Monday, September 29, 2008

Wall Street May Not Take the Arts Down with It

Arts and cultural institutions have traditionally recieved significant funding both directly from banks and other financial istitutions and indirectly from the well-paid executive employees of those institutions. With so many New Yorkers unsure of what will happen next on Wall Street, but certain that "the Street" will never again be the same high-rollers paradise that it has been in recent years, I wonder how Wall Street's troubles will become our own in the Arts.

Discussions of the current financial crisis are compared to those during the Depression. I can't count the number of times I've heard lately that this is, "the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression". The federal government is stepping in to save Wall Street firms, much as they stepped in to creat jobs in the Depression, but what can we learn from history about what can be done to help preserve arts and culture in times of economic hardship?

I don't claim to be an expert on the economy, or on the history of the arts during economic hardship, but out of curiousity, I set out to learn more.

During the Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) helped to build parks, schools, swimming pools, libraries, and other culturally relevant institutions. Construction of physical spaces and administration of the programs held in those spaces created jobs, stimulating the economy, but what about helping artists, whose skills were not in program administration or construction? Did the government reach out to them? The answer is "yes", they did.

The WPA's Federal Project Number One was a five-division project (music, theater, art, writing, and cultural records) that employed approximately 40,000 artists, writers, thespians, and other cultural workers within a year of its inception. Granted, these programs weren't without controversy; conservatives accused participants of membership in the American Communist Party, and the programs were criticized for being used as propaganda for the New Deal. Ultimately, these programs were not sustained, but they are well-documented, and in some cases the project themselves were documentation projects of the arts and cultural activities of the times. These projects created jobs, including jobs for minority artists, helping keep artists and the arts alive (potentially literally) through tough times.

Private funding for the arts hadn't yet taken the shape we know today. Andrew Carnegie had only begun undertaking major philanthropic activities 25 years or so prior. The first private family and community foundations had been established in 1907 and 1914, respectively, but corporate philanthropy didn't begin in earnest until the mid-1950s with advances by the GE Foundation (General Electric's philanthropic division) and others.

Individual giving for the Arts continued throughout the Depression, however. The advent of the "talkie", the last of the Vaudeville shows, big bands and other live music, radio programming and dance halls all helped to provide distraction. People continued to spend hard-won cash on the Arts, at least those "low arts" that let people forget the day-to-day for a few hours at a time.

With corporate giving, major individual donors, and individual ticket buyers all contributing to the survival of arts and cultural institutions today, it gives my own morale a boost to realize that government, the Arts and culture, and wealthy donors/patrons all adapted to and learned from the Depression. Art did not die, and the economy did bounce back.

As we all face the financial unknowns of the near future, I hope that we'll adapt to the climates we find ourselves in, and that we'll recognize that while these waters rough ones, that they're not completely unknown either.

Links: New Deal Cultural Programs: An Experiment in Cultural Democracy
The History of Philanthropy
Woes of Wall Street's titans worry charities, arts groups
Too early to know how arts will be affected

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