Anyone who's ever wondered what one hand clapping sounds like got a pretty good idea last week with the news of how federal stimulus dollars for the arts will be spent in Indiana.
Last spring, arts advocates were able to get $50 million included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal funding package intended to shore up the nation's hemorrhaging jobs market.
The passing of the stimulus package prompted many observers to compare it with federal programs enacted as part of Roosevelt's New Deal during the Great Depression of the 1930s. This was especially tempting in the arts, where federally supported arts projects, while short-lived, had a lasting impact on many artists as well as on the culture at large.
Last week's announcement makes clear that this latest federal intervention in the arts won't be like the New Deal.
Creating socially meaningful employment for people was a goal of Roosevelt's Administration. But after failing to succeed at putting people back to work during his first term, Roosevelt realized the government needed a more aggressive approach. It wasn't going to be enough to simply prop up existing ways of doing things -- there really was going to have to be a new deal.
The situation in the arts at that time seemed particularly dire. Then, as now, the rise of new media had arts presenters worried about a shrinking audience. Thousands of live performers were losing their jobs because the public was into a whole array of new technologies: phonograph records, the radio and movies. Before 1930, the Loew's theater chain had 36 halls in cities across the country, all of which booked live shows for 40-50 weeks a year. By 1934, only three were still in business.
Roosevelt launched the Works Progress Administration in 1935. The WPA's arts component was called "Federal One," and it consisted of five divisions -- for art, music, theater, writers and historical research. Federal One was ambitious, to say the least. It aimed at reinventing the country's cultural landscape.
As Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard write in their excellent overview of the period, New Deal Cultural Programs: Experiments in Cultural Democracy (www.wwcd,org/US/newdeal): "The designers of the WPA rejected the idea of setting up a program of subsidy for existing arts organizations. Instead of providing direct federal grants to these institutions, WPA leaders sought to break new ground with federal cultural support. As Federal Theatre Project director Hallie Flanagan said of her division, 'We all believed that theater was more than a private enterprise, that it was also a public interest, which, properly fostered, might come to be a social and educative force.'"
Federal One produced things -- from well-researched guides about the states, to post office murals, and innovative theater productions -- that directly employed artists. Thomas Hart Benton, Jackson Pollock, Berenice Abbot, Orson Welles, Burt Lancaster, Sidney Lumet, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston were but a few of the artists who found work through this program.
Federal One is a far cry from today's stimulus package. Although the life and vitality of our country's cultural scene is similarly challenged -- a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts shows double-digit declines in audience for virtually all forms of live arts experience over the past 20 years -- the country is now stuffed with non-profit arts organizations. This arts bureaucracy has created a handy distribution system for public monies. Indeed, the NEA was quick to say it would rely on this system for doling out stimulus dollars.
But this is also a system that favors arts administrators over independent artists, arts organizations over works of art.
According to the Indianapolis Business Journal, the Indiana Arts Commission will receive $323,000 and the Arts Council of Indianapolis will get $250,000 in stimulus funds. After setting aside money to pay themselves (the ACI will keep $50,000), the organizations will combine the rest to create a larger pot. So far, 24 organizations, ranging from the Friends of the Frankfort Library to the Eiteljorg Museum, have been identified to receive grants of between $7,500 and $25,000.
These organizations need the money. And the dedication and hard work of the people who will be employed is not in question.
But there is no getting 'round the sense that, rather than a stimulus, this federal money is the merest form of life support for many organizations -- and temporary at that. This money will keep doors open for another six months or so. Then what? The IAC's lame suggestion that it might use stimulus money to hire not artists, but consultants to advise organizations on fund raising strategies only adds insult to injury.
By being more about propping up a self-serving bureaucratic infrastructure than encouraging new forms, this federal support for the arts oddly resembles the bailouts that have been directed to financial giants deemed "too big to fail." Unfortunately, the size and scope of the arts effort is too small on both counts to succeed.