What the UK can learn from Roosevelt’s progressive arts policies

Images from from Federal Art Project (FAP)

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How does one judge the value of art? It is no easy feat. How can something so broad as ‘the arts’ be understood through the completely subjective lens of ‘value’? You might want to start by asking an artist. If they are not busy at the easel or hunched over the potter’s wheel, they will probably have a surprisingly straight answer: “It’s my livelihood”. Beyond this, the mental health benefits and ability to serve local communities might be discussed, as well as the ability to contribute and share ideas within an artistically talented society. Ask your average gallery enthusiast or indie-film connoisseur and you will receive a range of answers touching on the arts industry’s capacity for education, creative inspiration and, perhaps most significant of all, the pure joy it brings to millions. Yet, when you bring the factor of state-funding into the discussion, this diversity of opinions appears to become obsolete. Worse yet, set this discussion in the aftermath of a global economic crisis or deadly pandemic, and those in charge of state funding are forced to take a far less personal approach in judging the value of the arts.

For over a decade, the UK’s creative industries have been choked of public funding. Following the 2008 housing crisis, a succession of Conservative governments have judged the arts industry alongside other desperate public services. Members of these governments, particularly the revolving door of ministers within the Departments of Education and Culture, Media & Sport, have sought to assess the arts in terms of immediate economic value. Although the once-Chancellor, Sajid Javid, boldly announced to the House of Commons in 2019 that the UK had “turned the page on austerity”, plans for a 50% cut to funding for arts subjects at universities of between nineteen and thirty-six million pounds would suggest that those working, or hoping to work, in creative industries have been left out. This slash to funding, announced by education secretary Gavin Williams, seeks to reduce government expenditure on subjects from art and design to drama and archaeology that are not deemed “strategic priorities” compared to the utility of STEM subjects. This is but the most recent attack from the Conservative government on the UK’s arts industries. 

Besides the instability forced upon professional artists and performers, this decision removes any semblance of accessibility associated with the arts. The message sent out by our government is that those who cannot afford a creative education should reconsider their options; that the arts should remain populated by a small clique of privately educated curators, actors, and directors, and that the creative industry has nothing to offer working class communities. 

The case for an increase in funding for the arts has a two-fold justification: to increase the artistic accessibility for all communities across the country, and to foster a culture in which artistic professions are not simply considered frivolous bourgeois hobbies, but vital components in local economies. One has only to examine the history of progressive politics in the twentieth century to understand how all parties in the UK, with their infinite wisdom and common touch, can stimulate the arts industries and lift up the plight of the artist and artisan to the status it deserves.

Austerity is not the only path out of an all-consuming financial crisis, and neglecting the livelihoods of visual artists and artisans is certainly not a necessity in rebuilding a national economy. If one were to gaze across the Atlantic in the mid-1930s to a United States almost brought to its knees by a market crash yet to be matched, you might catch a glimpse at a far more inclusive approach to rebuilding an economy. Like the housing crisis of 2008, The Great Depression was a period of dire suffering for workers of all trades and was ultimately stimulated within a small financial sector. It seems almost reductive to focus solely on the plight of the artist, and yet the action taken by the federal government to aid this plight had benefits not just within creative circles, but in working class communities across the nation. 

In 1933, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, through the range of domestic reforms known as the New Deal, established the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). This was part of a tidal wave of exemplary state intervention and investment sought to stimulate the economy through large scale public works in the United States. Together, various schemes provided full time employment to professional artists and provided opportunities for them to produce murals, paintings, and sculptures for places of public significance (town halls, libraries, schools, and federal buildings, etc). In only five months, this organisation employed 3,749 artists and commissioned over 15,633 public works of art. For the first time, the might of the government was intervening to empower the professional artist, treating their employment with the same urgency as construction workers, dam builders, farmers, and engineers. Yet, the pinnacle of Roosevelt’s progressive prowess came in 1935 in the form of the Federal Art Project that expanded the PWAP’s commissions to include graphic art, photography, theatre set design, and textiles. Between 1935-1943, the programme employed over 10,000 artists (including the likes of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock) and established 100 community arts centres across the nation. Autonomy was handed fully to the creators, with little to no restrictions placed on style or subject. What was produced was a plethora of differing works that reflected the diversity of the American population and their skill sets. 

There is so much to be learnt from this triumph in state-stimulated creative expression. Perhaps most important to the condition of the artistic nation today is the way in which this administration configured not only the relationship between the professional artist and national economic recovery, but how they also configured the relationship between artists and their immediate communities. Take a walk around many American small towns, especially in once proud industrial centres, and you may stumble across one of these New Deal murals. These grand displays of local artistic talent possess a democratic quality in being immediately accessible, in that they often display an aestheticized snapshot of working life specific to their respective community. From depictions of a working steel mill, to farmhands bringing in a harvest; from barbers admiring their work, to rail workers laying down new tracks. These murals take pride in their local economies, displaying scenes that do not alienate their viewer but empower them. In creating these artworks, the artist’s role as a central part of a working community is made more obvious and thus brought to a higher plane of value. The artist does not simply serve a small cabal of metropolitan elites who have immediate access to galleries, but actively serves the working majority.

This is not to undermine the importance of the establishment gallery or museum, be it the National Gallery or any of the Tate institutions. The reforms made under New Labour removing entrance fees to these collections was certainly an effective way to widen artistic participation. Yet, what is vital in today’s climate, in which the utility of the creative is being accessed in a grossly statistical and utilitarian fashion, is to demonstrate the value of artists alongside other professions deemed more ‘vital’ to an economy shifting out of austerity. Cuts in education funding that specifically target the arts are primarily a danger to those hoping to pursue fulfilling careers in these fields, or for those who perhaps haven’t had a chance to consider such pathways. Yet they also impose a hierarchy of utility that positions the creative subjects as merely recreational, or worse, something only viable to those who have the financial support to pursue such a profession. Besides providing substantial funds for the development of these skills, which is the crux of any discussion of the state’s relationship to the art world, direct action should be taken to demonstrate the value of the artist within localised communities. Beyond simply bringing in tourist revenue, the line taken by successive Conservative governments since the early eighties, artists should be encouraged to engage productively with the communities they work within. 

If the Federal Art Project should teach us anything, it is that central governments must provide the means for artists to display their work in the most accessible format possible, without sacrificing the artist’s individual vision. They must act to spread out funds allocated to the arts across the country so that anyone, anywhere can understand the vitality of the arts, even in their immediate area.

Article by George Dennis

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