Artists’ Jobs for the Public Good

by Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk

On May 26th, the USDAC presented a Citizen Artist Salon entitled “Time for a Culture Corps! Artists’ Jobs for the Public Good, Then & Now.” (You can watch the video here.) Our idea was to learn from the history of public-interest jobs for artists, preparing the ground for new ideas and possibilities, then share some of them.  

This is more than a brainstorm: on November 17-19, the USDAC will hold our first-ever national convening in St. Louis. On the final day of CULTURE/SHIFT 2016, we’ll launch the full cultural policy platform we foreshadowed back in September with An Act of Collective Imagination.

Calling for artists jobs in the public interest is certain to be part of the platform, so here’s our question: how do you envision that?

Our May Citizen Artist Salon started with history (I presented that segment); then continued with Cultural Agent Michael Schwartz—muralist,  community activist, and founder of the Tucson Arts Brigade—describing the long-term efforts to get this subject on Tucson’s agenda which led (among other things) to his being hired as manager of the City of Tucson Mural Program; then moved on to a presentation by Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz—media-maker, Columbia University Visiting Scholar, and Aspen Institute Franklin Project fellow—who is developing a program on the Americorps model.

To imagine most powerfully what may come, it helps to know a bit about the past. For instance, I find it inspiring that both times—the 1930s and 1970s—this country’s response to an economic crisis has led to public service jobs, small human factors were catalytic in connecting those jobs programs to the public interest in art. See what I mean:

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the smaller programs that preceded it were sparked by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s friend George Biddle, who had studied in Mexico with muralist Diego Rivera. He put the notion of a publicly supported mural program into FDR’s head. Based on that success, when the WPA was created to address massive unemployment, one of its most important parts was Federal One, with major programs in visual arts, music, theater, writing, and history. Add up all the artists supported via Federal One and you get 40,000 jobs (the equivalent of 100,000 in today’s population) at a cost of $27 million (adjusted for inflation, the equivalent of $471 million today, more than three times the current National Endowment for the Arts budget). It all started with Biddle whispering in FDR’s ear, which led to the Public Works of Art Program being established in 1933.

" Security of the Family,"  WPA mural for the   Health and Human Services Building, Washington D.C., by Seymour Fogel, an apprentice to Diego Rivera on his Roc kefeller Center mural. 

"Security of the Family," WPA mural for the  Health and Human Services Building, Washington D.C., by Seymour Fogel, an apprentice to Diego Rivera on his Rockefeller Center mural. 

The Federal Theatre Project was one of the most innovative and far-reaching Federal One initiatives, headed by Hallie Flanagan (who got that job courtesy of WPA head Harry Hopkins, one of FDR’s closest advisers, who’d known her from Grinnell College). Under Flanagan’s leadership, the FTP’s “Living Newspaper” productions treated such controversial and urgent topics as the spread of syphilis (Spirochete) and pervasive poverty and exploitation (One-Third of A Nation). The Negro Theatre Unit supported Black theaters in 15 different cities. And that’s just a sample of what was accomplished in multiple art forms.

If Biddle sounds like a fluke, consider this: when the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) was passed in 1973, it was intended as a way to create jobs in a time of high unemployment. But a man called John Kreidler, who had worked at the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, saw its potential for artist’s employment. The project he designed with the San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Program provided the first 125 CETA arts jobs (with recipients chosen from among a thousand applicants, working as muralists, circus performers, poets, workshop leaders, and in a slew of other arts jobs). The idea spread across the nation: the Department of Labor estimated that CETA arts jobs amounted to $200 million in 1979 alone.

These stories make me think about the way accident and serendipity sometimes determine the course of events, taking us to destinations we could never achieve by tiptoeing cautiously through the proper channels obtaining permission to innovate.

Who’s out there now who could connect us to the next WPA or CETA?

The thirties and seventies programs were very different: Federal One was national, with projects in every state and many localities, coordinated from the top; CETA was based on local governments and nonprofits (“prime sponsors”) applying for job funds to be used locally. (If you want to learn more about either of them, we’ve compiled a few suggested references here.) But they had one critical thing in common: both were created to address unemployment in many fields, so they were widely supported by those advocating public intervention to balance the deficits of the commercial marketplace. They weren’t special-interest programs created only for artists, a hard sell at the best of times.

So what’s next? What are the best ways to pursue broad public benefit so the work of artists for the public good is integral, valued, and supported?

I advocate a “thousand flowers” approach. I don’t think there’s anyone in Washington right now who will jump at the chance to champion a new WPA (although you never know: hopeful energy does rise at every presidential election; you’ll note that several of the essays linked in our compilation of references were written in 2008-9, early days for President Obama). But I also don’t think we should stop advocating for a full nationwide jobs initiative. Each time the people who want that back off because their hopes don’t seem “realistic,” the bar of possibility gets set a little higher, the prospect of fruition gets a little more distant, the compromises grow weaker.

During the Citizen Artist Salon, Michael Schwartz pointed to one type of local alternative: he detailed how he and Tucson Arts Brigade colleagues had been attentive to public-sector social aims and the ways participatory public art can address them. For instance, they carried out research that demonstrated that unwanted graffiti appeared far less frequently where community murals were present in Tucson, and that helped to make a powerful argument for a city-sponsored public art program which is now responding to community needs and as a result, channeling fees to artists.

“Within every government agency,” Michael said, “there are dollars that anybody on this teleconference could access with our skillsets. They need our skills, and it’s a matter of matching up those bids with our skills. Every single day there are thousands of these bids that go online looking for people to offer programs. Federal government, local government, tribal governments are all in great need of our services.” Click around the Tucson Arts Brigade website to learn exactly how Michael and his colleagues have succeeded.

Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz—herself an Americorps veteran—described how she is developing “Community Artist Year,” a pilot effort in Santa Fe, NM, whereby young artists and administrators can be placed in yearlong posts in cooperating nonprofits. She pointed to the fact that applications for service jobs through Americorps range from five to 13 for each available post, so demand hugely outstrips supply; and it’s especially hard to sustain a service year when you have to rely on the small stipend offered, especially in communities where rentals costs are high. She is looking to make “room for young adults who are interested in bringing creative service to a service year opportunity,” and devising interventions that can make that feasible.

Mi’Jan’s pilot idea is grounded in the principle of reciprocity: “Make it a mutually reciprocal positive relationship, an opportunity for everybody. What if cultural institutions, community-based organizations, and participants designed this program together for everyone’s benefit?” In her vision, the design includes residential support, a dedicated mentorship circles, professional development support, and more.

One of my favorite ideas is simply repurposing funds allocated to organizations and agencies to pay for their public information—especially where the brochures, PSAs, and public meetings they produce are the kind everyone ignores—to employ artists to create visual images, theater, or moving image media that actually engage and connect people to positive social goals the agencies were created to pursue.

Cast your mind forward a few years. Let’s endow you with magical policy powers, with the capacity to craft generative visions and to ensure they are enacted. What is your dream of artists’ jobs for the public good? Help us propose the most creative ideas by sharing yours at