They adorned big city train stations, small town post offices and neighborhood schools. Some exist still, remnants of this country’s hardest of hard times.
They were commissioned to portray Americans at work and at play, anonymous citizens shouldering long odds, building a nation, sometimes with little more than muscle and will. They were created by American artists, many of them anonymous, too, and staring down tough days of their own.
But these murals, many faded, most forgotten, were first and foremost the expression of a singular public vision, a recognition by the American government that art is capable of knitting together a community and, by extension, a country. Art can generate jobs, foster identity, nurture a sense of place. And government support, as art historian William McDonald said, can promote “a greater awareness of art on the part of the American people, and a greater awareness of America on the part of the American artist.”
In the 1930s, the federal government set about to test that very idea. Through the years of the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration hired artists to produce hundreds of thousands of paintings, lithographs and sculptures for display in public spaces.
In Illinois alone, artists created more than 500 sculptures, more than 200 murals and nearly 5,000 easel paintings.
Only a fraction of these national and state treasures survive.
But, fortunately, there is growing interest, here and elsewhere, in finding, documenting and preserving this cultural heritage. It’s worth preserving. Illinois’ murals, Ryan Reeves writes, “depict such intimate scenes as a grandmother sharing a letter over a picket fence or a group of hard-hatted miners walking under a dark sky” (see page 26). Other pieces show women ironing, men working for the WPA, a game of cards.
The Illinois State Museum, only one of the institutions to do so, has been taking steps to preserve and promote its own collection of this state’s WPA art, a portfolio that encompasses urban skylines and rural landscapes, the comforts of homelife and the realities of the workplace.
The state museum’s collection, which was put on display through last month, shows us who we were. And who we are.
As important, individual pieces remind us of the enduring value in public art, the enduring value in public support of the arts.
The case for that support is pretty much what it was nearly seven decades ago: to enhance individual and community identity; to encourage diverse forms of creativity; to expand economic development.
Surely that case has been made. Art can be a good investment. Even in bad economic times. Maybe especially in bad economic times.
States and local governments are discovering that. The Center for Arts and Culture, an independent Washington, D.C.-based think tank, points out that even as federal support for the arts has been cut, overall, state and local support for the arts has increased.
According to the center’s “National Investment in the Arts” report, National Endowment for the Arts funding dropped from $176 million in 1992 to $105 million in 2000. State spending on the arts increased in that same period from $213 million to $447 million, while local government spending jumped from $600 million to $800 million.
Sure, it’s a risky, venture capital expense, admits Bruce Seaman, who compiled that report for the center last spring. “Artistic creation,” he wrote, “like scientific research and development, generates many failures for every high profile success. Yet, while few would deny the critical role played by traditional R&D in the future growth of any economy, the arts continue to struggle to find the right formula to ensure a stable future for ‘artistic R&D.’”
Scholars Joni Cherbo and Margaret Wyszomirski argue the search is well under way, that a new arts and cultural policy is being born. They’ve edited a collection of essays on that subject: The Public Life of the Arts in America. “We still grope,” they write, “for ways to identify the public purposes of public art programs.” But this, they argue, is as it should be.
In that sense, the states, Illinois included, may be ahead of the game at finding creative ways to fund and to further the arts. We highlight a few examples this month.
Joseph Andrew Carrier writes about an intriguing approach — supporting the transfer of artistic skills (see page 21). The Illinois Arts Council’s master/apprentice program was designed to perpetuate the traditional crafts, including the old ways of making wooden basket traps used in commercial fishing along the Illinois River.
One strategy for increasing public support for the arts has been just this, to redefine art, to make it more inclusive. We hint at the outer borders of this debate with pieces on high art (see page 10) and outsider art (see page 13).
And we return, as we often do, to the folk arts. Even in that, the boundaries aren’t clear. Dan Guillory, who explores Illinois’ folk art tradition (see page 14), notes that “the term ‘folk art’ suggests such a diversity of forms, it defies easy definition.”
We suggest asking the carvers, potters and quilters. And that brings us full circle to the original government arts program. The premise of the WPA’s Federal Art Project was that the artists and the residents of the communities where those artists live and work should decide what constitutes art and what merits public support.
Projects Editor Maureen Foertsch McKinney conceived and directed this year’s annual arts issue, our seventh.
Each December, this issue turns into a labor of love. More so this year for Maureen. She guided the writers, selected the art and kept us all on track.
Finding great photographs to illustrate our stories entailed visits to the Tarble Arts Center at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston and the Illinois State Museum in Springfield. Maureen was assisted in these forays by Illinois Issues’ energetic new graduate assistant Joseph Andrew Carrier.
I think you’ll agree they both did a great job.
Thanks, as well, to staff at the Tarble and the state museum for their enthusiastic help.
Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.
Illinois Issues,December 2002