From left: Suzan Sherman, NYFA Current Editor; Sacha Yanow, Program Director, Art Matters; Chris Martin, Painter; Carol Becker, Dean of Columbia University’s School of the Arts; Phong Bui, Brooklyn Rail Editor; and Irving Sandler, Author and Historian
When the Federal Art Project component of the Works Progress Administration was launched in 1935, it was seen primarily as a relief organization: a way to get unemployed artists working for the public good. But its projects—from public murals to paintings to photographic documentation of the American social landscape—have come to be seen as important works of art and scholarship in their own right.
Today, our economic situation is not as dire as the Great Depression. And yet, with no cohesive federal plan or funding systems in place, the arts remain in a precarious position. For a sector that contributes immeasurably to America’s cultural development and significantly to its economic health (as much as $166.2 billion, according to a 2005 study), it might be time to rethink the present structure. With the economy continuing to weaken, and the fresh slate of a Democratic administration, it seemed a fitting time to ask: how can we ensure long-term funding structures for the arts? What former federal programs might be informative for today, from Depression-era relief efforts to the individual artists’ grants of the early NEA? And how can the arts community sell these ideas to the American public at large?
Carol Becker, Phong Bui, Chris Martin, Irving Sandler, and Sacha Yanow met in NYFA’s offices on February 23, 2009 to discuss these issues. What follows is an edited transcript, or watch part one and part two of the full-length podcast.
Suzan Sherman: My first question goes to Irving, who suggested that we change the name of the panel, which I’d been calling “Envisioning a 21st-century WPA.” I’m assuming that you’re not concerned about the associations the WPA has with laissez-faire conservatism…
Irving Sandler: Oh, yes—absolutely, because we have to rethink the whole notion of the Republicans as the bad guys. They sit on the boards of our museums, and they’ve been some of the most active advocates for the arts. I don’t want to use terminology that’s going to get their hackles up.
SS: You didn’t find fault with my use of “WPA” because the artists who were supported under this policy were constrained in their art-making in certain respects?
IS: No. They were not really constrained. There were politics: they were always being attacked by neoconservatives. But they were free, at least on the easel division, to do whatever they wanted. They just had to turn in a work a month, I think. The Mural Project was more difficult, because you needed approval from the housing department, but there were very few constraints that I know of.
Carol Becker: Was it because of the political nature of the artists’ and writers’ work?
IS: It was also that. You’re having the same problem today with your entire Republican Party against “giveaways.” That was my objection.
CB: I agree with that. Although I’m a total fan of the WPA, it became associated with all of this anti-Communist, un-American activities. I don’t know if you saw the letter in the New York Times today, but it talks about this Congressman from Georgia who says he doesn’t to want to fund the NEA and give money to artists because he believes in the “working man.” So there’s still this stigma attached to artists, and a misconception of what they actually do.
IS: We also mustn’t believe that the Democrats are always the good guys. President Clinton—
CB: Did nothing.
IS: Clinton was one of my favorite presidents, but he did zip for the visual arts. Whereas President Nixon did a great deal. Hating it all the time, of course.
Richard Nixon caricature from the book Guston's Poor Richard (1971)
Phong Bui: We can see that in Guston’s drawings of him. [laughter]
SS: But back to the idea of constraints. Weren’t artists supposed to stay away from work in abstraction, or anything that might be construed as edgy? Murals were upbeat, even idealized, images of people going to work, farming the fields, or maps of, say, the State of New Jersey; works that we still might see hanging on the walls of certain post offices, but that might not necessarily have been generated directly from the artist’s heart.
PB: It depends where the artists were. Those who happened to be in Oklahoma were probably likely to lean toward American regionalist painting. But there were high-minded painters in New York, like de Kooning and Gorky, who were recipients and doing abstract mural projects. Gorky did one for the Newark Airport. So it depends on what state and city they were in.
Arshile Gorky at work on Aviation, a WPA mural.
Archives of American Art, Federal Art Project, Photographic Division Collection, 1935–1942
Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
Sacha Yanow: I think it's important to think about what's happened since that time, with the NEA and the culture wars, and where we are now. How would government money not get conflated with a particular political agenda going forward?
