Federal Sponsored Community Art Centers
Thomas C. Parker
Culture degenerates very quickly when it becomes a passive contemplation of the creations of others. Like all vital experiences in life, it must, by its very nature, be active and include participation in the broadest human sense. The most striking instance of our general failure to recognize this fact may perhaps be found in the museum world. Like most of the objects it exhibits, the average museum is a fragment of the past, displaying legacies willed from rich men's homes, and thus constituting an entity that does not have the social significance which it could and should have. The museum, as a public institution, has accomplished little in breaking the fallacy born of the industrial era, the fallacy that art speaks to a very limited number and that the ability to appreciate beauty and to share in the experience of art is the exclusive birthright of the few.
Within the past seventy-five years, America, with its tendency toward materialistic standards, has been a special victim of this fallacy, despite its fine heritage of early arts and crafts. It can scarcely be denied that within the later period of our cultural history, art has spoken only to selected groups of people and seldom reached the large audiences from whom any vital and enduring art must draw its sustenance. Art museums, symphony orchestras, and the legitimate stage have all been confined to the metropolitan areas, with the result that the vital relationship between the artist-craftsman and his public, which existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, has rapidly declined. Chief among the economic factors responsible for this decline has been the development, through rapid industrial changes, of an unhealthy environment for the arts, undermining the contribution of the artist as a valuable member of society. Instead of purchasing the finest works by living American artists, our wealthy art patrons have, almost without exception, considered our painters and sculptors as picturesque and amusing characters, who could be seen on free days wandering about the still white marble corridors of our endowed institutions.
This trend in the American museum world toward concentrating almost entirely on the preservation of archeological fragments and upon the works of artists dead many centuries has greatly handicapped the growth of a living American art. Today we are trying to make art an expression of the people, to broaden its meaning through mass participation as well as appreciation. It is our conviction that in a well rounded community cultural program, the art center should be as indispensable as the public library.
The movement has had an extraordinarily popular response. It has captured the imagination of the public. It is a movement which devotes itself to providing channels through which the fine arts may serve the American people on a broad and democratic scale. And it devotes itself to establishing a hospitable environment for American art, in which the artist may work with a sense that he is useful to society, and that society needs him.
How did this program come about? It is based on a study of the needs of the American people--of the great mass of our people who may be called underprivileged in the arts, and especially on a study of the needs of the south and west where opportunities have been especially limited.
To date, fifty centers are in operation throughout the whole country, from Salem Oregon, to Key West, Florida. And of particular importance is the large number of centers which have been established in great stretches of the vast, thinly-populated areas west of the Mississippi. We have found a tremendous public response to this program in the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, Iowa, Alabama, Wyoming, Oklahoma, California, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, New York City, and the District of Columbia. Attendance at the activities of these centers since their inception has already totaled more than 3,400,000 and the community contributions to this program have reached approximately $250,000.
Of particular importance is the fact that the majority of this large attendance is not composed of casual visitors to exhibitions, but of culturally starved adults and children who are being given their first opportunity to participate actively in the arts and make art a vital part of their lives.
All this has happened since the opening of the first community art center in Raleigh, North Carolina, in December, 1936. The rapid growth of this movement has undoubtedly been due to the fact that the WPA centers, like public libraries, have believed in serving people in a direct and human way. The library is knowledge for use The art center is beauty for use--not a museum for preservation, for conservation for display--but for use in the broadest human sense.
There are changing exhibitions of various types of art, both local and national, giving a fresh selection every three weeks. There are docents and artist-teachers in constant attendance who give to questioning visitors of all ages, races and classes a friendly and human introduction to the meaning of art. There are afternoon and evening classes ministering both to the needs of exuberant youngsters and to the problems of adults who find a new source of interest and service in the fine arts. There are demonstration talks in which the processes of print making, of fresco painting, of poster making, and sculpture are removed from the mysterious technical jargon in which they have long been veiled and brought to the understanding of Mr. and Mrs. Average American. Thus, through the opportunity of actually seeing the artist at work, and through carefully prepared exhibits of materials, tools, and progress stages in the creation of a work of art, people in all sections of the country are feeling the desire both to possess art and to participate in painting, print making, sculpture, or arts and crafts, according to their talents.
