March 1, 2009
Art as economic stimulus

Mortgage foreclosures, banks in trouble, raging unemployment, and vanishing fortunes. The economic times they are precarious and the country’s been here before. Back in the 1930s the stimulus plan included funding projects like roads and bridges and dams...and art. Then, as now, there were those who protested spending money on what they called a “frill,” but some of the most memorable work to come out of New Deal projects was in the arts.

Susan Quinn and I met recently over coffee to talk about art and the economy. Quinn is the author of Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times. With the current crisis prompting thoughts of the New Deal programs, her book is a timely reminder of what is valued when values are shaken to the core. Quinn is also the author of biographies of Marie Curie and Karen Horney and of Human Trial), which chronicles the development of a new drug.

We talk about how hard it can be to find money to support art when basic necessities are at risk.

“It’s a hot button issue,” Quinn admits. But she tells me that during the New Deal, Harry Hopkins, who headed FDR’s Works Progress Administration, argued the importance of arts funding. His Federal Theatre Project, which she discusses in her book, was one part of a project that also supported writing, visual arts, and music programs.

“Hopkins said that artists add to the wealth of the nation and the nation is enriched by their talent.

“The Federal Theatre Project was so courageous--art is always risky,”she says, making the point that the impact far exceeded the expenditure. “It was only a tiny part of the WPA budget--just one-tenth of one percent.” The project supported the production of both new plays and classics. It brought racially-integrated theater companies to racially-integrated audiences at a time when public events were often segregated. It also created a form, the living newspaper, that offered no-holds-barred explorations of charged issues like syphilis, slums, and public versus private ownership of utilities.

“It brought life to complex ideas. “ Quinn laughs. “ We could do a great one now: ’Bail-out!’”

Then, as now, urgent needs competed for available dollars, and politicians often questioned giving some of those dollars to arts programs. In the book, Quinn quotes Brooks Atkinson, who served as the New York Times’ theater critic from 1925 to 1960, who wrote, “Art seems like boondoggling to a Congressman who is looking for a club with which to belabor the administration and there is always something in the Federal Theatre that can be blown up into a scandal. But as for a socially useful achievement it would be hard among the relief projects to beat the Federal Theatre, which has brought art and ideas within the range of millions of people all over the country and proved that the potential theater audience is inexhaustible.”

Those theater productions, along with the other WPA-sponsored artistic works, lifted the spirits, engaged the imagination, and enlarged the understanding of a nation in desperate circumstances. In a recent Newsweek article, Jeremy McCarter wrote of how American art of various kinds from the blues to Angels in America, to Huck Finn, have all gone into shaping our sense of who we are as Americans. So even as state and local officials vie to proclaim the shovel-readiness of their wish lists, there is a hunger, too, for what can be audience-ready. And even with the unarguable competing needs that exist, Quinn feels optimistic about funding for the arts.

“Our new president embodies the artistic imagination of the country in its largest and most generous sense. And we are a creative people.”

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