Eight decades ago the government responded to economic disaster with jobs programs that also beautified public spaces. It might be time for another one.

Adi Talwar

A new monument to women’s rights icons Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton began to address glaring disparities in public art.

With New York City reeling from the dual health and economic consequences of the coronavirus, public art projects have provided some inspiration amid the gloom. 

First, there were the Black Lives Matter murals in each of the five boroughs. The initiative inspired hundreds of local families to come out and roll yellow paint on Jamaica Avenue in Queens and Fulton Street in Brooklyn in the wake of massive demonstrations against systemic racism. 

A month later, there was the sculptor Meredith Bergmann’s monument to women’s rights icons Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a new landmark that has spurred regular pilgrimages to the Central Park’s Literary Walk and begun to address glaring disparities in public art.

Artists, historians and even some lawmakers imagine a time where artists and builders seed the five boroughs with these sorts of transformative monuments, murals and music — and they would get paid for it, through government-funded programs that put unemployed residents back to work and shape how New Yorkers see themselves and their city.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to be given a greater blank canvas to draw upon to build new things when so many neighbors need it,” says State Sen. Jessica Ramos, chair of the labor committee. Art could infuse new sustainable public works projects and illuminate the efficient infrastructure that New York City needs, she says.

There certainly are enough out-of-work artists scrambling to cover their rent with Zoom drawing lessons and virtual coffee house gigs who would seize opportunities to work on government-funded art projects. As a result of the pandemic, New York City has lost more than 208,000 arts and creative sector jobs that would have generated more than $8.5 billion in monthly earnings, the Brookings Institute found in August.

All the city needs is a heap of public money and a groundswell of political will — as was the case 85 years ago when a New Yorker in the White House committed the country to a monumental federal jobs program, with billions of dollars carved out for the arts.

The impact of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal remains apparent throughout the city, where parks, post offices and high schools constructed by federally funded work crews still serve millions of New York City residents. Thousands of the familiar projects are catalogued in efforts like The Living New Deal and historian Frank da Cruz’s New York City-focused Kermit Project.

Throughout the 1930s, artworks typically accompanied the public works, providing jobs for creators as well as laborers, says Museum of the City of New York curator Lilly Tuttle.

“It’s interesting to look back at that time and realize it was this dual initiative to bring art to public buildings, beautifying post offices and courthouses, and really an effort to bring people back to work,” Tuttle says.

Consider the frieze, sculptures and murals at Bronx borough hall, the 16-foot stainless steel sentinel statues that once towered above the Astoria Park Pool, the relief sculptures at the Forest Hills Post Office, vibrant paintings at Lincoln High School in Coney Island and hundreds of murals inside Harlem Hospital and other municipal medical centers.

The New Deal programs “left a very clear visual and physical imprint on the city and art went hand in hand with roads, bridges, airports, hospitals and schools,” Tuttle says. “It was part and parcel to building a really modern city.”

Envisioning the fusion of art and public works

The notion of a new New Deal jobs program has once again gained traction as COVID transforms and decimates entire industries, even though any sort of federal cash infusion remains a distant possibility at best.

And a federal arts stimulus? That’s a pipe dream.

The federal government’s $2 trillion coronavirus relief package included just $200 million — or 0.01 percent — for the arts, money that went to the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and Institute of Museum and Library Services to distribute. The New Yorker now in the White House won’t be pushing for an arts bailout.

In the absence of federal aid, New York state could step up, says Ramos, the state senate’s labor committee chair. After all, the New Deal had its roots in New York, where FDR served as governor before his 1932 election to the presidency.

“It would counter the austerity measures that have been taken when we’re hurting the most right now,” Ramos said. Raising taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers could enable the state to hire more workers to tackle major environmental and infrastructure projects, with space for art too, she says.

