01/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Stimulate the Arts

Inside the Coit Tower on San Francisco's Telegraph Hill is one of the truly amazing works of 20th-century American art. It was created in 1934: a mural of vast dimensions on the equivalent of 3,400 square feet of canvas. There are scenes of agricultural bounty, of the San Francisco bay, of multi-ethnic workers laboring together. It was the single largest federally funded collective art project in U.S. history.

Thanks to the WPA.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) brought jobs to those who had become unemployed or underemployed during the Great Depression. Since artists, musicians, performers and writers were also hit by the economic hard times, divisions of the WPA created suitable jobs for such people.

At this time of economic crisis, we need to think creatively. And to support creative thinkers. We need to devote a portion of the economic stimulus package to the arts. We need an Arts Stimulus Plan.

An Arts Stimulus Plan today could be used for increased funding for the NEA; preservation of archives; a secretary level-post for culture/arts; arts education; arts in public space; workplace literary readings; to document history; American artists overseas; fellowships/ scholarships; support for black college writing programs; artist- and writer-in-residence programs in public libraries, and more.

There's a new initiative calling on Congress and President-elect Obama to devote one percent of the economic stimulus package to the arts. Sign the petition here.

Think the arts a superfluous part of the economy? Think again.

Here's a description of what the WPA did:

The Federal Art Project, along with several other WPA-backed programs, created well over 5,000 jobs for American artists. These artists created more than 2,500 murals, 17,700 sculptures, 108,000 paintings, and 240,000 prints. The project's legacy lives on: it supported artists Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, and many other abstract expressionists whose work helped shift the most dynamic center of the art world from its traditional location in Europe to the largest cities of the United States.

The Federal Writers' Project created more than 6,600 jobs for writers, editors, researchers, and many others who exemplified literary expertise. The project compiled local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, children's books and other works. These writers created over 1,200 books and pamphlets, and produced some of the first U.S. guides for states, major cities, and roadways. In addition, the FWP was responsible for recording folklore, oral histories, and, most notably, the 2,300 plus first-person accounts of slavery that now exist as a collection in the Library of Congress. The Project's contributions to American literature were significant and long-lasting, giving Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck, Sterling Brown, and many others the opportunity to continue their work in a time of difficult economic circumstances.

The Federal Theatre Project employed 12,700 theater workers at its peak. State units were established in 31 states and New York City, with most states in turn creating more than one company or unit within their own jurisdictions. Federal Theatre units presented more than 1,000 performances each month before nearly one million people -- 78% of these audience members were admitted free of charge, many seeing live theater for the first time. The Federal Theatre Project produced over 1,200 plays in its four-year history, introducing 100 new playwrights.

Employing around 16,000 musicians at its peak, the Federal Music Project ensembles -- orchestras and chamber groups; choral and opera units; concert, military and dance bands; and theater orchestras -- presented an estimated 5,000 performances before some three million people each week. Music projects had local cosponsors -- schools or colleges, government or civic groups -- and small admissions charges helped meet costs.

The Federal Music Project also provided classes in rural areas and urban neighborhoods; in 1939, an estimated 132,000 children and adults in 27 states received instruction every week. A Composers Forum Laboratory afforded composers in several major cities the opportunity to hear their work performed with complete instrumentation. The Index of American Composers paralleled the Design Index, cataloguing 5,500 works by 1,500 composers; WPA ensembles performed every one of these catalogued works. Extensive recording of folk music was carried out, especially in the Southeast and South Central regions. WPA workers also pioneered in music therapy experimentation. Finally, Music Project workers also served as copyists, arrangers and librarians, expanding the availability of musical work.

We are constantly enriched by the arts funding of the Great Depression -- when we visit museums, public buildings, libraries, concert halls. The murals in the Coit Tower are only a single, majestic example of how artists and writers helped pull the country out of economic chaos.

We need that kind of creative thinking today. So let's devote one percent of the stimulus package to the arts.

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