As America struggled with the Great Depression in 1933, 25 artists were hired to paint murals depicting aspects of Californian life on the walls of Coit Tower in San Francisco. They were paid at least $25 a week – the equivalent of about £400 today. Tasked with beautifying public buildings, the artists seized the chance for some mischief. Bernard Zakheim’s mural depicts a worker in a library, screwing up a newspaper with one hand and reaching for Das Kapital on a shelf with the other. Clifford Wight’s triptych depicts capitalism, the New Deal and communism, with the latter panel containing a hammer and sickle and the caption “Workers of the World Unite”. After a virulent press campaign, the hammer and sickle were removed a year later.
The Coit Tower murals were the pilot initiative of the Public Works Arts Project devised to give struggling artists work. Harry Hopkins, Franklin D Roosevelt’s commerce secretary and one of the architects of the New Deal, had said: “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people!” Thus began the first New Deal arts project, part of a decade-long bankrolling of artists that nurtured some of America’s greatest painters and photographers.
Ever since lockdown began in the UK, curators have been calling for similar funding for the arts here. They got an unexpected boostwhen cabinet minister Michael Gove recently argued that FDR’s New Deal managed to “save capitalism, restore faith in democracy, indeed extend its dominion, renovate the reputation of government, set his country on a course of increasing prosperity and equality of opportunity for decades.” Boris Johnson later told a radio interviewer it was a time for a “Rooseveltian approach to the economy”.
Will the Johnson government’s rescue package, which pledges £1.57bn to the arts, be as ambitious and far-reaching as FDR’s programme? In a few months, America’s Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) hired 3,749 artists and produced 15,663 paintings, murals, prints, crafts and sculptures for government buildings. This and successive projects gave the arts a massive financial boost – and revolutionised how artists engaged with the American people.
One programme was the Federal Writers’ Project, which employed writers to interview the last living African Americans who had been enslaved, providing a vital oral history. Musicians funded by the Federal Music Project did field music recordings of folk and jazz, and gave music lessons. The Federal Theatre Project introduced touring shows to places professional drama had hitherto not reached.
The Federal Art Project developed the skills of 10,000 artists including Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Alice Neel, Ad Reinhart and Mark Rothko, giving them paid work at a time of few private commissions. Krasner, who had worked as a waitress and artists’ model before being hired to work on often-unrealised murals (her sometime assistant was her husband, Jackson Pollock), once said that the initiative saved her life. It certainly gave her and other artists’ burgeoning careers a timely boost.
No less significant was the photography project of the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal agency set up to combat rural poverty. Gordon Parks, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange were among photographers hired to document the plight of poor farmers. Lange’s famous image of Florence Owens with two children, entitled Migrant Mother, was one of hundreds of thousands of images taken.
Parks’s no-less iconic photograph of an African American government cleaner was made while documenting black lives in Washington DC in 1942. “I had experienced a kind of bigotry and discrimination here that I never expected,” he said. “At first, I asked [Ella Watson] about her life, what it was like, and [it was] so disastrous that I felt I must photograph this woman in a way that would make me feel, or make the public feel, what Washington DC was in 1942. So I put her before the American flag with a broom in one hand and a mop in another.” Parks called it American Gothic, riffing satirically on Grant Wood’s 1930 painting of the same name.
It’s worth recalling how the New Deal for the arts ended up in conservatives’ crosshairs. The Federal Theatre Project was charged by the House Un-American Activities Committee with being infiltrated by communists and staging plays with socialist messages. In 1937, the Works Progress Administration shut down The Cradle Will Rock, a musical play written by Marc Blitzstein and directed by Orson Welles as part of the Federal Theatre Project. The government was accused of censoring the Broadway production because it told a pro-union story about steelworkers struggling against their evil boss.
Some of the estimated 200,000 New Deal artworks - murals, paintings, sculptures, craft works, theatre set designs, posters and photographs - still exist. In the post office in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, for instance, there remains mural called Meal Time With the Early Coal Miners by Jared French. A group of buff, bare-chested miners in skin-tight trousers wash themselves and towel off. If you look to the right, there’s a naked man in a boat with a hat over his genitals.
“People go to the post office to buy their stamps,” Barbara Bernstein, founder of the New Deal Art Registry, drily told the New York Times, “and there’s a piece of homoerotic art on the wall.” Bernstein sounds a little sceptical but surely this is precisely the kind of stimulus package we need post-lockdown.
In this time, it's particularly important that art institutions think about how they can go beyond their walls and reach everyoneHans Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine Galleries
Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London, takes a more philosophical perspective in his call for the British government to fund the arts as America did. “In this time, it’s particularly important that art institutions think about how they can go beyond their walls and reach everyone.” He cites American philosopher John Dewey, who worried that “the growth of capitalism has been a powerful influence in the development of the museum as the proper home for works of art, and in the promotion of the idea that they are apart from the common life”.
If this is to happen, art must free itself from the idea that it consists of luxury products for collectors or inscrutable objects in museums – and reconnect with the people. Art for the millions, not the moneyed few. “Dewey wanted to recreate a continuity between the refined forms of experience he attributed to the work of art and to the everyday events that form our experience,” says Obrist. A New New Deal wouldn’t only help artists’ bank balances but enrich life. Obrist calls this possibility the Great Transition – into “a new era of social imagination”.
A British New Deal could level the playing field for artists who don’t come from affluent backgrounds. “We already have evidence for that,” says Sydney Thornbury, director of the Art House in Wakefield. “The only reason JK Rowling was able to finish the first Harry Potter book was because she had been given a grant by the Scottish Arts Council which enabled her to focus on writing.”
There is some scepticism about how FDR’s New Deal is applicable to 2020. Julia Jacobs recently wrote an article for the New York Times that was given the headline: “The virus won’t revive FDR’s arts jobs program. Here’s why.” Jacobs said that few “defenders of the arts are optimistic that a programme as sprawling and generous as the New Deal initiative could happen now”. Certainly there is little political will stateside: President Trump has in each of his budget proposals called for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“Getting a scheme like this accepted by Americans is about visionary leadership,” says Thornbury. “ It was the same with FDR and the New Deal, Kennedy and the space programme and Johnson [Lyndon not Boris] and the Great Society. What America doesn’t have at the moment is visionary leadership.”
What might a British reboot mean practically? Curators Annabel Turpin and Gavin Barlow suggest a stimulus package administered through Arts Council England so that venues could employ freelance artists to work in schools, care homes and other institutions. Presumably they envisage similar schemes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The package would also involve funding for apprenticeships in arts venues and an extension of theatre tax relief from 20% to 50%.
The creative industries are worth £100bn and have grown at nearly twice the rate of the economy since 2010
Though the fine print of the government’s stimulus package has yet to be pursued, artists have to be encouraged by culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s statement that “our arts and culture are the soul of our nation. They make our country great and are the lynchpin of our world-beating and fast growing creative industries.”
“The creative industries are worth £100bn and have grown at nearly twice the rate of the economy since 2010,” says Thornbury. Given how economically vital the creative sector is to Britain, she believes, it should be considered too big to fail.
But the case for investing is not just economic, adds Thornbury. It would increase community cohesion, health and wellbeing, help combat racism, promote social mobility, and reduce isolation and loneliness. Thornbury goes so far as to imagine that such schemes might “make people feel the same kind of ownership and protectiveness over the arts as they do about the NHS”.
But would a government that has done such a botched job of controlling Covid-19 have both the nous and vision to improve how we live and how the arts are practised in its aftermath? The jury is out.