The Prospect of a New WPA Wrap-up: Working for The Common Good

Over the last week or so, both my colleague Francois Matarasso in Europe and I have published excerpts from our dialogue about past public service employment programs in the US and UK. Yesterday, we discussed it all on Zoom with folks on both continents, and I want to share that conversation with you. Francois’ and my takes on the prospect of a new WPA are generally in agreement, as we stipulated. Other participants added important dimensions to the picture of possibility. Throughout this essay, I’ve drawn on their observations. You can hear them in full in the Zoom recording. A few basics to begin:

It’s past time for the public sector to put people to work for the common good: unemployment is at levels unequaled since the Great Depression. Thousands are unemployed or underemployed and need help. Under current conditions, many people want to do something meaningful, especially after a time of great sacrifice. The needs are huge: to strengthen physical infrastructure, create a just transition to clean energy, and repair our badly damaged social fabric. The exact shape and scope of a new program would have to fit the times, of course, but many people have good ideas.

As in past programs such as the WPA and CETA, the approach that’s most apt to succeed both ethically and practically is a universal program aimed at many types of work, not special pleading for artists. In fact, treating artists as especially deserving tends to backfire as elitist or fail for lack of cross-sector political support. So the best approach will bring artists together with many others to advocate for a universal program. Participants in the Zoom conversation noted that this entails rethinking a dominant characterization of artists as different, special, and separate from those who do other types of work. How does this change to the benefit of all?

We are talking about substantial long-term investment in recovery and rebuilding, given the toll taken by the pandemic, climate crisis, and increasing awareness of racial injustice — not a rescue, but a sustained intervention, a stimulus. In the US, a key impediment is entrenched political opposition (just as Republicans opposed extending unemployment supplements on the grounds it would discourage people from working, they’ve long opposed any form of public service employment on equally specious and heartless grounds). And a key challenge is how to move forward nevertheless.

It was encouraging to speak with so many people whose values and aims are aligned with true recovery and reorientation, not merely patching up old systems in the hope of returning to “normal.”

A few points stood out for me as key:

We have a big visibility problem. There’s a dilemma in community-based or participatory arts work of the type that’s essential to real recovery: the people who’ve participated directly “get it” — experiencing the work means understanding its value, whereas just reading or talking about it seldom has the same effect. Participants in the Zoom conversation observed that there’s a real awareness gap with respect to this way of being an artist — art schools don’t necessarily teach it, for instance, and it isn’t part of common vocabulary. So how do people become aware of the critical, essential roles appropriately skilled artists can play in engaging people and aligning their spirits toward meaningful recovery and and reorientation?

Many people pointed out that artists and cultural workers have not been hugely successful at high-level partnerships, such as forming a coalition to effectively advocate for a new national initiative. But community-based artists have been very skilled at forming alliances with local sectors they’ve worked with, such as schools, senior centers, healthcare facilities, and activist organizations. More and more, people who don’t think of themselves as artists are learning arts-based methods to amplify their work’s impact. More and more, arts and culture are not separate from every other aspect of community engagement. There are local allies galore. That led me to ponder three questions:

  • Is there a promising approach to building public will by working very locally with known allies, and gradually scaling up to regional or national levels? What might that look like? Small local nodes connecting through a network of common interest? An art-based approach that uses imagery, music, movement, and other artforms to spread the word? How best to go from local to national or even global advocacy?
  • Given the way the work is often anchored, understood, and appreciated at the local level, are there public service employment initiatives that could be designed and piloted at local and/or regional levels without having to succeed nationally all at once? Are there ways local and regional advocates could be supported and equipped to sit at the tables where recovery conversations are happening and speak for the types of programs we want to see locally, regionally, nationally?
  • It takes money to employ people, and our Zoom conversation revealed that while in some cases relief funding has been offered — Francois mentioned the £1.57 billion allocated in the UK for what have been called “the crown jewels,” the red-carpet institutions. There’s a tendency to speak of “the arts community” or “the cultural sector” as if everyone faces a common fate and shares common interests. But at least in the US, small organizations receive very little trickle-down from the advocacy that centers the red-carpet institutions. A “new WPA” would not employ artists to work in their own studios; it would support those who want to work with people, whose aim is to contribute to social good. What is the path to securing investment in that?

I find myself cheerleading for a much more ambitious and inclusive view of cultural economics, particularly public funding. As I keep repeating (but wish I didn’t have to), the US is spending more than three annual National Endowment for the Arts budgets a day, seven days a week, on war; and untold billions on policing, criminal justice, and prisons. Instead of focusing on how to re-slice the tiny existing arts funding pie, what impact could we have by considering the whole bakery? Right now, our number one collective priority is punishment. What would it take it shift it to possibility and creativity? The answer might be a long time and a lot of effort, but surely it has to start with looking with open eyes at how our national priorities are set and not just remaining corralled in our little corner of the budget.

There were a lot of interesting projects described by Zoom participants, and some of them came with links. Watch the recording to hear all of them, but in the meantime, here are a few links to follow (and don’t forget the numerous links in the downloadable dialogue that started this virtual residency.

Land Art Generator: “The nonprofit’s vision is for civic art and community-centered design projects to be an active part of the climate solution by incorporating renewable energy as the media for creative expression. Designing a post-carbon economy in balance with nature can at the same time make our cities more culturally vibrant and beautiful. See this also.

Freelance Taskforce, an extremely interesting project in the UK. Also see their Twitter.

Fun Palaces, a highly decentralized and participatory annual project.

A local “Artists at Work” program in the Berkshires in Massachusetts.

Let Artists Be Artists, “A radical proposal for arts organisations to build a new normal, with artists and communities at its heart.”

In the UK, the government’s “Kickstart Scheme” provides funding to create jobs for young people, and artists are involved.

Universal Basic Income is something receiving at least as much attention as a “new WPA,” and here’s the Twitter feed of a group in the UK working on it.

64 Million Artists is a group in the UK “working with schools, universities, whole cities, workplaces, cultural institutions and health and government bodies to experiment with ways of reconnecting people with their innate creativity.”

Public Campaign for the Arts in the UK started out advocating for a rescue and has gone on to work for more.

The Rome Charter “aims at promoting the right to participate in cultural life as a condition for a better society. The initiative began in 2019 and it has involved more than 45 cities and 95 advisors” including Francois Matarasso, a member of the drafting committee.

Jimmy Reed, “Let’s Get Together.”

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