The most radical element of America's New Deal was that the artist, no less than the manual worker, was entitled to employment at the public expense. Sydney Thornbury urges the Prime Minister to follow suit.
If the UK is going to have a ‘New Deal’, can the arts sector please have a ‘Federal Project Number One’?
We’re all worried about the future of the arts sector – particularly the performing arts. But we’ve also learned that when governments want to make big things happen fast, they can.
So if Boris has decided to model his recovery policy on America’s famous ‘New Deal’, he mustn't forget to include one of its most radical, ground-breaking and arguably most impactful elements – The Works Progress Administration’s Federal Project Number One.
Focused on providing jobs to unemployed people during the depression, The Works Progress Administration aimed to provide one paid job for all families in which the breadwinner suffered long-term unemployment. The most radical element of that vision, however, was Federal Project Number One – a group of ground-breaking schemes to employ musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors. Despite much opposition, the idea was strongly backed by Eleanor Roosevelt and apparently finally won approval when Harry Hopkins, then Secretary of Commerce, said ‘Hell, they’ve got to eat too’.
The project was based on two key principals: (1) that in time of need the artist, no less than the manual worker, is entitled to employment as an artist at the public expense and (2) that the arts, no less than business, agriculture, and labour, are and should be the immediate concern of the ideal commonwealth. All projects were supposed to operate without discrimination regarding race, creed, color, religion, or political affiliation.
Federal Project Number One was transformative in many ways, and we still reap the benefits of the work that resulted. For example:
• The Federal Writer’s Project employed writers to interview the last few African-American men and women alive who had survived living in bondage as slaves. Without these interviews, these important voices and harrowing stories would have been lost to history forever.
• The Federal Music Project did field recordings of folk music and jazz, performed concerts and gave music lessons.
• The Federal Theatre Project produced and toured shows, enabling millions of Americans to see live theatre for the first time.
• The Federal Arts Project paid artists to create murals, paintings and sculptures as well as to teach bookbinding and other craft skills to unskilled workers.
The programmes were visionary, innovative and contributed greatly to the artistic, political and social movements of the times. Some of the young artists who were able to develop their skills through the project and support themselves included Jackson Pollock, Diego Rivera, John Steinbeck and Zora Neal Hurston – just to name a few.
Imagine the impact that a Federal Project Number 1 could have on the UK today. Not just on individual artists and the sector, but on the entire society. How many ways could a programme like that send tendrils out to benefit education, infrastructure, innovation, community cohesion, regeneration, skills, the economy, health and wellbeing, politics…
So come on, Boris. Go for the whole package. I promise you, the country won’t regret it.
Sydney Thornbury is the CEO and Artistic Director of The Art House in Wakefield. Raised in America, she has lived in the UK and worked in the arts sector for the last 26 years.