IS: It might be fruitful to think of specific programs and how they would be received. I’ve written down a number of ideas: Would it be possible to get a Cabinet position in the arts, or some kind of in-White House representative? Would it be possible to reconstitute the artists’ grants under the NEA? And then, of course, tax reform for artists. There are all sorts of smaller things, too, which I won't go into, but if you were going to have a WPA-like situation, what would be the best way a) to do it, and b) to sell it? I think if we focus on specific programs, rather than general programs, one may be able to see a way through the forest.
PB: The day after Obama was elected, Richard Serra called him and left a long message congratulating him, and suggested that a new post of Minister of Culture should be created. Every other country has one. Even Nicaragua.
CB: Especially Nicaragua, the government was all poets!
PB: I'm not so sure that would be the answer though, to have an artist as the Minister of Culture. In the past it was a disaster. When Malevich took that post and adopted the Soviet Union’s utopian dogmatic agenda, he oppressed his friends. That's why Kandinsky left, that's why Chagall left, and the same situation occurred in Italy right after the Fascist regime, with Mario Sironi. I think it’s very important to keep in mind that artists can be swayed into the opposite ecstatic temperament and can fall off the bridge just like anyone else.
But Irving, you were involved with the early conception of the NEA, which was in ‘65 maybe?
IS: ’65, yeah.
PB: Within the arts community itself, there were conflicts among critics and historians. If you're going to fight against censorship, how and which way do you go about it? It's a simple but difficult question. And I don't know whether iflooking back to the WPA you have to think about different subject matter, and if it's important to go through the details of the late ‘80s, when censorship issues arose.
IS: The shift within the NEA was away from giving artists money—because that was always problematic, because what if an artist did something racist or pornographic, then the whole NEA got smeared—to education, which really had nothing to do with the creation of visual arts. But at least it kept the NEA alive, because there was a good deal of pressure at that time to just get rid of the whole enterprise. But I think now with the new administration, we might move back to the idea of artists grants. Which was the most innovative and the most useful aspect of the NEA in the first place.
Chris Martin: I twice received grants from the NEA and NYFA; my second NEA grant really changed my life. I lived on it for a year, and it had a big impact on me as an artist. I think that whenever a government gives money to a program like this, there's going to be problems—but they should try to bring back individual grants again. There are so many programs the government gives money to that I find deeply objectionable—slaughtering people, blowing up children and women and villages. Government programs can make mistakes. They will make mistakes. I would hope that they could have a grant program which could weather some degree of controversy.
The other thing is that the NEA would give money, and then artists did whatever they wanted with it. But with NYFA, in order to get the last 700 bucks of your grant you have to prove that you've performed some public service for the community. I think that would be a great component to an NEA individual grant program. That people are given grants but they're also expected to perform more public service, or they're expected to give art to public institutions.
IS: Chris, can I oppose that idea? The NEA initially did ask that. It was Brian O'Doherty who changed that, and, rather than have artists write out a description of what they’d do with the money, he simply had as the template 'making art'. And I think making art is absolutely sufficient. I don't think it requires any other public justification.
CM: Oh I agree. NYFA doesn't do that, Irving, what they do is, you make art, and then, as the last part of the fellowship, you do something like teaching a workshop at Rikers, or doing an art project in a public park. You do something to give back. It has nothing to do with the content, with what you do in your own project as an artist. No, no, on that I agree with you completely.
SY: At Art Matters we give small grants to individual artists with very little bureaucracy. Historically our program has been for general fellowships, many of which were given to works that were socially and politically provocative. That remains our mission, but we also provide fellowships for projects that have some sort of international focus. We're such a small foundation, so we're quite nimble and flexible with our giving, which means that artists can engage in a much deeper, more direct, and more grassroots way. Particularly on an international level, I’ve found that they can sort of sidestep lots of bureaucracy by engaging directly with communities.
So I would say that perhaps the government can establish a re-granting system. Controversies may come up when challenging work is being supported, so perhaps funds don’t have to come directly from a government agency. Maybe there's an intermediary re-granting organization, something along the lines of what Art Matters is already doing. We have an administration now that seems to welcome complexity, so it seems possible.
