Art in the pre- and post-Covid world

In alphabetical order, some names you may recognise: William Baziotes, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Diego Rivera, Mark Rothko, Joseph Stella.

Some you may not: Berenice Abbott; Jozef Bakos; Fay Chong; May Dwight; Angna Enters; Alexander Finter; Marion Greenwood; Axel Horn; Aitaro Ishigaki; Sargent Claude Johnson; Georgina Klitgaard; Blanche Lazzell; Moissaye Marans; Louise Nevelson; Elizabeth Olds; Gregorio Prestopino; Misha Reznikoff; Mary Scheier; Dox Thrash; Edward Buk Ulreich; Stuyvesant Van Veen; Andrew Winter; Jean Xceron; Edgar Yeagar; Bernard Zakheim.*

What’s the connection? They were among the 10,000 visual artists supported in the USA during the Great Depression’s Federal Arts Project.

Now it’s not every visual artist whose reputation grows to become a world-famous household name. (The first list is way shorter than the second) This hardly negates the validity of the work of all the others. And the work of Depression-era artist has been preserved for all to see. Their works became the property of the people, and were hung if public places.

Under the system, devised by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s wide-ranging, far-reaching Depression-era mitigation policies, artists of all stripes – see below – could find employment, and be paid, modestly yes, for their work. It was FDR’s New Deal at work.

Economists are saying the Covid-19 pandemic will result in Great Depression-like downturns. Maybe now’s the time to see how good ol’ FDR dealt with things that time around.

The different Federal support projects for the arts were all under the aegis of the Work Progress Administration (WPA). Mostly the WPA employed millions of job-seekers (mostly unskilled men) to work on infrastructure projects for the public good, including the construction of public buildings and roads.

But then, FDR’s "American Dream… was the promise not only of economic and social justice but also of cultural enrichment." So the WPA started to included artists. This project was the first where US Federal money was used on culture.

The Federal Art Project operated from August 29, 1935, until June 30, 1943. It was created as a relief measure to employ artists and artisans to create murals, paintings, sculpture, graphic art, posters, photography, theatre backdrops, crafts – you name it. An additional outfit, the art-research group worked on the Index of American Design, a mammoth and comprehensive study of American material culture. Artists were paid $23.60 a week; tax-supported institutions such as schools, hospitals and public buildings paid only for materials.

Then there was the Federal Music Project. This employed musicians, conductors and composers. In addition to performing thousands of concerts, offering music classes, organizing the Composers Forum Laboratory, hosting music festivals and creating 34 new orchestras (!), employees of the FMP researched American traditional music and folk songs. Those researchers did good work and produced studies on cowboy, Creole, and what was then known as ‘Negro music.’

A Dr. Nikolai Sokoloff was the director of the Federal Music Project. Trouble is, he was a classical music conductor. He was accused of highbrow bias. Charles Seeger (father of Pete) became assistant director of the project, spreading the good cash to many more varieties of music. Free, live performances of African American and Hispanic music were a hit. In many states there were efforts to document the music of ethnic minorities, spirituals, work songs and other folk musi.

The Federal Writers’ Project cost the nation approximately $27 million – one fifth of one percent of all WPA appropriations. Same deal: you got paid to do your work, even if it did get you a regular job. The Writers’ Project also gave jobs to unemployed librarians, clerks, researchers, editors, and historians. It kept 10,000 wordsmiths off the streets.

Finally, the (much cheaper – why? Dunno) Federal Theatre Project. It was allocated only one half of one per cent of the allocated budget from the WPA. But was still a commercial and critical success. But uh-oh, the project became contentious. The House Un-American Activities Committee (bad buggers, these) claimed the content of the FTP's productions were supporting racial integration between blacks and whites (yikes!); while also pushing a communist agenda (treasonous!).

The silly committee cancelled funding for the project in June, 1939 But the Federal Theatre Project had employed 15,000 good folk, also paying them $23.86 a week. Seems like it was the standard WPA pay.

More big numbers: The Theatre Project played to 30 million people in more than 200 theatres nationwide — renting, re-opening many that had been closed up — as well as parks, schools, churches, clubs, factories, hospitals and closed-off streets. Two thirds of its productions were presented for free to the audience. Cool! Maybe we can do that after lockdown.

The different Federal Projects supporting the arts wound up just before or during the Second World War. The War was good for business, and the USA economy looked up. Artists were again supposed to find their own work.

To today: which country supports artist (of all kinds) the most? No prizes for guessing, they are the Nordic countries, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. In Germany, the Artists’ Social Security Act has been operating for more than 30 years and provides health insurance, the old age pension and nursing care for self-employed artists.

Canada, Australia, ourselves – indeed most modern western democracies – have government-funded arts grants schemes. These are all run on a contestable basis; which has its own pitfalls. Just being paid to work, like those artists in FDR’s New Deal, seems like old history. But to go into that is a whole new investigation. Next time maybe.

*Google them. They are all interesting. And in these lockdown times, we all have plenty of time to indulge in diversions.