopes up will never see their hopes realized. Nothing can be created that has not first been imagined.
There have been a few recent public jobs programs, but not focused on artists, such as clean energy training and potential jobs called for in the Biden administration’s Federal Sustainability Plan. A decade ago, there was a project called MusicanCorps that got bipartisan Congressional support and some enabling legislation, but mostly private funding that petered out. There’s wide acceptance of things like Americorps and the Peace Corps, where mostly young people are employed for a year or two to teach or provide hands-on aid; people often think of them as apprenticeships, but that hasn’t translated into support for artist-focused programs or ongoing employment. There have been a number of public service employment bills introduced in Congress and State legislatures in recent years, some of them during COVID, artist-centered and tied to recovery. But none has gotten out of committee. What would it take to create support for them? People have done the ordinary, expected things—gotten many legislators to cosponsor, used social media to lift up the introduction of bills—but whether demoralization, cynicism, or disinterest is to blame, that question has gotten very little attention.
This isn’t just a problem for arts organizing or for advocates of public service employment, but a cross-cutting political challenge. I think we’ve lost the thread of organizing, which has been supplanted by advocacy. Advocacy is “I’m going to send you a text and you’re going to show up for this demonstration, but I’m not going to see you again, for three months, or a year.” There’s no social fabric being built. We don’t have broad unionization in this country anymore. But if you look back at the point when they were a significant force, unions were deeply involved in the fabric of people’s lives. There was medical care, there were educational programs, there were parties, food banks, whatever people needed, side-by-side with pushing for a living wage and good benefits and working conditions. That was organizing. That’s what we need to do. Artists have skills that are central to weaving social fabric. Many artists have the ability to be catalytic in terms of transformation of consciousness, the ability to perceive the unseen and point it out, and the ability to engage us in sharing stories of how we’re directly affected by issues so we don’t feel alone in facing them. If we think of the ground of organizing as weaving social fabric, there’s a big role for artists.
My final question is major, relevant to most cultural funding. In community-based arts work, the most effective work is long-term, relationship-based, and process-oriented. People recognize that cultural self-determination and cultural development take time and love. There’s a huge body of documentation that shows the value of this work when done in alignment with equity, self-determination, and care. Yet a common problem even before current initiatives were launched is that the work’s truth has to be jammed into frameworks based on short-term funding, frameworks that demand quick and quantifiable results to justify investment. So I end by asking this: what can artists, funders, and everyone else do to move funding frameworks into harmony with the work’s value and essence, which would make it truly sustainable?
Ruthie Foster sings “Fruits of My Labor.”
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