Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Then and Now: What Happened?

We hear news that due to the economic downturn, music and art are being cut out of school programs. What a contrast to a previous time when the U.S. was mired in difficult economic times.

It came me as I toured an exhibit of WPA-created art. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was started by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression to construct U.S. infrastructure and put Americans back to work. The workers not only built roads and bridges, but also such well-known buildings as the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles and Timberline Lodge in Oregon.

About now you may be wondering what that have to do with the topic of art. As it happens,George Biddle, friend of Roosevelt, realized how artists, musicians and writers were struggling. He convinced the president to create art, theater and music projects under WPA. (The visual arts included painters, sculptors, muralists, and photographers.)

Some of these artists taught art classes in schools and local community centers. Some of the muralists and sculptors generated work for apprentices. All of the artists were allowed to explore their own art - unless it was a public commission.

The list of artists who survived and grew includes such well-known names as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem deKooning, Diego Rivera, Thomas Hart Benton, and Grant Wood. In total, there were over 5,000 artist who were funded through WPA.

Thinking about it, I wonder how many school children were shaped by this demonstration of the importance of art/music in the world. I also wonder what happened to that commitment. What do you think?


  1. That's a good question. Why isn't teaching art & music important? I know my kids were inspired by their art,music and theater teachers.Cece

  2. I think that Pres. Roosevelt was able to get WPA projects funded because the country had already suffered so much under Pres. Hoover. Whereas most of our economic suffering today though caused by Pres. Bush's policies are blamed on Pres. Obama so he and his policies get the blame. If he tried to institute a program like the one you described, he would be barraged with insults and hostility. Mary S.

  3. Good article, RA. I have often wondered about that, too.

  4. I think it's a lot of things. The notion of stopping "to smell the roses" is considered quaint. People seem to be always in a hurry. The most important thing is to make more money. The electronic age has actually isolated people. (No matter how many "friends" on your Facebook, you're still alone on your computer) Then there is the Me generation and instant gratification.The Federal government is in gridlock. The local governments never seem to have enough money so don't even think about art and music. I agree with Mary S. If President Obama or any members of Congress were to propose anything like WPA, they would get an immediate and viscious response.

    It was a gentler time in the 30's and 40's, even with the terrible economy. SZ