The Arts and the State in Times of Crisis: The Prospect of a New WPA, Part 1. Who cares about an old government programme?

NOTE: I’m delighted to be once again cohosting a “virtual residency” with my friend and colleague Francois Matarasso on my blog and his. (You can access the previous residencies here: on ethics and on the future of community arts.) Starting today, we’ll publish excerpts from our dialogue on public service employment past, present, and future. Then on Tuesday, 6 October, we’ll host a free Zoom conversation about how to make a new WPA real. It will start at 10 am MDT/5 pm BST (9 am PDT, 11 am CDT, noon EDT — that should be enough to figure out the time if you’re in a different timezone). You need to register in advance for one of the up to 100 slots. When you do, Zoom will send a confirmation email with details. Here’s the link to register.

Twice before in times of crisis, the U.S. created public service employment programs, underwriting work for the public good. Both the WPA (Works Progress Administration of the 30s) and CETA (the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of the 70s) were created in response to high unemployment, supporting workers from many sectors. In the UK, the Manpower Services Commission of the 70s did the same. Artists were especially resourceful in taking advantage of these programs. Given that unemployment today surpasses Great Depression levels, is it time for a new WPA to repair social fabric and infrastructure, share our stories, and create sites of public memory?

Since Francois and are both very interested in (all right, obsessed by) the ways different societies create policy and action to support social good, between us we’ve done quite a bit of study of public service employment. We held a few conversations about the issues and edited them down into a dialogue you can download formatted for the UK or for the US (if the links aren’t working, try a different browser or email me at arlenegoldbard@gmail.com and I’ll send you the PDF you want via email). Or if you prefer, you can read an excerpt each day at our blogs. We agree on a lot, but happily, not everything, and our disagreements may be illuminating. We hope the writing will save you many hours of wonkishness, bringing you up to date on some of the history, issues, and opportunities of a new WPA, and paving the way for a great Zoom conversation.

Here’s the first installment.

Authors’ Note

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on countless lives, bringing death, grief and fear. In an unequal world, its impact has been very unequal. Artists, most of whom are not high earners, are among those whose ability to work has been arrested in mid-flight. The Musicians’ Union reports that 34% of its members are considering abandoning their careers altogether, while artists in other fields face similar existential threats. It’s not surprising, in this context, that many in the arts are calling on governments to support the cultural sector, or that some look back, perhaps with rose-tinted spectacles, to times when public employment programmes gave such a boost to the arts.

Most famous of these is the Works Progress Administration established in the USA as part of the 1930s New Deal, but there are other examples including the War Artists’ Advisory Committee in the 1940s, CETA in the 1970s and the Community Programme in the 1980s. And that is just the experience of Britain and America.

We have been talking throughout this crisis about community art, cultural democracy, and array of threats to much that we both hold dear. We share experiences and values, but our different perspectives — North American and European — can be unexpectedly illuminating. Naturally enough, since we have both written and thought much about the state and the arts, those past experiences have been part of our conversations (as they have been part of our working lives). Given the interest in past employment programmes, and the urgent need for real world help, we decided to share some of our thinking through our respective blogs.

This text is the result. It is a conversation between two community artists (even if they each have slightly different ideas of what that identity means). We’ve tried to preserve the tone of our exchanges, even as we tidied them up to be more readable, because we are speaking here from our experience and beliefs. This is not an academic treatise on the WPA, the Arts Council or CETA: it’s a record of what we know (or some of it) and what we think and feel about that. And some of it — CETA and the Community Programme — is what we knew at first hand, because we were there, learning to make art with people in that context.

We specifically don’t want to tell others, especially the young generation whose future in the arts is now so fragile, what to think or do. The solutions to our present problems will be found only in social solidarity, mutual aid, and generosity of spirit. We don’t have the answers — which is why the text ends inconclusively — but we are willing to share what we know with other, like-minded people.

Who cares about an old government programme?

Gentlemen, he said […] Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards

Bob Dylan

Arlene: Why are we so interested in in the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and all of these other public service employment programmes right now?

The answers may be a bit different from a US or a European perspective. My specific reason would go back around 50 years. If you graphed it, it would have these little peaks that were political opportunities to make something like this real again. There was a peak in the early 70s in the US with the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) one of the programmes we’ll talk about. At that time, many community artists of my generation began to learn about the WPA, the Works Progress Administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, another programme we’ll discuss.

Then there was a lull of several decades. The last time I got really excited about this was in 2008 when Obama was elected and people thought he would support a new WPA, but we were mistaken. And the latest peak is right now because we have an election coming up which the Democrats might win. If so, they will have to do a lot of things to revive the economy and reweave social fabric. To myself and other advocates this seems like a natural, especially because unemployment in the United States is at a level now equal to what it was in the Great Depression, which spurred the first public service employment programmes in this country. So those are my two immediate causes for being interested now.

François: For me, the immediate sphere is the pandemic and the sense that this changes everything. It also goes back to 2008, which I saw as the point at which anyone with any real honesty would see that the neoliberal economic model is unsustainable because it failed in its own terms. The policies that had been in place since Reagan and Thatcher had comprehensively failed. Unhappily, most of the political effort after that collapse was to put the train back on the tracks: it would just limp a few miles further down the track to the bigger political crisis we have gone through since, not just in the US and UK, but in Turkey, Hungary, India, Brazil, the Philippines and elsewhere.

The implosion of neoliberalism and the threat to the planet are now factors of fundamental instability. I am concerned about what new order could emerge, and how much suffering could happen in the period of relative anarchy that intervenes between periods of relative stability. Maybe we’re living through a version of the 1970s, or we might be living through a version of the 1930s, both moments when the existing settlement crumbled and was replaced with another one.

So my specific reason for thinking about this now is twofold. One is that everyone’s talking about it in the art world because there’s an immediate crisis and the existing economic model for how the arts operate has come off the rails exactly like the neoliberal economy did in 2008. That’s the arts world-specific reason. The bigger reason is how do we live? Not just the arts world: how do we all live in a world with finite and polluted resources, growing injustice and inequality, and a broken down economic and political system?

Writer, painter, speaker, consultant activist. Learn more about arlenegoldbard.com.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store