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Can government investment in the arts help lift Colorado, the U.S. out of the economy’s coronavirus slump?

In light of the pandemic and resulting unemployment for creative workers, more than a few influential arts advocates have floated the idea of a New Deal for the arts.

Artist Kristen Vohs is working on a mural at the corner of Turnberry and Richards Lake Roads in Fort Collins. The mural is a collaboration with the City of Fort Collins and the Maple Hill HOA. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Maybe if things get bad enough, something radically good can come of it.

Some arts advocates, daring to hope for a change in the presidential administration, believe it’s almost time for a new New Deal for the arts.

Michael Bracy, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist who has worked in music policy for 20 years, insists the idea is gaining steam. He cautiously suggests if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidential election and the Democrats take both chambers of Congress, “all the momentum is toward a new New Deal, with the potential of Biden being the most activist president since FDR.”

He is not the only one who’s cautiously optimistic.

In a recent Brookings Institution report, Michael Seman, a faculty member at Colorado State University’s LEAP Institute for the Arts, argued for federal recovery measures that include substantial support for arts, cultural, and creative groups, as they do for other impacted industries.

Michael Seman, of Colorado State University’s LEAP Institute for the Arts, co-wrote a Brookings report suggesting a new New Deal for the Arts. He is pictured with a new mural in progress by Kristen Vohs that is collaboration with the City of Fort Collins and the Maple Hill HOA. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

”A large number of the most creative, skilled, and savvy people in the country are out of jobs simultaneously,” Seman said in a phone interview. “How can we harness that resource and develop collaborative projects and programs for them that might foster interdisciplinary work, enhance skills, and result in innovation in process and product? Think along the lines of what Tokyo’s teamLab and France’s Théoriz Studio are exploring and creating.” 

(Both employ immersive, interactive sound and light installations, robotics and more.)

“Perhaps this is the time to incubate a ‘Creative Economy 2.0’ across the United States that is inclusive, interdisciplinary and intersectoral,” Seman said.

Bracy, founder of the nonprofit Future of Music Coalition, said in a phone interview he doesn’t mean to cheer the awful state of the economy, the pandemic and social unrest in hopes of hitting bottom en route to creating something new. “Obviously this year has been so incredibly difficult on so many levels for so many people. There’s no glee, in terms of now we can build something better, but that is the reality.”

“I just want to be creative in thinking about what is the connection point where culture fits into the broader schemes? A bunch of us are trying to get on the front end of this,” he said. “What should it look like? We’re not going to create a Department of Culture … we need to start fresh with really rethinking what can and should the responsibility of the federal government be.”

MORE: Coronavirus killed 59,179 arts jobs in Colorado and crippled key economic and cultural engines. Can they be revived?

The debate has been around for decades. “Underpinning my work for a long time is the fact that the U.S. is really an anomaly when we think of the relationship of government and arts and culture.” Bracy points to Canada and the way that country has taken the sting out of the inevitable consolidation of the radio industry by helping musical artists. 

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Consolidation has been bad for everyone except the broadcasting giants, like Clear Channel, who have profited from the industry’s move to automation. Station staffers lose jobs, listeners lose choices, fewer corporate owners mean a homogenization of the industry and make it harder for fresh acts to break in. Canada’s Radio Starmaker program takes 3% of the profits from radio company mergers to put into a fund for indie artists — “enough to buy the van, make the video, hire the publicist,” Bracy said. “That led to a crazy run of a dozen Canadian indie bands” — among them Arcade Fire, Feist, Metric — who broke through.

How might this sort of government-mandated support for the arts work in other fields?

In light of the pandemic and resulting unemployment for creative workers, more than a few influential arts advocates have floated the idea of a new New Deal for the arts. The lack of federal arts funding has never been more obvious, and emergency grants won’t provide the long-term answer, they claim. “Is there hope for a new New Deal in the U.S.?” asks a recent headline in The Art Newspaper.

Early in the pandemic, Art in America editor William S. Smith wrote that the necessary cultural bailout has been a long time coming: “As industries across the board line up for bailouts, it is time to assert culture as an essential industry and map out a role for the arts that would have seemed unimaginable weeks ago. A new Federal Art Project probably wouldn’t be devoted to mural painting, but it could offer an alternative to a flailing market and channel artworks into public collections. Museums, now supported through tax-deductible donations, could receive more direct public funding in exchange for offering free admission. Private markets and philanthropy will be changed on the other side of this pandemic, so it is time once again to envision what art looks like as a public good.”

