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Posts Tagged ‘federal’

Photo: Marbeth/ Cultural Council Foundation
“Words to Go” mobile troupe of poets and authors (1978)

Two artists who benefited both the nation and themselves in a 1970s recession have wisdom to share about why a federally funded arts program might be a good idea as we rebuild after the pandemic.

Virginia Maksymowicz and Blaise Tobia write at Hyperallergic, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration and its employment of artists during the 1930s [was not] the one and only time the federal government employed artists en masse. [From] 1974 to 1982, federal funds provided employment to 10,000 artists nationwide under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). …

“Signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1973 during a recession, CETA was … originally conceived as a means of training unskilled workers. It was subsequently amended to allow the hiring of trained professionals in high unemployment fields. John Kreidler, an intern at the San Francisco Arts Commission, was the first to recognize how CETA monies could be directed towards artists, and he began using the funding for SFAC’s Neighborhood Arts Project. Soon, similar programs were developed in cities and towns across the country. …

“Why are the CETA artist programs less well known than the WPA projects? For one thing, they took place under less dramatic circumstances — an economic crisis not nearly as severe as the Great Depression. For another, they were decentralized: planned and carried out at the state and municipal level rather than under federal administration. For yet another, they were designed primarily for artists to provide public service (such as teaching, project leadership, or administration) rather than to produce individual artworks. …

“We worked under the largest CETA-funded arts project in the country, the Cultural Council Foundation (CCF) Artists Project in NYC. It and four associated projects employed 500 visual, performing and literary artists. … We worked four days per week in community assignments and one day per week in our studios. Some of the visual artists created community-requested public art works but, unlike the Federal Art Project, this was not a major part of the program.

“The CCF musicians performed in a number of ensembles, such as the Orchestra of New York and the Jazzmobile CETA Big Band, giving free concerts throughout the city. The media artists worked as a documentary video production unit. Many of the writers became part of a mobile teaching/performing unit called ‘Words to Go.’ …

“Our experience proved invaluable to us, not just because it provided a regular paycheck. Through working in different community settings in all five boroughs, we learned how to interact as artists with a wide range of institutional bureaucracies, ethnic groups, and economic classes. …

“When it came to assignments, CCF acted as matchmaker. Community organizations, schools, museums, theaters, and other nonprofits submitted proposals for CETA artists. While the federal government provided the funds and CCF wrote the checks, it was the sponsor’s responsibility to provide the space, materials, and assistance that their proposal required.

“[During] the first year, Blaise was a photographer for the project’s documentation unit along with two other photographers, three writers, and an archivist. He traveled to artists’ studios, to performances and exhibitions, to workshops and classes, and to official and unofficial events related to the project. … In his second year, with the closing of the documentation unit, he was transferred to the general photographers’ pool and worked in three community projects. One was for the Richmond Hill Historical Society, which uses his photographs on its website to this day.

Photo: Blaise Tobia
Painter Charles Stanley leading mural workshop in a Lower East Side elementary school in 1978.

“Virginia experienced a variety of placements ranging from teaching children, to renovating an old school, to assisting in museums to creating public artworks. Her work for an after-school program in the Bronx resulted in a collaboration with Charles Biasiny-Rivera at En Foco. They jointly mounted an exhibition of drawings made by the children and photographs made by professionals. …

“She was also part of a crew of 10 artists assigned to the Brooklyn Arts and Cultural Association. … Under the direction of its founder, Charlene Victor, they converted the former St. Boniface’s School on Willoughby Street into a performance and art space. Their efforts resulted in what came to be known as BACA Downtown, a venue that gave Spike Lee, Danny DeVito, and Suzan-Lori Parks their starts.

“Across the country, CETA artists had similar experiences. … Like the WPA, the CCF Artists Project helped lay a foundation for the future careers of individual artists. It connected artists to communities and to each other. Many of us were able to transition out of the gig economy into sustainable positions. …

“CETA particularly benefited African-American, Latinx, Asian, and women artists, not only as individuals but in terms of kickstarting and stabilizing organizations, some of which remain active today. … Museums and cultural institutions across the country benefited from the CETA funding of support staff. In NYC alone, there were 300 CETA employees in maintenance, security, and other positions. The Philadelphia Museum of Art had at least 38 CETA staff lines. ….

“CETA’s employment of artists was money well spent. The investment was returned to society manyfold in the form of taxes paid, services rendered, real estate values increased, neighborhoods revived, and an overall economy made more vibrant. …

“What would it take to allow a jobs program like CETA to happen again? The will to do so, along with the right approach. … The Biden administration will have to address massive un- and under-employment across all sectors of society. …

“An updated version of Nixon’s ‘new federalism’ might help CETA-like legislation through Congress. Another benefit of the CETA approach is that it relied upon partnerships between government entities and private nonprofits. Such partnerships, intended to increase efficiency within the public sector, often enjoy bipartisan support. … What happened 40 years ago can happen again.”

More at Hyperallergic, here.

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