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    Publishing Information

    Save the Arts Projects

    By Elizabeth McCausland

    The Nation
    July 17, 1937
    Vol. 145, No. 3, P. 67-69

  1. The Renaissance lasted three centuries, the Age of Pericles and the Augustan Age each a half century; for the "cultural birth of a nation" our government allows less than two years. With drastic cuts in the Federal Arts Projects effective July 15, the arts in America are on their way back where they came from, to the status which made necessary the WPA and white-collar projects.

  2. Yet already the Four Arts Projects have been justified. Since its first performance, February 1, 1936, the Federal Theater has played to more than 25,000,000, 87 per cent free and 13 per cent paid admissions. From October, 1935, to May 1, 1937, almost 60,000,000 persons have listened to 81,000 performances of WPA music units, many of them in orphanages, hospitals, community centers, parks, playgrounds, and churches. Besides murals, easel paintings, sculptures, and prints allocated to public buildings, the Federal Art Project has reached the public through its art teaching and through thirty federal art galleries and art centers established in Tennessee, Alabama, the Carolinas, Oklahoma, Florida, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico, all in communities where there were none before. More than a million people visited these centers and galleries in one year. The Federal Writers Project, handicapped by lack of publishing outlets, has not yet contacted its widest audience. It is expected, however, that the state guides will have at least 2,000,000 circulation.

  3. In "Government Aid During the Depression to Professional, Technical and Other Service Workers," Jacob Baker, assistant to WPA Administrator Harry Hopkins, wrote: "It is only a wide popular participation in artistic activities of any kind that keeps the arts genuinely alive." By this test, the Federal Arts Projects have justified themselves. Nevertheless there has been incessant pressure to reduce expenditures for the arts. Critics argue that to employ 40,000 persons for fourteen months cost the government $46,000,000; and is art worth it? So the cuts continue, because of the Administration's failure to press for adequate appropriations.


  4. In the Federal Theater, employing at the peak more than 13,000, 31 per cent of the personnel has been dismissed throughout the country, and Delaware, Rhode Island, Nebraska, and Texas no longer have a theater. This slash is characteristic of what has happened in the drought lands of American culture. Yet it was the hope of the Federal Theater Administration to build a theater belonging to the people. Indeed, it did so; witness the attendance of 14,000 children at one federal circus matinee—free. Or take Valley, Nebraska—population 1,000—where 800 men, women, and children tried to attend the Federal Theater performance; some had ridden 25 and 30 miles to get there. They wrote begging that the company be permitted to settle down there. But the Nebraska unit was wiped out. As regards community drama work, in New York City alone there are over 1,000 non-professional groups, attended each week by between 25,000 and 34,000 adults and children, which have given over 1,500 plays. All over the United States, in communities so remote and unprivileged that even "the road" had passed them by, this work has gone on.

  5. On the creative side, New York offers outstanding successes, the "Living Newspaper," "Macbeth," "Dr. Faustus," "Murder in the Cathedral," and others, while the simultaneous opening in 18 cities of 21 productions of Sinclair Lewis's anti-fascist "It Can't Happen Here" was a major event in the American theater. In four months it played to 275,000 persons, grossing $80,000 at an average of 30 cents. "Macbeth," the Negro theater's Shakespeare improvisation, gave 144 performances to a total audience of 10,000, touring 4,000 miles, to close at the Texas centennial.

  6. With metropolitan successes have gone important services to the stage, the revival of "the road" through 150 resident companies in 27 states, the revival of repertory, and the revival—notably in Los Angeles—of stage hits of ten, fifteen, and twenty years ago, such as "Potash and Perlmutter," "The Fool," "Madame X," "The Goose Hangs High," and "Ladies of the Jury," a great aid to students of the evolving American drama. The "Living Newspaper," a montage of cinema, stage, and political rally, is a definite contribution in form.

  7. Of great value, though little advertised, has been the work of the bureaus of research and publication in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Birmingham, Seattle, and Oklahoma City, cataloguing, card-indexing, and analyzing every play ever performed or published in the United States. The magazine Federal Theatre, published in New York, has tilled a real need of the American people, treating of the theater in human terms. This publication has been discontinued.

  8. So the Federal Theater, which brought the living stage to millions of Americans who had never seen a flesh-and-blood actor before—only one high-school pupil out of thirty even in New York City has—faces the future seriously crippled. This, despite the fact that it has won the support of playwrights like George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O'Neill, who offered their plays at extraordinarily low royalties because they believe in a federal theater.


  9. "The salvation of the arts," the Federal Art Project has been called by Lewis Mumford. No less enthusiastic is Ambrose Vollard. The exhibition, "New Horizons in American Art," at the Museum of Modern Art in September, 1936, offered a visual record of the project's first year and won wide critical approval. There were then over 5,000 on the FAP'S pay rolls. Now almost 600 have been dismissed in New York City alone. Public demand for federal art may be seen in allocations made in New York in 18 months: 134 murals, with 800 separate panels; 4,000 prints; 2,950 easel paintings; 204 sculptures, including busts, panels, plaques, figures, fountains; 200,000 posters for libraries, hospitals, etc.; and the creative photography record, "Changing New York," for the Museum of the City of New York.

