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David Watterson is a pianist and advocate for music and art as a strategy for social impact. He lives in San Francisco. You can find him on Twitter.

WPA-funded musicians perform in New Orleans’ Lafayette Square

WPA-funded musicians perform in New Orleans’ Lafayette Square

In an age of TARP bailouts and tax credit-as-stimulus, it is difficult to imagine our federal government so deliberately investing in musicians and artists today as it once did, in the 1930s. In those bleak years following the Great Depression, the American Federation of Musicians estimated that some 70% of formerly employed musicians were out of work (compare this to a 25% unemployment rate among Americans overall). Forming the type of rational response that our government now seems so incapable of, four programs specifically aimed at putting artists to work were implemented under the Works Project Administration’s Federal One: the Federal Writers’ Project, the Federal Theater Project, the Federal Art Project, and the Federal Music Project.

As a life-long musician and someone who works to promote opportunities for musicians to serve their community, the Federal Music Project (FMP) is of particular interest to me. By the numbers alone, the FMP’s output and scope is remarkable:

  • 4 years of implementation
  • 16,000 musicians employed at its peak
  • Nearly 100 million persons attended FMP events
  • Over 133,000 events and performances were held
  • Nearly 8 million students received free music lessons
  • 34 new orchestras created, and nearly 100 other orchestras supported


The FMP subsidized artists across the country to perform individually and as part of ensembles, to teach music to youth and adults who could not afford lessons, and to document musical activities and innovate and implement new ones. As a whole, the Federal One programs were timely not only for the economic boost it gave to the arts sector of the workforce, but also for the societal uplift it helped produce in reaching millions of Americans during a time of uncertainty. It could also be argued that the Federal One programs helped art and cultural development become a widely held value among Americans for the first time.

Federal Music Project violin class ca. 1936

Federal Music Project violin class ca. 1936

Given the size of the investment in Federal One, these results are to be expected. Receiving 10% of the WPA’s initial appropriation, the Federal One programs were funded at nearly $500 million in 1935. At the rate of inflation since then, this same investment represents over $8.5 billion in 2013 dollars. It was also the first time the federal government made an investment in art and culture. Unfortunately, it’s only gone downhill since then.

Almost 80 years later and slogging through the jobless recovery from the 2009 recession, musicians still struggle with chronic unemployment and underemployment. Yet the concept of investing in art and those who create it is one of the most divisive propositions on Capitol Hill. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) receives around $150 million per year, which places it near the bottom of the totem pole for federal agency appropriations. During the 2009 negotiations on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Republican legislators were so hostile to the NEA that they attempted to strip the bill of all funding for the agency, even though it represented less than 1% of the total stimulus.

It is clear that art has a branding problem. Unfortunately, the imagery of high-culture elite who speak of their patronage of “the arts” has been used as a political wedge to misrepresent art as a whole as out-of-touch, irrelevant, and nice-but-not-necessary. And while the SOBs of the art world (Symphony, Opera, Ballet) will and should always be an important part of a healthy culture, smart art advocates have been wise to learn from the New Deal’s treatment of arts, and switch the story in recent years. The FMP and other Federal One programs were effective because they tied arts to economic security (putting artists to work), social outcomes (providing free music lessons to youth and adults), and most of all, making arts accessible to everyone (ensembles toured the country and performed in schools, city squares, and public parks). As the numbers so plainly show, people loved the Federal One programs. While we may have missed an opportunity to recreate those programs or something similar in the 2009 stimulus, the blueprint for how Federal One talked about and implemented arts is still available as we move forward.

Interestingly, the best opportunity and vehicle to invest in musicians and artists today happens to be another federal program that was inspired by the WPA: AmeriCorps. The so-called “domestic Peace Corps” is a jobs program at heart and follows in the footsteps of the WPA by subsidizing Americans to work full-time toward social outcomes: teaching and tutoring students in low-performing schools, building trails in parks and responding to natural disasters, and helping deliver critical health education to communities ravaged by AIDS and diabetes. For the past twenty years, AmeriCorps has invested in Americans of all walks of life, providing them an opportunity to apply their skills in service of their community. But there has yet to be any significant investment in musicians and artists as teachers, mentors, and community leaders.

This should change.

While the creation of music and art are beautiful things on their own, the magic of these disciplines is that in practicing them, a host of other unexpected outcomes come about as well. It’s hard to ignore the stories that are found in media reports on an almost daily basis these days: Walter Reed Hospital is using music therapy to treat veterans suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD; music students perform better on standardized tests; and seniors with Alzheimer’s and dementia who listened to music from their youth showed improved socialization and could recall parts of their memory that they could not otherwise.

Musicians and artists have more to contribute to our country than entertainment and consumer products. The Federal One programs showed us the way; now let’s invest in ourselves by investing in them.

This week, Truth Bomb Trails is exploring Music + Social Justice: Building Community through Sound. Look forward to posts on the ways that musicians and artists provide public service, the perspective of Paul Willis (hear his music at bandcamp, soundcloud, reflections on music from childhood and a look at the role music helps to shape and define emerging cultures.

Enjoy the tunes that helped inspire the week!

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