IS: I'd like to add just one word to Chris' recommendation, that the selection be peer panel; artists choose artists, sculptors choose sculptors. That’s the way it worked in the original NEA, and it worked beautifully. Of course it would be a rotating panel. We might also think about reconstituting critics grants under the NEA.
CB: Are we talking about the ideal, or are we talking about what could actually happen? Because there's a big difference. We all have an ideal of what we would love to see happen but how can we use our time together now to come up with something that might happen? Because I don't think President Obama's going to go out on a limb on this one. He's got enough challenges right now. This subject is a hot potato in America, in part because this country has never agreed on the function of art. Every time the NEA was under pressure, it backed away from an understanding of art that challenged society at every level: visually, conceptually, politically. It failed because of the lack of art education, because of traditions, because of the utilitarian nature of American society. All of these reasons articulate why American society is not Europe, not Latin America, not Africa. And it's not going to change overnight and all of a sudden everyone's going to say, ‘Oh great, let’s give individual artist grants, because we all really believe in the importance of the creative process.’
From left: Carol Becker, Phong Bui, and Irving Sandler
So when you ask the question, What about another WPA?, well that's interesting because the WPA had very functional chores that were wonderful for a lot of artists. They really gained an enormous amount by being put into the public sphere in ways that were different than if they had been alone in their studios. Even with the MTA Arts for Transit project here in New York City, artists didn't do exactly what they would have done in their studio, but they adapted to a situation. And we're the better for it. And the city's the better for it. So are we talking about the ideal, or are we talking about something that could actually be presented, that might actually happen?
SY: Perhaps there's a way to do both. Maybe a program can focus on specific government agendas, so that artists can be given grants for, say, infrastructure projects or international diplomacy. At the same time, I don't think it's totally off the wall to think that there could also be money provided in a more open-ended way for individual artists again.
CB: I'm not saying it's off the wall, I'm just saying let's be real here.
CM: You feel it will never happen? Individual grants will never come back?
CB: I didn't say never. I'm just being realistic about the financial climate and the hostility toward artists that exists in our society. Something has to be presented to Obama that he can sell. I would love to see us hypothesize about something that might really happen, but I just don't think that this is the moment to say let's go back and do what we did before with the NEA.
SS: Could a WPA conceivably work today?
PB: You have to remember that it was an overall political structure in which the Federal Art Project was one component, but there was also the Theatre Project, the Writers’ Project, and the Music Project that also received funding under the WPA umbrella. It’s true that they put—what?—a total of 8.5 million people to work, and of that number 7,000 artists were given jobs. In those days that was a lot of people.
Philip Guston working on a mural for the Federal Art Project.
Photo by David Robbins, 1939. Archives of American Art, Federal Art Project, Photographic Division Collection, 1935–1942
Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
But most importantly, they had very interesting people working for them. The Federal Writers Project was headed by a man name Henry Alsberg, a photographer who did the first volume series of American landscapes [The American Guide: A Source Book and Complete Travel Guide for the United States, 1949]. We might think about people for a present-day committee. Carol could be very good.
CB: I already have a job. [laughing]
PB: We can have Irving be our spiritual guide, and provide wisdom. But we have to think about possible candidates. I have some names in my head already.
CM: But Carol's asking about the mechanics of it—how money could come from the government to the arts.
IS: Before we do that, I really would like to add something. I'm sure you have the figures of what the economic contribution of the visual arts is in this country. It’s astronomical. And one of the reasons that Congress quickly changed from knocking out that 50 million budgetary boost for the National Endowment for the Arts and then putting it back in was just a matter of some people associated with Americans for the Arts making phone calls. That organization seems, at least right now, to be throwing all of their monies into getting tax breaks for artists so that they can give their work to public institutions at full value, though I'm not sure if that’s the only thing they're doing right now...
IS: We do not want to come hat in hand to the federal government. We want to go there saying, Hey, we’re bigger than General Motors and maybe we ought to be given a couple of pennies.
PB: And also Chris, the idea is not so bad of having artists do public works.
