How will Chicago artists make it through the pandemic? 85 years ago the Feds had an answer. Could it work again?

How essential is an artist? Art, you’ve noticed, has been idle. The artist, in pandemic Chicago, has been stripped of stages, classrooms, materials. Many, who were already working two or three jobs for supplemental income, were stripped of second and third jobs. Some, seeing little light at the end of […]

How essential is an artist?

Art, you’ve noticed, has been idle.

The artist, in pandemic Chicago, has been stripped of stages, classrooms, materials. Many, who were already working two or three jobs for supplemental income, were stripped of second and third jobs. Some, seeing little light at the end of the COVID tunnel, have probably given up already.

Even a starving artist can last only so long.

And yet, remarkable as it may be seem in 2020, there was a moment, about a decade long, when this country and its White House, eager to get Americans to work, considered its artists essential.

You live everyday with that legacy.

Consider the South Side Community Art Center, an 80-year old institution in a 130-year old Classical Revival house. It rests in an unassuming lot on South Michigan Avenue. It is tall and austere, warm and a bit removed from its Bronzeville neighborhood, set off by stretches of green. And it is different. Gwendolyn Brooks wrote her first book of poetry here, and Gordon Parks used the darkroom in its basement. When Nat King Cole came to town, he played its piano.

“There weren’t a lot of places in 1940 where an African-American artist could thrive or connect,” said Monique Brinkman-Hill, its executive director. “So we were a hub for artists across the country. When they came to Chicago, they came here, that rare place they could be themselves.”

The South Side Community Art Center was also founded by the Works Progression Administration, and dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s an ongoing reminder that there was a time in this country when the federal government regarded culture as indispensable, and indeed, it’s not bad to be reminded right now: It was created as a response to unemployed artists.

Head north and you see more evidence.

A huge ceramic memorial to Carl Sandburg and Louis Sullivan in the Uptown post office. A sprawling mural titled “Chicago: Epoch of a Great City,” a 24-foot long salute to Midwestern industry, installed at the Lakeview post office on Irving Park Road. Both were made because the federal government once employed out-of-work artists. But really though, you could head anywhere: Government buildings across the state are still showcases of art made possible by the New Deal. Not to mention, though many were later removed, Chicago Public Schools alone had the most WPA murals in the country.

And government-subsidized culture then wasn’t limited to murals and arts centers.

The Chicago chapter of the Federal Writers’ Project once employed, all at the same time, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel and Saul Bellow. Without WPA folklorist Alan Lomax gathering field recordings in rural America, Chicago blues might never have known Muddy Waters. Without Viola Spolin getting a WPA salary to develop her “spontaneous performing” techniques at the Jane Addams Hull House, her son Paul Sills might never have popularized her methods later when he co-founded Second City.

It’s hard to overstate the legacy of federal arts programs in Chicago.

It’s even harder imagining a Chicago without the artists or influence the WPA left behind.

But you know what’s hardest of all?

Picturing a new WPA, to relieve a pandemic-era arts community.

“Because of temperament perhaps, because unemployment had hit Chicago hard, because of the range of talent, and because those just out of college who needed jobs were thrown alongside veteran artists out of work, Chicago enormously benefited,” said historian David Taylor, author of “Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America.” “The result is, Chicago drives American culture for decades after.”

But federal arts programs were not obvious in the 1930s, either.

Indeed, 85 years ago this spring, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, with more than 20 percent of Chicagoans out of work, President Roosevelt did something unprecedented. By signing an executive order creating the WPA — one of several federal programs established during the 1930s that provided regular salaries to artists — he was promoting the role of the federal government as arts patron. He was suggesting the government should play a part in directing the cultural identity of the nation itself. And by the late 1930s, about 75,000 Chicagoans — and 12,000 more in the surrounding suburbs — were working for the WPA.

“It was seen as a practical investment,” said Elizabeth Siegel, curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, which recently staged an exhibition of American art made during the Depression. “There was a sense that art sustained the American spirit as food sustained the body. It was central.”

Skip forward a lifetime and unemployment is around 17 percent.

But even during the worst of the Depression, museums were open, concerts were happening and audiences could gather.“ The Drake and the Palmer House had orchestras, the Civic Opera House was still young and we had about 8,000 members, because everything wasn’t just shut down,” said Terryl Jares, president of the Chicago Federation of Musicians. But right now, if you have a cultural job in Chicago, depending on your field, it’s very possible there’s a near-blackout of opportunities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 37 percent of those in the arts and entertainment industry (nationally) are out of work; in TV and film production, it’s closer to 40 percent.

Deana Haggag, president of the Chicago-based United States Artists funding organization, said they have provided 1,200 artists with $5,000 relief grants since mid- March — and yet, her group has processed more than 100,000 applications for relief.