Thousands of objects, thousands of evidences from the earlier handicraft period of American life, tell us that in the earlier days art was integrated with the life of the people. The community art center program of the WPA Federal Art Project is devoted to returning art to the people--to all the people.
The true extent of community support for the work that is being done is evidenced by the fact that contributions range from penny donations made by school children in Salem, Oregon, and Spokane, Washington, to the outright donation of $125,000 by Mrs. Lunsford Richardson for a civic community building in Greensboro, North Carolina. This donation was made with the stipulation that the federal art center and the public library be given permanent quarters in this cultural center for the city.
Programs are definitely adapted to the section of the country served. Thus, in the south there are special classes in weaving; in New Mexico, native arts of wool embroidery are encouraged; in California and Arizona, studio guilds have been formed, combining the technical skills of artists and work of laymen in the creation of tile mosaics and fountains that will give added beauty to schools and public squares. In industrial and textile communities, the project is cooperating with workers in developing new techniques to increase their capabilities, with the result that machine operators have been promoted to the rank of instructors.
[At this point lantern slides were shown illustrating the work of various art centers throughout the country. Among the centers described in detail were those in Salem, Oregon; Spokane, Washington; Sioux City, Iowa; Oklahoma City; Roswell, New Mexico; Phoenix, Arizona; and the Children's Gallery in Washington, D.C.]
The community art centers, although probably one of the most important phases of the Federal Art Project work, are part of a large, highly varied program, seeking to return the American people to a sound relationship of the arts, reaching all classes and all sections of the country. As conceived originally, the arts projects were primarily concerned with artists in need. In fact, the principal concern is still that, but concurrent with it is also the very important intention of finding for an artist's talents the most socially valuable work.
It is my pleasure to recall to you that the American Library Association last year passed an official resolution indorsing the great value of the Index of American Design. The importance of this endorsement is not to be underestimated, and the Federal Art Project is and always will be extremely grateful to the Association for this expression of its cooperative interest. In fact, it seems to me that a very close cooperation between the libraries of this country and the work of the Federal Art Project can and should be of the most intimate nature. This new, large, art-loving public, generated by the program of the Federal Art Project, looks to libraries for aid in extending its comprehension of the cultural meaning of art. Here is a new and eager group of people anxious to supplement with books the fresh interests they have acquired in their work at the community federal art centers. Increasingly, the Federal Art Project, through its lectures, its arts and crafts courses, its exhibitions at the centers, will be sending larger and larger numbers of readers to the public libraries, eager to enlarge, through books, their newly discovered horizons.
It will be to our mutual interests if libraries can organize, with this special need in mind, lists of books as aids to the directive reading of this new public. The compilation of such material could be issued by the art centers to the public, calling to its attention the numerous books available through the facilities of the libraries. Our tasks, our duties, and our responsibilities in the face of this new public are similar, and I contemplate with considerable pleasure the prospect of our working together in their solution, for essentially we are all ultimately concerned in bringing to the American people a truer concept of the significance of a cultural existence.
As Holger Cahill, the national director of the Federal Art Project, has stated: "We are trying to bring art back into the healthy channels of everyday life. We are trying to make art mean something to the 120 million American people, and particularly to those of the 120 million who, in the past, have not had the opportunity to enjoy art. Anybody can appreciate art. The extent of this appreciation of art depends upon opportunity and experience. In a democracy such as ours, art can and ought to belong to everybody. We are trying our best to bring it to all."
It is my firm belief that ultimately art in America will become an ideal of living and will no longer be merely a detached esthetic experience. It is my belief that people will cease to think of art merely in terms of an isolated painting or piece of sculpture but will come to regard it as intimately as the books they read, with an understanding of its plastic language and its full significance in the life of today.