CM: I worked as an art therapist for fifteen years, in all kinds of communities in New York. And I share Carol's feeling that sometimes it's a great thing for artists, when they are forced into situations where they wouldn't normally be. Sometimes that brings out the best in any of us as human beings.
PB: The difference is this. You had artists who did socially conscious mural commissions, whether in high school or airports or libraries, and the abstraction work for other places. The point is that today people do video work and installation, and politically driven work. How do you bring that into the greater public sphere?
SY: Yes, current art practice involves a wider variety of media than in the WPA era. There are public projects that on the surface may look very different than the WPA projects because artists are using all sort of new ways to engage public spaces. The Internet, for instance. Public space in and of itself is a very different concept nowadays.
CB: I think that we should remind ourselves why we're talking about this, and why Suzan framed this panel around the WPA. It's because of the economic situation that we're in, which everyone keeps comparing to the Depression. It's perfectly timely, as more and more people are unemployed. Some art schools are in serious danger of closing right now. A lot of people may lose their teaching positions. I think it's a good moment to say, Ok, if you have all these creative people tossed back into the economy without work, what would make sense? Every time I go to an airport, I'm mortified by the art there, when I think of all the people who could have done something wonderful.
And just to remind ourselves, these are some of the people who went through the WPA as young artists: Berenice Abbot, Lee Krasner, Arshile Gorky, Marsden Hartley, Philip Guston, Mark Tobey, Ben Shahn, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. These are not schlemiels. I meet young artists all of the time, and there are so many fantastic ones who are going to be in a very difficult situation. Under the WPA there were all kinds of interesting projects—those American guidebooks, and those projects that were all about preserving the Native American languages.
Now we have a whole other culture, a whole other society that could be focused in really interesting ways, and the result of that could bring something into the society that captures this moment, in the visual arts, in writing, in history. That's why I like the topic: because I think the WPA’s actually a very interesting model in this moment. And like you say, with cyberspace, with all these other elements that we didn't have, how does one begin to even investigate these other dimensions. I'd love to mobilize all the young artists I know to go for it, because they could do something incredible in the world.
SY: We have an opportunity. This administration came into being on a platform of change. This is the moment to have a more complicated conversation about art and artists.
CM: I think about the phenomenal amounts of money that the government has been spending to keep the auto and banking industries afloat. As far as I can understand it, they're trying their best, though some of what they give will be wasted, but some will help out a good bank. They are trying. And that's my feeling about the arts. If we can persuade the government to hand out some money to the arts some of it will probably not help, but some of it will support works of genius. There may be video installations in the Cleveland train station that will be masterpieces. It's about the art world standing up, to reiterate what Irving said, and saying we’re an important industry. We generate tourism, higher real estate values, and we need some money, too.
When I first came to New York, Koch was the mayor and there was this huge effort by the city to stop all the graffiti art. They had the police destroying graffiti art everywhere, when all they needed to do was to change their minds a little bit and go, Wait a minute, we're going to pay these kids. And we're going to ask 'em just to tape off the windows of the subway cars so we can see through them, and keep the maps clear, and we could have had the most fantastic subway trains in the world. Instead of putting barbed wire around the yards, they should have hired the kids, not the guards, and said, You guys are going to work it out, who gets what car, and we could have had a major cultural moment instead of fighting this artistic energy.
MTA subway graffiti
IS: I'd just like to mention, because it came up a bit before, that the NEA was far different from the WPA. The WPA was actually a relief program; any artist who was unemployed could be on it.
CB: But they had to prove they had skill; they had to show that they were capable.
IS: I don't think so.
CB: It's what I read.
IS: Regardless, it was still a relief program, and even if you had to show skill, it was pretty much minimal. Unlike the NEA.
CB: All I'm saying is that I'd like to see us frame something that’s doable, which people will be able to accept. What you said about graffiti artists is so great, but that conversation, of understanding what the motivation is, is a pedagogical one. People have to be educated to understand why these kids are doing what they do. And that is complexity. That's leading people through an understanding of what motivates creativity. And most people don't get that at all.
