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Save the Arts Projects
By Elizabeth McCausland
July 17, 1937
Vol. 145, No. 3, P. 67-69
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 revivalnotably in Los Angelesof 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.
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.
So the Federal Theater, which brought the living stage to millions of Americans who had never seen a flesh-and-blood actor beforeonly one high-school pupil out of thirty even in New York City hasfaces 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.