“If this is more palatable if thought of as a reboot, a romantic connection to what happened under the WPA,” Bracy said, “maybe it’s WPA 2.0.”

How the WPA worked

Under FDR in the 1930s, the Public Works of Art Project, and then the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project, employed some 10,000 artists nationally. Some big names came out of those programs, including Stuart Davis, Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky. Artists were paid $23.60 a week, roughly $450 a week in today’s dollars, to create work for government buildings, post offices, schools and libraries.

“The Harvest,” a WPA mural by Louise Emerson Ronnebeck, was created as decoration for the U.S. Courthouse in Grand Junction. The work, depicting a young man and woman working together harvesting peaches, with references to modern irrigation and Ute Indians being pushed from the valley by white settlers, was shipped to Washington, D.C., in 1973 for restoration and subsequently forgotten. It was returned to Grand Junction in 1992. (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress)

The Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture and the Treasury Relief Art Project also provided jobs for artists and artisans as part of Roosevelt’s relief efforts. The Federal Art Project directly funded visual artists and created popular posters for agencies like the National Park Service.

Colorado has many notable WPA efforts, including some huge projects built under the Civilian Conservation Corps like Rocky Mountain National Park, Red Rocks Amphitheatre and Mesa Verde. WPA murals and reliefs decorate schools and post offices throughout the state, including Denver East High School’s library mural depicting Marco Polo’s journey to China.

The WPA at its peak employed more than 40,000 Coloradans, mostly building roads, bridges and schools.

These days, the object of a federal arts project wouldn’t be library murals so much as cross-disciplinary works, merging arts with technology. And beyond. 

Seman is excited by the possibility of embedding artists across a wide range of industries. “You have tech, health care … There’s such a wide need for employment. What if it was interdisciplinary, pair an artist with a coder/ someone in high tech? Say a community has a problem to address, get a group together … interesting solutions and ideas come out of that.”

He points to Xerox Parc, the early Palo Alto business spinoff of Xerox, originally intended to work on copiers, that spawned Apple, the personal computer and Silicon Valley.

“These artists became lifelong friends and collaborators,” Seman said. “We’re perfectly positioned for something like that now.”

Bracy sees reason for optimism. Hopeful for political change in November, he is encouraged by “the notion of an administration and congressional leadership that are more attuned to the power of culture and the power of creative workers.” The recent tech antitrust hearings suggest “a willingness to engage in structural economics,” he said. The massive amount of stimulus dollars the government is pumping out is another good sign, he believes.

“I see the potential of Congress, I see Chuck Schumer voicing support for music (via the bipartisan Save our Stages legislation, to preserve live music venues with help from the Small Business Administration) the way I’ve never seen in Washington,” Bracy said. “What could we do if we put our heads together that would be in the best tradition of the arts in this country? I definitely think that’s where the conversation is heading.”

Arts to urban development to public media

The conversation extends to urban development and gentrification, the effect of gathering places on neighborhoods and the complexities around cultural districts. “If you lose a lot of those vulnerable gathering places because they can’t pay rent, or it’s perceived that these are luxury items, that has a real domino effect on the viability of cities,” Bracy said

Sesame Street Math Expert Count von Count. (Simone D. McCourtie, World Bank Photo Collection licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Similarly Bracy foresees “a fundamental rethink about what is the role of public media in a digital age.” Just as the “vast wasteland” of TV in the 1960s led to the creative blossoming of Children’s Television Workshop and “Sesame Street,” Bracy, who also works in the area of documentaries, anticipates a flourishing of nonfiction storytelling in the streaming era. “The rise of digital streaming services have created the ability to get stuff out there, but very few people are really thriving … 1% is doing extremely well, there are lots of people who want to be in the sector but there are no jobs.”

As usual in the arts, the question is, who gets to tell the stories? Who gets to identify as a composer/playwright/filmmaker? Is it only people who have family money or a spouse’s support? Who can take unpaid internships and not worry about making rent? A federal program would help level the playing field.

Bracy notes the Department of Labor has a program, Arts2Work, through the National Alliance for Media, Arts & Culture — putting money in apprentice programs, providing access to entry level work for those traditionally excluded. “It’s not a huge program,” he said, “but could be scaled.”

Optimists say the time is right for innovation, an opportunity for a grand national rethink when it comes to arts funding. Seman hopes the interdisciplinary approach will reveal new ways the creative economy can be jump-started. “Take that and go even further. What if the medical profession were involved? Let’s go to the next step. It’s not a zero-sum game, as I tell my students, you have to think holistically and globally in the arts economy.”

Rising Sun