Sign this petition, sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies and the poetry organization Split this Rock, urging Congress to allocate 1 percent of the stimulus package to the arts.
At a time when certain members of Congress are speaking in opposition to including a mere $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts in the $850 billion stimulus, some of us have the audacity to suggest that they do more. Thousands have signed a petition asking that one percent of the stimulus package be spent on the arts.
Arts organizations in the United States employ more than 6 million people; most of these institutions are struggling in this economy. Many more artists are self-employed. Like other sectors of the economy, the arts are in peril.
Let us learn from history. The last time the US economy plunged into depression, the administration heard the pleas of unemployed artists. Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to alleviate unemployment during the Great Depression. The WPA created jobs for more 40,000 artists, musicians, writers and theater workers who were paid a living wage to create public works of art.
WPA writers collected folklore, oral histories and ethnographies, and wrote everything from children’s books to tour guides for states, cities and roadways. WPA musicians provided music classes to low-income people. Federal Music Project ensembles, chamber groups, bands and orchestras offered free performances to millions of people. Visual artists created murals in public spaces, as well as countless sculptures, paintings and prints. The Federal Theatre Project introduced many new audiences to theater.
The WPA arts programs were an experiment in open society. In a time of crisis, immigrants and the children of immigrants took part in artistic dialogue, as performers or audience members, as readers or musicians, as writers conducting interviews or as former slaves asked to tell their stories. Jobs were created and hunger was alleviated, but most important, a conversation took place among all walks of life about pressing social issues and how to solve them more equitably.
The arts projects were always a target for social critics. Support for the program ended in the 1940s when the government shifted WPA monies into the war effort. In the 1950s, the chilling effect of the House Un-American Activities Committee communist witch hunts put many writers, artists and performers on trial. This country did not get another federal program for the arts until the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the 1960s.
Some Republicans have taken aim at inclusion of the arts in the stimulus package. Support for cultural workers is “pork”; artists are “elitist.” And yet, the accessibility of the arts to the public is largely an issue of funding. Who can afford to take their family to a concert or theater production? Why should only wealthy school districts have access to arts and music programs?
Without public funding, the arts are produced on behalf of elite interests, which is another kind of censorship. A democratic and free society is exactly the kind that needs public art. While it’s true that the battle over censorship is never ending, art by necessity pushes at boundaries. It challenges and often offends. It is at these edges and boundaries where our minds are stretched and democratic conversation begins.