FDR’s New Deal didn’t immediately end the Great Depression. What it did do is give people hope that things would get better. In many different ways, the New Deal breathed life back into a nation mired in the depths of despair.
Understanding human psychology, what we might call Social Intelligence or Emotional Intelligence today, is an important component of leadership. When Frances Perkins’s daughter, Susanna, suggested that artists were worthy of the same sort of relief that other workers were receiving, Frances brought the idea up with the president, who immediately saw the value of such a program. As Frances describes in her memoir of Roosevelt:
Projects to give work to unemployed teachers, artists, and theatrical people needed enlightened understanding and courage to be endorsed and developed. The President hadn’t realized, as perhaps none of us had, the degree to which professional people and artists failed to sustain themselves when the national income had shrunk to the lowest level. People out of work do not give music or dancing lessons to their children nor buy tickets to the theater, The President had a keen feeling for the sensibilities of recipients of this relief. (The Roosevelt I Knew by Frances Perkins. Viking, 1046)
She goes on to say about FDR:
He liked people to have a good time in their own ways.
Having a good time was a key ingredient in American life that had been lacking for too long. FDR’s support for this simple idea, along with his gleeful smile and obvious sense of fun, lifted the spirits of Americans and helped them bear the continuing economic distress. The works commissioned by the Works Progress Administration brought beauty to many communities ravaged by poverty.
Rockville, MD, Post Office mural
Today, the arts add richness to our lives in many ways. In addition to the joy of seeing a good play or hearing a wonderful concert, we know that the arts are a significant part of our economy. For example, here are some statistics compiled by ArtsUSA.org:
Economic Impact of the Nonprofit Arts Industry
Total Economic Activity $166.2 Billion
Total Spending by Nonprofit Arts Organizations $63.1 Billion
Total Spending by Nonprofit Arts Audiences $103.1 Billion
Total Full-Time Equivalent Jobs Supported 5.7 Million
Total Tax Revenue Generated $29.6 Billion
Federal Income Tax Revenue $12.6 Billion
State Government Revenue $9.1 Billion
Local Government Revenue $7.9 Billion
Total Household Income Generated $104.2 Billion
So, in a severe economic downturn, how should government sustain the artistic community? In a humorous essay in yesterday’s New York Time Book Review, Paul Greenberg proposes a bail out for writers, based on FDR’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which eliminated overcapacity in the nation’s farms — in other words, paid farmers not to plant crops. He jestingly offers a plan to pay writers not to write.
As funny as the piece is, what’s happening in the publishing world isn’t funny in the least. As the economy tanks, our creative economy will feel the pain, just as it did in the 1930s. As unemployment rises, audiences shrink. Nonprofit arts organizations are already feeling the pinch.
A program to support and sustain the arts could help both creators and their audiences. Artists of all types could be helped by a significant increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and state arts commissions. And to raise our flagging spirits today? Make sure that some of that funding is earmarked for ticket subsidies — so the price of attending arts performances is within reach of all.