PB: Carol, it’s interesting because if you go further back, not just to the WPA, but to the Renaissance—that started right after the Black Death, which wiped out nearly half of the European population. During the next half decade, if you walked around in Florence you bumped into Donatello, and then right next to him is maybe Uccello and then the master, Ghiberti, is walking out. They got together and reconstituted the old model. As a revival of learning, of education, reform.
It’s not that far-fetched really. In New York the WPA was a link between European modernism and American art. I think the Renaissance was that, too, from lay Christian to modern art. There are a lot of models, but how do you frame it, as Carol asked.
SS: Framing it is a good point, and thinking about unemployment in that context. Should we think about programs right now that just support job making, or is that too simple? The unemployment rate during the Depression was 25 percent. Today it's creeping up to 8 percent, yet the actual numbers aren't being wholly reported. People who cannot get full-time work are settling for freelance or part-time, and some are simply not reporting their unemployment status.
CM: We’re workers. And we can get put back to work as part of these other infrastructure projects. It’s my understanding that policies work best in America when they trickle down over the widest area. It's harder for people to attack a program which is also helping out their neighborhood. And I think that if things get centralized and people feel like there are these avant-garde strange people in New York City controlling this, then a Congressman in Georgia’s going to stand up and say, Oh, these are the communists, these aren't my kind of people. But if that guy has somebody in his district who's also going to hand out some money to a great quilt-maker or a great local artist, then it's easier to make this thing work on a political level.
CB: But if you shred an American flag in a painting or in a public arena, you’re back to square one, because it’s taken literally. Because people are yet to understand a very simple concept, which is that art exists to provoke and create change.
SY: It's interesting, many of the arguments made during the early nineties and mid-nineties in defense of the NEA were based on the First Amendment, freedom of speech. I wonder if there’s a way to put forth something else now, to reposition that conversation?
CB: Part of the reason that the First Amendment was used was that it was a true argument. But it was never the right argument really to educate people. Because it just said, Well artists want to do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it, and they want the government to defend that. The problem with the media is when you try to explain, it becomes more complex and the complexity is exactly what the media clamps down on. They always want the sound bites. When you try to explain more complexly, for example, why a democracy needs freedom of expression, it gets smashed. So you’re right.
CM: The elephant in the room is Serrano's Piss Christ, and the fear is that all it takes is one Congressman to speak out, and we're back to where NEA grants get taken away again. And I would think that a better strategy would be to make it as local as possible. So that instead of having one NEA that gave fifty grants and someone in Congress can say, Look what they did, it's a situation where an artist in California did something that’s considered controversial, but it doesn't have to endanger an entire program. The accountability is at a local level. If somebody does something that’s considered anti-American in Alabama, it doesn't threaten everybody's involvement with helping the government help the arts.
SY: That was something that was pretty amazing about the NEA, their accountability in terms of inclusiveness and distribution.
From left: Suzan Sherman, Sacha Yanow, and Chris Martin
PB: I don’t know if Agnes Gund would be interested in getting involved, but she had some really good programs. One of the things that she's still doing is the Studio in a School program, which hires artists to teach high school students in really marginalized working-class high schools in the Bronx and Harlem. I know that she's overextended, but if we were to create a committee, we need people like her, people with real resources, a commitment to true philanthropy.
IS: There are all sorts of small programs. The New York State Council on the Arts, for example, back when colleges and universities were hurting (as they're going to hurt again), did a very simple program where they provided matching funds for artist speakers to go out to campuses throughout the state. It was a small program, but it was a beautiful one. And Artists Space did a program where artists who needed money for insurance or travel for a small show at a not-for-profit institution anywhere in the state would just write the check, up to $300, as long as the organization indicated that it was legitimate. We might also want to think about small projects. Back in the ’60s, there was a central materials depot where any video artist in New York State would be provided with cameras or whatever it was they needed for filming, and when they were done they would bring it back for the next artist. These small projects count for something.
SY: I’m really stuck on this re-granting idea as a way to bolster already existing arts organizations that support artists, and which under the current economic climate are otherwise going to have to close. Some of the work that Art Matters has funded has come out of a very broad call for projects with an international goal—and the artist-driven responses have been amazing.
CB: But you trust artists, so you know that that will happen. And people who work closely with artists trust them because they know that there are going to produce wonderful ideas. But there is an inherent mistrust in this society.
