During the summer, Arlene Goldbard and I have been talking regularly about shared concerns, including the catastrophic effect of the pandemic on artists who work with communities. Their work is largely suspended, postponed or cancelled and, because they are usually freelance, government emergency help has often been of little help to them. From the beginning of the crisis, there have been calls for the creation of large scale employment programmes to rescue or revive a devastated cultural sector. Very often, they take inspiration from the Works Progress Administration set up as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1930s America. Similar arguments are being made on both sides of the Atlantic, as these articles – among numerous others – show:
- 30 March 2020, The Guardian: UK gallery curator calls for public art project in response to Covid-19,
- 6 May 2020, The Guardian: We must use arts funding to rewild our cultural landscape after coronavirus
- 25 May 2020, NPR: Art Of The New Deal: How Artists Helped Redefine America During The Depression,
- June 30, 2020, Prospect: We need a New Deal to save the arts
- 9 July 2020, Labor Notes: In the Face of Mass Unemployment, We Need a 21st Century WPA
- 15 July 2020, Chicago Tribune: How will Chicago artists make it through the pandemic? 85 years ago the Feds had an answer. Could it work again?
Arlene and I share an interest in the WPA but also in other, less well-known instances of government interventions in the labour market and how they have affected artists. And that is the point: from the New Deal in the 1930s to the Community Programme in the 1980s, none of these programmes was set up specifically to benefit artists, although artists sometimes became a particular concern. We felt that many of the appeals we saw were simplistic and that, if there was any chance of a serious policy response, we needed both a better understanding of what had happened in the past (good and bad) and more sophisticated arguments about what might happen in the future.
We thought it could be useful to share our knowledge of these issues, so we prepared, recorded, transcribed and edited a series of conversations about the WPA and the New Deal; ENSA and CEMA; ACGB and the NEA; CETA, the MSC and the Community Programme (and if you don’t know what that forest of initials represents, that’s exactly why we’ve done it). The result is a 40 page document that we’ll publish next week, on Tuesday, 29 September, with short extracts on each of the following seven days.
Then, on Tuesday, 6 October, Arlene and I will host a Zoom conversation, as we did earlier in the summer, to share ideas about how we – all of us, not just artists – might find paths towards a better working life during and after this crisis. The link to register for that event will be published here and on Arlene’s website next Tuesday.
Finally, a word of clarification. We’re not doing this because we’re experts in the subject or because we think we have answers to the problems that face us all. We’re doing it to share what we know and what we’ve seen, our ideas, our commitment and our hopes. We’re doing it because – thanks to digital technology and the constraints we’re all living with – we can. And we’re doing it because we both believe that answers coming through solidarity, conversation and mutual action.
So glad you’re doing this, Francois. I must admit to being wary of arguments that make a special case for artists, rather than ensuring that artists benefit from schemes intended for the wider population. My memories of the 1980s are that the Enterprise Allowance and Job Creation schemes were important lifelines for huge numbers of artists, great spurs to creativity, and even led to the founding of major institutions like An Lanntair. But, as you note, none of these was designed for artists specifically.
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