Apr 072009

The United States of America was in crisis as 1934 approached. Art seemed irrelevant as the national economy fell into a profound depression after the stock market crash of October 1929. Thousands of banks failed…businesses struggled or collapsed.

Paul Kelpe, 1934.

A quarter of the workforce was unemployed, while an equal number worked reduced hours. More and more people were homeless and hungry. Nearly 10,000 unemployed artists faced destitution.

The nation looked expectantly to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was inaugurated in March 1933. The new administration swiftly initiated a wide-ranging series of economic recovery programs called…

Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan easily alludes to FDR’s New Deal. The exhibit description adapted above of Smithsonian American Art Museum’s current curation, “1934: A New Deal For Artists,” reads as if written for today.

The economy was in crisis as 2009 approached. Wall Street failed, businesses collapsed. Art seemed irrelevant as the national economy fell into a profound recession. The nation looked expectantly to Barack Obama, who swiftly initiated a wide-ranging series of economic recovery programs.

During the Great Depression unemployment hit 25%. Today it’s at eight America is freaking out. Especially if you watch the news. Fox News reports are particularly alarming. Conservative pundits warn that the New Deal actually prolonged the depression and predictably echo Regan’s inaugural assertion that “[i]n this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Colbert Great Depression

Whatever we do, we certainly have a situation on our hands. And we’re the ones who’ll decide what to do about it. Government funding can offer structure and direction, but how we choose to use it determines our future.

America generally seems to agree that creating a solution to our financial woes involves an aim to maintain or regain our pre-recession lifestyle. The assumption is that everything must return to normal.


Wrong. Things can’t go back to the way they were – and we don’t want them to. What got us into a national financial scramble are bad habits that created an unsustainable economy. Rather, we can look to our current recession as an opportunity to evaluate and reevaluate our surroundings – and produce a new American lifestyle of sustainable prosperity.

Our creative economy can lift us from today’s financial recession.

FDR created the Public Works of Art Program as the first federally funded arts project in American history. Today’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes $50 million in grant funding for the arts. $50 million of $787 billion – or .0000635% – isn’t much to work with, and some are bothered by it anyway. By comparison, “$165 million…is less than one-tenth of one percent of the total amount of bailout money given to AIG in one form or another.”

Obama’s economic plan throws limited funds to the arts, so if art can recess the recession, it’ll be all about public-private partnerships. Luckily, years of overselling real-estate has left us with plenty of empty space  – and free time from the highest unemployment rate in 25 years – to find creative ways to use it.


So how can DC turn our part of $50 million into over $5 billion? By being DC.

A report soon to be released by the DC Office of Planning and DC Economic Partnership has found DC’s creative economy is overlooked and under-hyped. Creative jobs are 10% of the city’s workforce – and bagged over $5 billion in wages alone during 2007 – sans financial stimulus.

DC is among America’s largest media hubs, and the city’s creative economy is growing faster than the financial progress in other industries and geographic areas.

Bringing art into empty building space is a great way to build community and generate economic development. Condo buildings and retail spaces that sit vacant as property shifts hands and faces are prime real-estate for pop-up arts events.


Pinkline Project and Artomatic are both examples of people using empty space in creative ways. Artomatic 2009 expects over 1000 artists to draw more than 50,000 visitors to the Capitol Riverfront from May 29-July 5. Working with private developers and independent businesses to secure space and event logistics, Artomatic is funded in part by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, an agency supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The recession offers an opportunity to redefine our own everyday creativity. We can look to the interchange between arts and lifestyle to produce solutions for our economic recession. The same is true now as was during the Great Depression. And luckily, a bit less extreme. The deal still needs to be new – and the arts are still a relevant solution.

Today, we’re all the artists.

Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration created the Public Works of Art Program—the first federal government program to support the arts nationally. Federal officials in the 1930s understood how essential art was to sustaining America’s spirit. Artists from across the United States who participated in the program, which lasted only six months from mid-December 1933 to June 1934, were encouraged to depict “the American Scene.”

The President realized that Americans needed not only employment but also the inspiration art could provide. On December 8, 1933, the Advisory Committee to the Treasury on Fine Arts organized the Public Works of Art Project. Within days sixteen regional committees were recruiting artists who eagerly set to work in all parts of America.

Between December 1933 and June 1934, the PWAP hired 3,749 artists who created 15,663 paintings, murals, sculptures, prints drawings, and craft works. The PWAP suggested “The American Scene” as appropriate subject matter, but allowed artists to interpret this idea freely… The PWAP art displayed in schools, libraries, post offices, museums, and government buildings and lifted the spirits of Americans all over the country…

Dedrick Brandes Stuber: Passing Clouds, 1934