When I was in Chicago there was this period, maybe 20 years ago, when the Monet show was at the Art Institute. During the course of its run, that show brought in tens and tens of millions dollars for the city, for hotels, for local business. That's a lot of money. People will come from out of town to see an art show. They'll stay at a hotel. They'll go to nice restaurants. They'll buy things. Sports events don't really bring money into a city. People who go to games are usually local. They have a hot dog.
If the economic argument is something that people really respond to, I was thinking about the Olafur Eliasson Waterfalls, and how many people came to New York and took boats around the city to see them. When something happens in New York that's very special, people will come from all over the world to see it. So you need the economic argument to say, Look, if you fund these projects it will reflect back, people will come to the cities to see these projects. You have to think about the audience, and how you position the whole conversation in a new, unique way so that people are not afraid of it but see it as somehow beneficial. As opposed to the notion that we're just going to give away money to the arts, because that's what artists want us to do. They don't want to work. That's what people typically think, and yet artists are the hardest-working people in the world.
Everyone will fund what I like to call prepubescent art education. Because everyone believes that kids should do art and then when they grow up they should get real. There's no one who would say I don't want my child to have arts education. But after that, it's another issue. So I think we just have to say, Who are we talking to?
IS: I'd like to pick up on that point. I think no one knows more about the needs of artists than artists themselves. I would recommend that NYFA brings together artists who can think beyond their own studios and can consider more general problems in the arts community. NYFA should bring together small groups of artists, no more than eight, in small meetings. Ask them, What does the art community need at this moment? What kinds of programs might they come up with? We did that when we started Artists Space; it came out of these kinds of small meetings that Trudie Grace and I called together. I think NYFA ought to do that.
CB: And then publish the findings.
From left: Chris Martin, Carol Becker, Phong Bui, and Irving Sandler
SS: Do you have any specific ideas for projects right now, which utilize modern technology and move beyond the mural projects of the past?
CB: I think we need to get artists together to brainstorm.
IS: I think there are 10 or 12 projects that we've been discussing, and we ought to prioritize them.
CM: A friend of mine, Diane Brown, runs an organization RxArt, which provides works of art for hospitals. You were talking about how bad the art is in airports. I've spent a lot of time working with the health-care system, and you go into these hospitals where there are long corridors and rooms filled with cheap reproductions. At the same time, you have studios packed with paintings all over New York. Diane’s organization raises money to purchase work for hospitals. So that's an idea of just shifting the energy. I’ve been reading about the government buying up toxic mortgages, buying bad banks, and thinking maybe they should buy up paintings—good paintings.
PB: The model of Creative Time is very good, and what they’ve been doing in New Orleans is interesting.
SY: There's lots of great artist-generated projects in New Orleans, like the SafeHouse, and the Fundred project.
PB: But who’s behind them? The Warhol Foundation, Creative Capital, Creative Time; these are organizations that have great people on committee. They invest in different ways so their funding hasn't been cut. And I think we need to get people like that—or at least the model.
I think at our next meeting we should think about the candidate for the job. Seriously. At least we have those names to generate.
SS: Yes. To get specific.
PB: And some young, some older, to mix it up.
SY: Ok. But I feel like we need the heart and soul of what we're proposing first, before we think about who would be best to lobby for it.
Let’s bring in artists, first to help generate ideas and shape a position. I agree that it’s important to think about who the potential advocates will be. God, I know so many amazing arts workers who can frame any artist project, who can sell all kinds of arts projects. I've worked with some of them, some of them are sitting right here. But we've got to generate some good ideas first, and then figure out how to shape them and advocate for them.
SS: If you could make one specific recommendation to the Obama administration regarding arts funding in the future, what would it be?
CM: I just came back from a trip to Georgia and Alabama where I met some fantastic, older, African-American artists. If I was President Obama, I would invite Thornton Dial to the White House. And I would invite Lonnie Holley and Purvis Young from Miami, and some of those ladies from Gee's Bend, and I would give them a really big lunch. That's the first thing that I would do if I was President Obama. And I think there should be Thornton Dial paintings in prominent places in America.
