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A New New Deal for the Arts

In response to President Obama’s call for all Americans to contribute to our nation’s future, many suggestions gain inspiration from New Deal programs instituted by President Franklin Roosevelt to revive the nation from the financial devastation caused by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

As an artist, I suggest Obama and Congress include projects that employ creative ideas and energies of artists, as did two famous New Deal programs, the Public Works of Art Project, instituted in 1933, and it successor, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), formed in 1935, when more than 8.5 million jobless Americans worked on arts-related projects that paid the equivalent of today’s minimum hourly wage.

The 21st century version of New Deal arts programs could feature creative partnerships between artists and scientists, engineers, businesses, educators, skilled labor, city planners and community leaders throughout our nation’s cities and rural communities.

Besides reducing unemployment, the partnerships could add valuable creative thinking to projects that invest in infrastructure, revitalize education, and develop new and greener technologies.

Based on 1930s programs and more recent models, three examples of programs that could be instituted are:

Innovative Technologies Projects: Like Xerox PARC, founded in 1970 as a computer research center in today’s Silicon Valley by Xerox Corp., which became the birthplace of many innovations that were developed into basic tools and components of computer science technology, this program could team artists with scientists and engineers to design innovations that help reduce energy consumption, increase use of recycled materials, convert empty malls and industrial parks for new uses, restore environments destroyed by natural disasters, and conduct experiments to invent materials and technologies for functions not yet imagined.

Federal Writers Project: By updating documentary research projects, such as the gathering of oral histories and the encyclopedic American Guide Series that preserved much of the nation’s geographic, cultural and political heritage up through the years they were completed, writers, journalists and photographers could build on these great resources, retrieving memories and images from our present 50 states and territories that could be lost without an organized effort. This updated documentation could be stored in the Library of Congress or National Archives, digitized for retrieval by anyone online.

Community Art Projects: In addition to funding regional, state and local festivals and other events, this program could offer professionally directed classes and workshops in theater, dance, music, photography and visual arts, where people of all ages could gain access to training and appreciation of arts that are routinely omitted from public school curricula and community services whenever budgets have to be cut. Programs offered since 1971 under National Endowment for the Arts’ Expansion Arts and Community Cultural Programs have documented how increased understanding and respect for all arts, through greater accessibility, also increases the quality of life in a community, besides increasing local revenues as visitors partake of these activities.

The 1930s WPA programs financed projects other than those I have mentioned, including public art projects that continue to provide a source of wonder, such as San Francisco’s Coit Tower murals, which still draw tourists from all over the world. Moreover, WPA projects provided enough income to make it possible for many artists to continue careers, making them today’s canonized icons, such as Richard Wright, Orson Welles, Aaron Copland, Dorothea Lange and Jackson Pollack. Artists have collaborated with architects, educators and businesses for centuries. When such collaborations are successful, they are called a renaissance.

CARLA BLANK is the author of “Rediscovering America” (Three Rivers Press, 2003). “Kool,” Blank’s multimedia collaboration with Robert Wilson, will premiere at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City this April.

This essay originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

More articles by:

Carla Blank’s most recent book is “Storming the Old Boys’ Citadel: two Pioneer Women Architects of Nineteenth Century North America,” co-authored with Tania Martin. She collaborated with Robert Wilson on “KOOL, Dancing in My Mind,” which premiered at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum in 2009. In May 2015 she directed a production of Ishmael Reed’s play, “Mother Hubbard” in Xiangtan, China, and in September 2015 she directed Yuri Kageyama’s “News From Fukushima” at New York’s LaMama Café Theater.

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