  10. The Federal Art Project is notable for art teaching of children centered in New York City, though isolated examples like the work being done in Breathitt County, Kentucky, and in Hawthorne, New York, show what could be done elsewhere. In New York 30,000 children attend painting and modeling classes.

  11. The use of art in mental hygiene is only beginning. At Bellevue Hospital in New York City art teaching is used for diagnosis, while at Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls it is used both diagnostically and therapeutically. Both theater and music have also been useful, the Federal Theater giving performances at Bellevue and the Federal Music Project working at the hospital and also at the House of Detention. Such experiments, though unfortunately confined to New York City, point the direction for other communities.

  12. The Index of American Design, set up to record applied arts in our American tradition, ferrets out, collates, and makes accessible source materials in the field of design. The Shaker portfolio, the Pennsylvania German data, and the colored plates already produced in New Mexico of local textiles, hand-carved chests, and folk lore are invaluable. How the projects can be integrated is shown by the Community Playhouse in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the building was erected by WPA engineers, the drapes woven by WPA women in Colonial Mexican designs, the furniture made by WPA craftsmen after Colonial period furniture, Mexican tinwork used for indirect lighting by WPA artisans, and murals of New Mexican scenes painted by WPA artists.


  13. Music for music's sake has been the aim of the Federal Music Project. Founded because of the interpretative musician's plight, its emphasis has been on performance and on teaching, although through the Composers Forum Laboratory new music by contemporary Americans like Roy Harris, Aaron Copland, Howard Hanson, Roger Sessions, and Virgil Thomson has been given a hearing, while 4,000 other compositions by 1,400 American composers have been presented. Chiefly the FMP has given music back to the people, as the Federal Theater has given back the living stage. Thus it is not uncommon to hear Brahms wafted by a string quartette from the backyard garden of a settlement house.

  14. An important activity of the project has been recording the folk music of America. Early Mexican, Texas plains and border, Acadian and Creole songs in Louisiana, bayou songs of the Mississippi delta, Kentucky hills folk songs, white and Negro spirituals from the Carolinas, settlers' songs and songs of Indian origin from Oklahoma, early Spanish songs from California, liturgical music from California missions, songs sung by the Penitentes of New Mexico, are a few of the types. Here, too, is aid for those seeking the American tradition.

  15. Music teaching has been carried on by the group method rather than individually. Weekly throughout the United States 1,300 teachers have met with 200,000 students, aged 6 to 75. In Mississippi the classes number 70,000, in Oklahoma 300,000. Before the Federal Music Project's creation two-thirds of the 4,000,000 children in 143,000 rural schools were without music instruction. In New York City weekly attendance is 60,000; and in nine months prior to April 1, 1937, the total was almost 8,000,000. Participation of the Music Project in National Music Week is another instance of usefulness. Of the 13,300 musicians then on the rolls 11,000 took part in New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Detroit, California, Mississippi, Minnesota, and Oklahoma. Now this project has had lopped off a fourth of its man-power.


  16. Least favorably situated has been the Federal Writers Project, smallest in numbers employed (about 4,000), and seriously handicapped by lack of outlets for its work. Even so, it has in print or in press 32 of the state guides, which are its most ambitious undertaking, a job of writing expected to win at least 2,000,000 readers in the 48 states. The impact of literature is not as easy to evaluate statistically as theater, concert, or gallery attendance. Nevertheless in a window display at project headquarters on East Forty-Second Street, New York City, almost two score titles are shown, including the best seller "Who's Who in the Zoo" and four small magazines published by project workers on their own time and with their own funds. The state guides are a collective adventure in that rediscovery of America which has been going on now for a decade. There are to be separate volumes for each state, Puerto Rico, and the principal cities—in all a total of 20,000,000 words, later to be condensed into six regional guides, the volumes to sell for about $2.00. Washington, D. C., and Idaho guides, already published, have won much favorable comment.

  17. Collateral are the survey of federal archives and the historical records survey, which have salvaged valuable public documents. Folk heroes have also been unearthed, such as the New York fireman Mose Humphrey, a worthy companion of Paul Bunyan and John Henry. And a history of the Negro in America has been begun.


  18. Such are the Federal Arts Projects in outline. "One of the gains of the federal work program," wrote Mr. Baker, "has been in its progressive revelation to the American public of the economic significance of cultural activities, which, instead of being luxuries that can be dispensed with, are enrichments of our lives, and material as well as spiritual enrichments." The Roosevelt Administration is dispensing with these enrichments, pleading recovery and economy. Yet in a conference in Washington June 25 with a delegation from New York, Aubrey Williams, assistant WPA administrator, admitted that the only solution of the cultural workers' problem is to establish a permanent arts project, since private industry and private patronage will never absorb these workers. To this end, the unions of the four arts projects are urging a permanent Bureau of Fine Arts, functioning independently under the President. By recognizing the arts' identity of interest and by consolidating administrative duties, pay-roll economies can be accomplished. On the other hand, the economic rights of the worker will be safeguarded, and artist control guaranteed. After the present crisis has been mastered, the next step must be to push this bill.