Rachel Carey George, a Gees Bend quilt-maker
Housetop (circa 1935)
Cotton sacking material and dress fabric, 86 x 86"
Collection of the Tinwood Alliance
IS: I think there’s two ways of thinking. One, in a more general way, there ought to be a sort of inspired manifesto for the arts. The other way of thinking is quite practical, as in, who could make that call to the White House?
PB: Richard Serra did it.
IS: There you have it. We ought to be thinking in both directions, the theoretical as well as the practical. But I must run…Please excuse me.
PB: Is that it?
SS: No, no, Irving just has to leave for an appointment.
CM: We're here to midnight, is that right?
SS: It's around the clock actually. You'll be sleeping here…So I thought we could end by going into that final question a little bit more.
CB: Maybe this is the Chicagoan in me, because we've watched Obama for so long, but never forget that he's a really good writer. There's a part of him that lives in that world of thought and language and really values it. If I could do anything, I would sit down and say, Ok Barack, what do you need us to do? I know you care about the arts, I know you want to have it on your agenda. What could we do to help you? Not what can you do for us, but what could we do for you that would help you now. How do you need it presented to you? And then we'd go back, and we'd get those people together, and we'd write the paper the way that he needs it; we’ll do the work
Because there's no doubt in my mind that he cares about the arts. That's not an issue. It's how it can be presented, where's the risk for him, and how does he want to move with this. Is this not on his agenda for this year? So should we just work this year, and we'll present our ideas to you next year? What is his time frame? Because we want him to succeed at everything he does. I have great faith in him, but he's going to roll out programs as he thinks he can make them happen. He's not going to put something out to fail. So what can we do for him? That's what I would say, if I could have that moment with him.
I think that we should do our homework; we should do our work as a community, and hash it out ourselves. There are people who can do the economic analysis, there are people who have infinite experience in forming organizations, giving out grants, all that knowledge is already there. I don't think this is a situation where we have to hit up against anything. It's more about providing a plan that can be put into action, and the question is what's the timing for action. This is not an oppositional system. And that's a little weird for the art world, which always likes to think it's fighting for something. I don't think it's about that. I think it's about strategy, not principle here.
CM: One thing that I’ve learned from you and the whole panel today is how many arts organizations are in place that have the expertise and structures to do this work. And that it isn't really so much a matter of having to go out and build another WPA, but that there are a lot of people, both private foundations and public foundations, that are there and could receive help. And that even if one just focused on all the existing programs that need more funding or continued funding, that would be making a big impact.
CB: But I would say it this way—because I think this would be radical for the art world that we live in. Not what can the government do for the artists, but what does the country need from artists? I think that's the way to get people to listen.
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Carol Becker is dean of Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Her books include The Invisible Drama: Women and the Anxiety of Change; The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society, and Social Responsibility; Zones of Contention: Essays on Art, Institutions, and Gender; and Surpassing the Spectacle: Global Transformations and the Changing Politics of Art. Her newest book is Thinking in Place: Art, Action, and Cultural Production.
Phong Bui is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is also the editor and publisher of the monthly journal The Brooklyn Rail, which offers critical perspectives on arts, politics, and culture in New York City and beyond.
Chris Martin is an abstract painter living in New York. A recipient of individual artists grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1990, 1993) and from the New York Foundation for the Arts (1996), Martin is represented by Mitchell-Innes & Nash.
Irving Sandler is a critic, art historian, and the author of The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism; Alex Katz: A Retrospective; Defining Modern Art: Selected Writings of Alfred H. Barr, Jr.;the memoir A Sweeper-Up After Artists; and Avant Garde to Pluralism: An On-The-Spot History, among others. He is one of the founders of Artists Space.
Sacha Yanow is a New York-based actor and the Program Director of Art Matters. Previous to Art Matters, she served as Director of Operations at The Kitchen.
"Envisioning a 21st-Century WPA" was held as a panel discussion at New York Foundation for the Arts on February 23, 2009. Panel moderator was NYFA Current Editor Suzan Sherman. Taping and video editing by NYFA Source Officer Amber Hawk Swanson. Additional research and writing by NYFA Current Editorial Intern Emily Warner.