Updated: Feb 15, 2021
Once upon a time, back during the Great Depression, as part of the so-called “second New Deal” the US Government created something called the WPA, the Works Progress Administration which provided relief for artists, musicians, dancers and theatres. The first supervisor of the WPA, Harry Hopkins said, “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.” While that administration no longer exists, American culture, before the pandemic, grew to become an industry sector that accounted for more than 4.5% of this country’s gross domestic product. Professional creative artists, as well as the technical support people in the creative arts are facing unemployment at well above the national average. We know this. We feel this.
Yet, people are still creating. Making lemonade out of lemons – but they are not necessarily getting paid for it. And many are considering whether they should abandon their careers, because that is how dire their situations have become. Grantmaking institutions exist now to help artists, but they often require artists to justify their work before they make it. We need the new administration to create work for artists, visual artists can work on infrastructure projects, just like the days of the WPA (see the murals in the Freeport Post Office by Gropper, various decorative details all over Jones Beach, Rockefeller Center). This will also give artists the ability to travel the country and work in areas that have been ignored by the cultural elite and thus the artists, as well as the people who benefit from their work the opportunity to experience how the other half lives. Which is what art can do.
The new administration could repair diplomacy with the international community and boost our culture abroad by sending musicians, orchestras and theatre groups through the Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs, which is part of the State Department.
There are plenty of ideas floating around in the arts press on how we can get money back into the pockets of artists and get them creating again, but after almost a year of pandemic decimation of the arts scene, it seems obvious that the arts will need a significant boost from the government to bring back the things that we had before, even a percentage of what we had before. Who would have believed that we were at the end of a golden age this time last year?