Looking to the Past to Save the Future of Performing Arts

A dark room with chairs and tables in lines

Christian Collins
September 21, 2020

COVID-19 hit the performing arts industry early and hard. As of early May, nonprofit arts organizations had lost an estimated $4.98 billion, and the average artist/creative worker had lost $24,000. This income loss is devastating for artists; it comprises nearly half of a craft and fine artists’ average annual salary. 

Despite industry leaders’ efforts to elevate these concerns into the public sphere and a call from some members of Congress to develop policy solutions tailored to the performing arts industry, actual proposals are scarce. 

To alleviate financial stress for creatives, aid the performing arts industry in economic recovery, and utilizing the unique role of artists in advancing racial equity in their communities, federal policymakers could turn to the history books. 

Federal Project Number One (Federal One) was a series of projects administered by the Works Progress Administration that were part of the New Deal and provided direct project funding and employment to creatives who had lost work during the Great Depression. Federal One consisted of five projects: Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Theatre Project, Federal Writers’ Project, and the Historical Records Survey. The program had many successes through its implementation, from establishing more than 100 community arts centers nationally to detailing the Black American experience in the South through recording the oral history of former enslaved Americans through the Federal Writers’ Project.

Federal policymakers could consider using Federal One as a framework to support the performing arts industry (though a modern version may need to include a sixth project account for video games, virtual reality systems, and other 21st century art forms). A modern version of Federal One could leverage funding streams that already exist, such as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). NEA already receives and distributes appropriated funds from the federal government, and could coordinate with state and local government initiatives and other non-governmental partners (such as museums, theatres, and community organizations) to help determine and provide guidance on how to efficiently distribute funds into local communities.

If policymakers consider such a framework, they should also consider incorporating the following elements, based on lessons learned about the original program. 

  • Clear guidelines about censorship. A key concern about Federal One was that government involvement in the arts could lead to First Amendment violations and censorship of creatives. The potential for governmental entities to use allocation of funding for projects as a tool to further financial disparities between arts communities and systemic racism must be addressed for such a program to remain effective at this scale. In fact, the demise of the original program was led in part by the denial of funding as a tool of censorship through the House Un-American Activities Committee, which publicly aired its concerns about the Federal Theatre Project supporting communism and racial integration.
  • Uplifting underrepresented voices.  The original Federal Writers’ Project employed 7,500 people annually and, under WPA, gave many young writers from underrepresented demographics the opportunity to hone their craft, leading to literary works such as “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. Federal One also had a focus on equity in preserving and promoting ethnic minority cultural forms, leading to the establishment of Black and foreign language-specific theater companies.
  • Protections from political activities. While funds provided through WPA and Federal One were for the purposes of aiding America’s arts community, they were still in some cases used as a tool to exert political influence. Lists of WPA personnel were used as bargaining points for support and votes in the 1936 Democratic gubernatorial primary in North Carolina. While these actions in several states directly led to the passage of the Hatch Act of 1939, strong oversight is required for a program of this potential scale.
  • Coordination with already-established localized initiatives. Across the country, many cities currently host initiatives aimed at supporting their local art industries, ranging from coalitions of community nonprofits providing dedicated funding to public-private partnerships serving to implement city cultural plans. These initiatives are a prime network of determining where best to channel funding into communities to better serve artists and the industry as a whole.

At a time when we are forced to physically separate, creative expression can connect people and hold communities together. Though some organizations and creatives have found unique ways to share their craft within the health guidelines of COVID-19, such as drive-in concerts, broadcasting film cast reunions, and online dance classes, federal aid could go a long way in helping the creative community through the post-crisis recovery process. As the abrupt halt of many artistic outlets has wreaked havoc on local creative communities, the United States should recognize both the historical and future importance of the arts to the nation and act to save this cultural cornerstone industry.

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