You would guess 2020 is primed for a new WPA, right?

The surprising thing is, with no end to the pandemic in sight, some arts administrators are having casual, low-level conversations about what a large-scale federal arts project might resemble these days. Claire Rice, executive director of Arts Alliance Illinois, said she’s taken part in “quiet generative conversations” with arts administrators across the country, at both the state and national level. “And the more interesting models are ask artists to make public work, or for an artist to use their skill sets in a broader fashion.”

The less surprising thing is, there’s little agreement on the practicality or funding of any potential WPA 2.0. Mark Kelly, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, told me: “It’s just not doable locally. It would have to originate in Washington.” Meanwhile Jon Parrish Peede, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, said: “It wouldn’t originate in Washington, as as part of the government, but from institutions, or museums, with private funders and corporations stepping in.”

Not that New Deal art projects came together smoothly, quickly or coherently.

When the Stock Market crashed in 1929, when the Great Depression began, conventional wisdom said a working artist in America was analogous to a monk: There might be a few successful ones but the job was a vow of poverty, a lifestyle choice. And since the artist never really had a job to lose, why the intense rush to provide one now?

The reality was not unlike 2020, with artists scrounging together a living from disparate jobs. “Richard Wright sent a letter to Ralph Ellison describing what it was like to be a freelancer,” said Jason Boog, author of a new history, “The Deep End: The Literary Scene in the Great Depression and Today.” “He was writing for newspapers, he was picking up work here and there for peanuts, with no time to write for himself. And so without a Federal Writers Project, he would not have had time to write ‘Native Son.’”

By 1935, as unemployment hovered near 25 percent, the WPA was established mainly for traditional public works projects — Chicago, for instance, saw many parks and streets created through WPA labor. When WPA director Harry Hopkins sought to include artists among those workers, he argued: “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people!” Basically, the federal government was cobbling together a lifeline for unemployed artists.

The Public Works of Art Project in 1933 hired 4,000 artists who created more than 16,000 murals and paintings for government buildings, but lasted only seven months and was often accused of supporting mediocre talent. The next large arts program, the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture, was more successful. It lasted seven years. It was also a project of the Department of Treasury, which prided itself on taste and quality artists. If the Department of the Treasury sounds random, consider that many of the photographs now synonymous with the Depression — from Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange — came from a photographers work project at the Farm Security Administration.

Eventually, tens of thousands of artists were employed by federal programs.

The Writers project hired 7,500 writers; its legendary American Guide series, which aimed to introduce Americans to the history and character of their own (then 48) states, had 6,000 writers alone. “Black Metropolis,” the seminal sociology study about Black Chicago, was created with the WPA. Federal Theatre Project employed more than 15,000 playwrights, actors and technicians, and gave both Arthur Miller and Orson Welles their earliest starts. Folklore, slave narratives and oral histories were collected — Zora Neale Hurston was assigned to this. Visual art projects employed Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Grant Wood. But most of the artists were unknown and remained so. Of the 63 WPA works in the collection at the Block Museum at Northwestern University, said academic curator Corinne Granof, “you see expressive, gestural styles, you see sophistication while some are crude in style, but the themes stay pretty consistent — social action, labor struggles, inequality.”

Regionalism and American pride were initially go-to subjects. But as the WPA went on, “artists increasingly saw a need to speak for narrower communities,” said Heather Becker, CEO of the Conservation Center in Chicago and an expert on the city’s WPA murals. “More women and Black people made art for the WPA than people assume.”

Nothing less than an idea of a collective American culture began to solidify.

“There was real interest in deciding what essential American expression should be,” said Siegel. “Remember, it’s the wake of World War I, older institutions had failed. Americans didn’t feel a same need to look back to Europe for high culture models.” As theater and music divisions began sending companies and bands into rural backwaters, “for many Americans this was the first time they saw a symphony or play, and they start to understand that the arts is something that should exist in everyone’s life, not just city life,” said Margaret Rung, director of the Center for New Deal Studies at Roosevelt University. Indeed, WPA oral histories and interviews gathered a sociological snapshot of a nation, often from Americans surprised anyone would want to hear their story told.

Broadly, the culture of the Depression can look remarkably familiar: Even as the phrase “The American Dream” is being coined, the capitalism parlor game Monopoly is taking off. Even as “Grapes of Wrath” delivers the reality of rural poverty, Hollywood churns out Fred Astaire escapism and Universal movie monsters. Social criticism and popular fantasy start a long romance, and as in “Our Town,” which debuts in 1938, the culture begins its endless pendulum swing between nostalgia for a world lost and the existential pains of the present. Yet more importantly, as Morris Dickstein wrote in “Dancing in the Dark,” his 2009 history of the period, Americans discovered an “enormous interest in how ordinary people lived, how they suffered, interacted, took pleasure in one another.”

