Martha Richards: Arts can play role in economic recovery

Column by Martha Richards
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When facing tough times, most Americans turn to the arts. We crank up our favorite songs on the radio, go to a movie, or settle in for an evening of “Dancing with the Stars.” And yet as our country struggles through one of its worst economic periods, our leaders seem oblivious to the pivotal role the arts can play in our recovery.

Seventy-five years ago our leaders made better use of our cultural strengths. When President Roosevelt led the country during the Great Depression of the 1930s, he understood that the arts generated hope and community pride, and he invested in them as part of his recovery strategy.

The centerpiece of his recovery program was the massive Works Progress Administration (WPA), and it supported arts, drama, media, oral history and literacy programs side by side with programs to construct public buildings and roads. The WPA employed more than 40,000 artists, including many of the best artists of the period, such as Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Louise Nevelson, Langston Hughes, Orson Welles and Arthur Miller. These artists eventually became American cultural icons, but during the Depression, they were out of work along with everyone else.

During his election campaign, President Obama recognized that the country was facing a crisis of imagination. He campaigned on a platform of hope and convened a National Arts Policy Committee of 33 arts leaders. He promised to be a champion of the arts and said, “To remain competitive in the global economy, America needs to reinvigorate the kind of creativity and innovation that has made this country great.”

But in his recent State of the Union speech about the economic stimulus programs, the president did not include the arts. He announced that 2 million Americans had been hired because of his programs, and he spoke proudly of hiring construction and clean-energy workers, teachers, police officers, firefighters, first responders and correctional officers. He did not mention hiring artists.

To be fair, his administration hasn’t completely ignored the arts in its recovery plans. The National Endowment for the Arts received $50 million of stimulus funds last year despite strong Republican opposition – but that is a miniscule percentage of the total Recovery Act package of $787 billion.

The total budget appropriation for the NEA this year is only $167.5 million – enough for about 7,600 jobs at a salary of $22,000 per year – the poverty level for a family of four. Does anyone seriously believe that such a meager investment is adequate to maintain the cultural vitality of a nation of 315 million people in a period of crisis?

It’s time for President Obama to include artists in his recovery plans. His strategy of offering tax breaks to small, private businesses won’t create the jobs artists need. We need federal employment programs like the WPA of the 1930s or the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of the 1970s that create true public sector jobs.

Thousands of unemployed and under-employed artists are taking whatever jobs they can find these days. Instead of ignoring their talents, we should be hiring them to beautify our cities, spark the creativity of our children, ease the loneliness of our seniors, document our past, imagine our future and inspire us all with performances, workshops, books, exhibits and a wide range of other activities.

The next Zora Neale Hurston and Arthur Miller are standing in unemployment lines somewhere right now. Their creativity is among our country’s greatest assets. Let’s not waste it.

Martha Richards is founder and executive director of WomenArts; she is also co-creator of Support Women Artists Now Day.

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