- During the Great Depression, FDR’s New Deal created the Works Projects Administration.
- As part of the WPA, the government hired artists to create indelible art. This helped employ artists, boost the economy, and help American morale.
- COVID-19 has put a lot of artists out to work, and so there isn’t a better time for a new WPA than now.
- Elisa Shoenberger is a journalist and writer. She has written for the Boston Globe, Huffington Post, US News and World Report, and others.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
As total recent unemployment claims have risen to historic heights, artists and creative workers have been heavily impacted by the crisis. Americans for the Arts found in an April survey that two-thirds of their artists were unemployed. As the crisis continues, the number is likely to go up.
Many artists have second or even third jobs. Artists may work in their related fields, such as teaching or design firms, while others work in coffee shops, bars and restaurants, driving for Lyft, and other gig economy jobs. The coronavirus crisis has only exacerbated the challenges facing artists.
As a society, we need to stop having a flippant view of the arts. We should pay artists commiserate with their talent and contributions instead of dismissing their work and expertise as a mere hobby horse.
Recent studies show the huge impact the arts already have on the economy. According to the National Endowment of the Arts’ 2020 report, the arts sector brought $877.8 billion to the economy in 2017. In addition to pure economics, study after study show the positive impact of the arts on people, such as mental and physical benefits, enhancing our ability to empathize and come together as a community and so much more. However, NEA funding in 2016 constituted only “.004%of the federal budget.”
Given the incredible role and work of our artists, we need to do a better job supporting the arts here in the US. We need to start treating the arts as a necessary and important part of our lives. We need to provide funding to schools to continue their art programs; we should fund museums, galleries, theaters in a significant way so they don’t have to constantly scramble to keep their lights going.
Even our country’s past has shown a great respect for artists; the Work Projects Administration (WPA) hired artists including painters, playwrights, and actors.
Given the number of artists struggling right now and the need to boost our economy, it is time for a 21st century WPA that will help stop the hemorrhaging of the arts and culture sector and bring jobs back to workers in the creative fields.
The original WPA helped artists and the US economy
The WPA was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order on May 6, 1935 as part of the New Deal. At the time, the unemployment rate was 20%. During its eight years, it put 8.5 million people to work, with 3.3 million Americans working at its peak year in 1938.
While the WPA went by several names, including Works Progress Administration, it had one goal: put Americans back to work. From its creation until the end of the program in 1943, WPA workers erected school buildings, built tens of thousands of new bridges, and repaired nearly 300,000 miles of road.
But the WPA wasn’t just for infrastructure, it also put artists to work in a program called Federal Project Number One that served as an umbrella organization for the Federal Arts Project, Federal Theater Project, Federal Music Project, and more. Artists of all stripes — musicians, designers, scriptwriters, and more— were put back to work through a variety of projects. Artists created beautiful murals for US Post Offices; playwrights wrote plays that actors put on; black musicians played concerts.
Federal One put 5,300 visual artists to work including artists who would become household names like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright got a boost from the WPA as well. The program resulted in 2,566 murals and 17,444 pieces of sculpture.
While the program unfortunately ended in 1939, some credit the idea as a precursor to the National Foundation of Arts, which was created in 1965.
The arts are just important now as they were back during the Great Depression. While social distancing and shelter-in-place orders have darkened theaters and museums across the country, we are seeing the emergence of arts in the digital world.
The arts are on the rise
We already see the potential for a new arts push. We’re seeing a surge in people subscribing and using streaming services, like Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+, during this time. People are buying more books from independent booksellers as those stores adapt to the pandemic .
But people are also turning to other arts to entertain or distract themselves during this pandemic. Theaters and dance companies are releasing pre-recorded shows. For instance, the UK’s National Theater released two versions of Frankenstein with actors switching roles. Musicians, singers, and circus performers are having concerts on live social media channels, or platforms like StageIt.
Many people are going to the arts to find solace and entertainment during this time. Cyril Rabbath, a world-class master juggler in Chicago, put it best: “we are the frontline of keeping the spirit of society alive…[artists] are helping society decompress and dream.”
But we need to go further than arts funding, we need to directly hire artists. Artists are struggling to file for unemployment, a system not set up for gig workers. Others are figuring out how to file for food stamps. Institutions are also struggling too.
Many theaters, museums, and other cultural institutions are in danger of closing permanently. Many organizations do not have reserves of money and rely on show by show ticket sales or other daily revenue sources. Comic book shops are particularly in trouble. Adding fuel to the fire, some ticket groups, like Brown Paper Tickets, delayed payments owed to theaters and art groups across the country for weeks.
We can do better than this.
The US government has the capacity to develop a nationwide program to put artists to work. Whether it’s painting murals or developing new digital content that can be safely shared. Playwrights and screenwriters can be paid to write new shows while musicians can create new songs. There’s so much untapped potential right now. And we know that audiences need artistic uplift to entertain and soothe.
As evidenced by the recent economic stimulus bills passed by Congress, we have the means. We just lack the will. There’s the troubling mindset that artists don’t need to be paid a lot or at all because they “are lucky to do what they love.” Every artist has a story of someone offering them the opportunity to provide work for free for elusive “exposure.” People sometimes proffer that artists should go and get a “real job” if they want to be paid better.
But we know the government can do more for artists, because we’ve seen it before.
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Recently the Library of Congress commissioned 10 composers to create videos of new work as a reaction to the virus in a project called The Boccaccio Project. This is a drop in the bucket and needs to be expanded well beyond 10 artists.
A broader program would be good not just for the economy of the reeling country, but for its soul as well. We need the federal government in conjunction with state and local governments to hire artists right now.
We need a WPA for the 21st century.
Elisa Shoenberger is a journalist and writer. She has a B.A in Latin American History from the University of Chicago, M.A. in Latin American Caribbean and Iberian Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MBA in Marketing and Operations Management from Loyola University Chicago.