Which sounds a lot like Instagram, Facebook or at least TikTok.

The pandemic, the protests, the anxiety, the isolation, the economy, the uncertainty, the ugliness, the way the nation was both upended and revealed — it will be a subject for generations of artists. Employment opportunities aside, it also makes an argument for a new WPA, for an large project that documents and makes sense of this country in the 21st century. Which, of course, would look different than the 1930s: “What’s would be the medium,” said NEH’s Jon Parrish Peede. “Would a Richard Wright in 2020 create a podcast?” Some arts administrators argue a new WPA could be a way of renewing arts education; others say it might serve to fill spaces left empty by toppled statues. Certainly, the artist pool itself would look radically different: Haggag of United States Artists said the majority of their relief applicants are white but not demonstrating the need for relief they are seeing of artists from traditionally marginalized communities.

“A new WPA would need to confront our image of art as divorced from society, and change perceptions of who we think is an artist in this country and what they contribute. The value would be in imagining a new world — because this is one’s not sustainable.”

Needless to say, any new WPA would be controversial, at least as contentious as it was during the Depression.

Of the derogatory labels thrown at it, “post office art” was the mildest. From the start, federal culture initiatives were pegged by conservative as wasteful, intrusive — painter Edward Hopper, a relentless critic of the New Deal, refused to take part in the Federal Art Project, saying government guidelines to capture an “American scene” resulted in toothless caricatures. The Winnetka School Board, refusing to erect a mural in one of its buildings, described images of white laborers working alongside Black laborers as overtly “communistic in character.” Indeed, depicting poverty, toil or just Black people became reasons why WPA art was removed (or never installed) in government buildings and schools. (Conversely, in 2019, a WPA mural was removed from an Oak Park school for the opposite reason — because the painting depicted only white figures.) A three-part Tribune series in 1940 called out the wastefulness of such projects and described the art as incompetent and subversive, a Trojan Horse for whining about capitalism. The House Un-American Activities Committee agreed; it called the Federal Theatre Project a front for leftist propaganda and targeted its funding, eliminating the program.

Artists themselves weren’t always thrilled, either. Many complained that regional supervisors hired to oversee WPA workshops understood little about art. Increase Robinson, a Chicago painter and WPA art director, became especially despised. When her stable of 185 artists insisted on more freedom in the subjects they were allowed paint, she doubled down and said they could no longer depict nudes, liquor or politics.

The legacy of the WPA, however, has outstripped those complaints, and today, its art projects are often what is remembered about the WPA. Before it folded in 1943, it left 500 murals and 500 sculptures in Illinois; nationally, it erected more than 2,500 murals and 17,000 sculptures. Decades later, in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson, inspired by memories of the WPA, created both the NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts.

And all of that seems impossible in 2020 — at least with a White House not about to support an arts community almost exclusively hostile towards it. Never mind a gradual drift from federal and state art funding towards a mishmash of NGOs and privatization.

Not everyone accepts this.

Michael Zapata, a Chicago writer whose debut novel “The Lost Book of Adana Moreau” has been among the year’s most acclaimed, said that between jobs teaching high school and working at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he was able to finish his book because of a $7,500 grant he received from the Illinois Arts Council. He said, as arts funding goes, he made a decision he would only take grants from governmental organizations. “Because, say you’re 29 and you want to take a risk as a writer — that much money was enough for me to actually do it. And right now, we struggle with the dismantling of public good. I don’t fault NGOs but we have to return somehow to the idea of the arts as an national investment. Or do we keep asking artists to beg the wealthy to allow culture to survive? There is always that point where they abandon you.”

He proposed what several arts administrators proposed: Not a new WPA at all, but universal health care, college-debt relief — some easing of the expenses that all too often means the only artists who get to create art are artists from fortunate backgrounds. So, in the meantime, pandemic relief for Chicago artists has been primarily from small grants — not a salary, not enough to continue making art necessarily, just enough to survive. The Chicago Arts Relief Fund, created by Chicago artists, and set up on GoFundMe, has raised $97,000 since March, had requests from every zip code in Chicago but limits relief to $300. “We joke we’re the friend who can’t pay your rent but we’ll take you to dinner and buy groceries to keep you going,” said organizer Ellenor Riley-Condit.

Then again, it did take the government — and a change of White House — more than four years after the Stock Market crash to create the nation’s first federally-funded arts project. Aspects of the WPA — its fabled writers division, for instance — weren’t included until the artists themselves protested.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people about a new WPA,” said Boog. “They don’t see it. But I see years of problems ahead, and history shows that once everything builds to some mark, when it looks like everything will fall apart, only then will the government finally act. So I’m hopeful. People can’t imagine it for themselves — until they do. That’s when it materializes. Unity makes the difference.”

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©2020 the Chicago Tribune

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