A Green New Deal would develop sustainable buildings, renewable energy production and more efficient public transit. And as with the original New Deal, many of those projects could use an aesthetic component, like a grand thematic layout of solar fields, tangible sculptures on the Rockaway shoreline looking out at a city-powering wind farm, or even subtle designs on the windows of energy efficient high-rises that prevent birds from flying into the glass.

Government programs also paid artists to promote environmentalism throughout the 1930s. Fine art and graphic design by federally-funded artists became posters distributed across the country to get Americans on board with green causes like clean water and wildlife conservation.

An initiative in the mold of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which electrified Appalachia, could extend universal WiFi to low-income New Yorkers, giving more people access to state-funded virtual arts education. The TVA itself embraced public art and photography, even hiring a staff painter.

The fusion of art and large-scale public works was a key feature of the New Deal’s Federal Art Project, an agency under the umbrella of the massive Works Progress Administration.

“The Federal Art Project was a part of a much bigger and broader initiative,” Ohio State University Art History Professor Jody Wilkinson told Vox earlier this year, ahead of the release of her book Modernism for the Masses: Painters, Politics, and Public Murals in 1930s New York. “Pump-priming, keeping the unemployed [working], maintaining their skills, putting them back to work. This included everything, like building dams and bridges and roads.”

“What’s so unique about Roosevelt’s vision was he included culture in those provisions.”

The New Deal arts programs weren’t all related to heavy industry and infrastructure, however. The federal government also funded arts education, exhibitions, plays, oral histories, guidebooks and poster-making public information campaigns.

Today, state-backed workers could record contemporary history, much like the Queens Public Library-sponsored Queens Memory Project compiles testimonies from New Yorkers and packages some in a podcast series focused on COVID-19.

The Federal Art Project paid photographers to document cities and towns across the country. FAP photographer Berenice Abbott famously captured the face of the five boroughs in her series “Changing New York.” The Museum of the City of New York maintains a collection of Abbott’s photos, which reveal the relationship between old and new architecture in the 1930s and serve as a time capsule today.

Intensive career retraining programs modeled off Germany’s apprenticeship system could prepare New Yorkers in tech jobs related to creative industries, like coding or editing. The city has already partnered with private companies to provide a semblance of this training.

The arts today no doubt receive support from the state, the city and the federal government, but that money is often incidental to private sector contributions.

Listen: Museum of the City of New York curator Dr. Lilly Tuttle discusses the New Deal in NYC.

“The federal presence was more obvious in the ’30s,” says Boston University History Professor Nina Silber. The same is typically true of city and state spending, she adds.

The suffragists statue in Central Park, for example, was mostly paid for by private donations to a nonprofit formed to advocate for a monument to influential women. The She Built NYC campaign, another initiative to build sculptures of historic women, also depends largely on foundation support.

The New Deal was different. Roosevelt and Democrats encouraged private investment and depended on it in areas like New York City affordable housing development and rural electrification, but they did not rely on it exclusively. 

The programs also provided opportunities for artists of color, particularly Black artists, authors and playwrights, like Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, who helped highlight and celebrate the diversity of the United States during a time of extreme social strife.

Silber sees echoes in today’s divisions, as well as opportunities for cohesion and empowerment. 

“I think it would be fantastic to see this type of big commitment to engage people with their culture, their history, to really be interracial, really conscious of multi-ethnic, multi-culture perspectives,” she says.

That commitment is a longshot, but the New Deal didn’t happen overnight. The Great Depression dragged on for more than three years before Roosevelt took office and implemented transformational programs that put people back to worth and reshaped New York City.

The extent of the current crisis is hard to predict, but no matter what happens, artists will continue to create, Tuttle says. It sure would be a boost to New York City if they had some more support from the city, state and federal government, she says.

“I wish there was more political will, but I also think New York is home to many great artists doing really important work depicting the city they’re in and they’d like to be,” she says. 

“Public art in service of activism is really inspiring and gives me hope. Artists will keep moving forward and trying to find the opportunities where they present themselves.” 

City Limits’ reporting on the intersection of art and policy is supported by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. City Limits is solely responsible for all content.