via NYFA Current:
Envisioning a 21st-Century WPA: A Roundtable
From left: Suzan Sherman, NYFA Current Editor; Sacha Yanow, Program Director, Art Matters; Chris Martin, Painter; Carol Becker, Dean of Columbia University’s School of the Arts; Phong Bui, Brooklyn Rail Editor; and Irving Sandler, Author and Historian
When the Federal Art Project component of the Works Progress Administration was launched in 1935, it was seen primarily as a relief organization: a way to get unemployed artists working for the public good. But its projects—from public murals to paintings to photographic documentation of the American social landscape—have come to be seen as important works of art and scholarship in their own right.
Today, our economic situation is not as dire as the Great Depression. And yet, with no cohesive federal plan or funding systems in place, the arts remain in a precarious position. For a sector that contributes immeasurably to America’s cultural development and significantly to its economic health (as much as $166.2 billion, according to a 2005 study), it might be time to rethink the present structure. With the economy continuing to weaken, and the fresh slate of a Democratic administration, it seemed a fitting time to ask: how can we ensure long-term funding structures for the arts? What former federal programs might be informative for today, from Depression-era relief efforts to the individual artists’ grants of the early NEA? And how can the arts community sell these ideas to the American public at large?
Carol Becker, Phong Bui, Chris Martin, Irving Sandler, and Sacha Yanow met in NYFA’s offices on February 23, 2009 to discuss these issues. What follows is an edited transcript, or watch part one and part two of the full-length podcast.
Suzan Sherman: My first question goes to Irving, who suggested that we change the name of the panel, which I’d been calling “Envisioning a 21st-century WPA.” I’m assuming that you’re not concerned about the associations the WPA has with laissez-faire conservatism…
Irving Sandler: Oh, yes—absolutely, because we have to rethink the whole notion of the Republicans as the bad guys. They sit on the boards of our museums, and they’ve been some of the most active advocates for the arts. I don’t want to use terminology that’s going to get their hackles up.
SS: You didn’t find fault with my use of “WPA” because the artists who were supported under this policy were constrained in their art-making in certain respects?
IS: No. They were not really constrained. There were politics: they were always being attacked by neoconservatives. But they were free, at least on the easel division, to do whatever they wanted. They just had to turn in a work a month, I think. The Mural Project was more difficult, because you needed approval from the housing department, but there were very few constraints that I know of.
Carol Becker: Was it because of the political nature of the artists’ and writers’ work?
IS: It was also that. You’re having the same problem today with your entire Republican Party against “giveaways.” That was my objection.
CB: I agree with that. Although I’m a total fan of the WPA, it became associated with all of this anti-Communist, un-American activities. I don’t know if you saw the letter in the New York Times today, but it talks about this Congressman from Georgia who says he doesn’t to want to fund the NEA and give money to artists because he believes in the “working man.” So there’s still this stigma attached to artists, and a misconception of what they actually do.
IS: We also mustn’t believe that the Democrats are always the good guys. President Clinton—
CB: Did nothing.
IS: Clinton was one of my favorite presidents, but he did zip for the visual arts. Whereas President Nixon did a great deal. Hating it all the time, of course.
Philip GustonRichard Nixon caricature from the book Guston's Poor Richard (1971)
Phong Bui: We can see that in Guston’s drawings of him. [laughter]
SS: But back to the idea of constraints. Weren’t artists supposed to stay away from work in abstraction, or anything that might be construed as edgy? Murals were upbeat, even idealized, images of people going to work, farming the fields, or maps of, say, the State of New Jersey; works that we still might see hanging on the walls of certain post offices, but that might not necessarily have been generated directly from the artist’s heart.
PB: It depends where the artists were. Those who happened to be in Oklahoma were probably likely to lean toward American regionalist painting. But there were high-minded painters in New York, like de Kooning and Gorky, who were recipients and doing abstract mural projects. Gorky did one for the Newark Airport. So it depends on what state and city they were in.