Programs that paid thousands of artists and writers comprised one of the most creative aspects of the New Deal. Thousands received relatively small outlays of funds for their work, and the nation’s artistic heritage was greatly enhanced. The same kind of initiative is needed today.
Congress needs to recommend that the government spend one percent of the stimulus plan on arts and culture (that would mean $6 billion if the final package is $600 billion), building on the New Deal’s Federal Art Project and the Federal Writers Project. Below, we offer 11 ideas on how the money could be spent. We also support ideas that link different parts of the stimulus package; for example, new murals and sculptures could adorn the new schools that will be built.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created in 1935 to bring jobs to those who had become unemployed or underemployed during the Great Depression. Since artists and writers were also hit by the economic hard times, two divisions of the WPA were assigned the task of creating suitable jobs for such people — jobs that would not only take advantage of these individuals’ talents, but would also serve to enrich America’s cultural heritage and embellish public spaces. The grouping of the largest of these programs is collectively known as the “Federal Project Number One.” Included in this collective were the Federal Writers’ Project, the Historical Records Survey, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Music Project, and the Federal Art Project. All of these programs were divisions of the Works Progress Administration. Out of the approximately $4.8 billion allocated to the Works Progress Administration, Congress permitted $27 million to fund the Federal Project Number One projects.
The Federal Art Project, along with several other WPA-backed programs, created well over 5,000 jobs for American artists. These artists created over 2,500 murals, over 17,700 sculptures, 108,000 paintings, and 240,000 prints. The project’s legacy still lives on, since it supported artists like Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, and many other abstract expressionists whose work helped shift the most dynamic center of the art world to shift from its traditional location in Europe to where it now resides, in the largest cities of the United States.
The Federal Writers’ Project created over 6,600 jobs for writers, editors, researchers, and many others who exemplified a given level of literary expertise. Established on July 27, 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) operated under journalist and theatrical producer Henry Alsberg, and later John D. Newsome, compiling local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, children’s books and other works. These writers created over 1,200 books and pamphlets, and they produced some of the first U.S. guides for states, major cities, and roadways. In addition, the FWP was responsible for recording folklore, oral histories, and, most notably, the 2,300 plus first-person accounts of slavery that now exist as a collection in the Library of Congress. As with the Federal Art Project, the FWP’s contributions to American literature were both significant and long-lasting, giving authors like Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck, Sterling Brown, and many others the opportunity to continue their work in a time of difficult economic circumstances.
Here are some of the ways the funds could be used:
1. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH): Increase funding for the NEA and NEH. Increase the staff at both agencies. Maintain many of the new NEA projects started by Dana Gioia, for example: The Big Read and Operation Homecoming.
2. Archives: Support the preservation of literary archives across the country. Many collections need to interface with modern technology; staff needs to be hired at various institutions. We don’t want to lose our past.
3. A Secretary-level post for Culture/Arts: We support the idea of Bill Ivey, former NEA Chair under President Bill Clinton, and head of the arts/culture Obama Transition Team for a Secretary level post for Culture/Arts. Indeed, the United States and Germany are the only wealthy nations without a Minister or Secretary of Culture. Ivey’s initiative involves the refocus and revitalization of the extant Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, which could be a better interim and/or long-term mechanism for new arts and culture policies.
4. Arts Education: Educational institutions, especially public school systems in low-income and underserved communities, would hire artists and writers. Funds would be made available for artist and writer-in-residence positions.
5. Arts in Public Spaces: Support for the arts in public places; especially parks, metro stations, airports, etc. Every major city and community should have access to concert series and readings in their major parks, especially in times of economic hardship.
6. Workplace: Funds to bring poets and writers into the workplace. Build literacy by enlivening the reading public. Contemporary writers would bring their work to the people. Readings could be held around noon at workplaces.
7. Document history: Document U.S. literary and cultural history on a city, state and national level. This would be similar to the old WPA program. Interview major writers and painters. It could be done by doing a series of films.
8. American Artists Overseas: Money should be set aside to send American artists overseas for three-six month periods, with an emphasis on countries where the United States has been at odds. They would serve as cultural ambassadors and give lectures and performances. They would also collaborate with artists of the host country to produce cultural events.
9. Fellowships/Scholarships awarded to working/low income individuals who wish to enroll in creative writing programs: Many older people wish to return to school to pursue careers in the arts but have no money for tuition.
10. Black colleges: Money should be set aside to develop creative writing programs at historically black colleges. No creative writing program exists at any black college. This would create teaching jobs for many African American authors.
11. Libraries: We should support library infrastructure and provide writer and artist-in-residence programs for our libraries, especially those in low-income communities. Our nation’s libraries are public treasures and many have been closed in recent years. Money is needed to keep our libraries open and alive.