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To Fund or Not to Fund: The Legacy of the WPA

By Meitav Aaron, Jewish Museum Milwaukee Intern

Library of Congress

During times of collective crisis, the priorities of our government are laid bare for our entire country to witness.  During the height of the Great Depression, when closed signs were scattered on shop windows like fall leaves on park grounds, the FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) administration worked to repair the US economy through federal relief programs aimed at providing vital aid to the millions of Americans struggling to stay afloat amidst one of the worst fiscal crises in American history.  FDR created the New Deal to raise America out of the Great Depression by reforming the financial system and restoring America’s economy to pre-Depression levels.  The New Deal consisted of many different programs that aimed to restore the tattered American economy, and the Work Projects Administration (WPA) was one such program.  Established in 1935, the WPA provided jobs to millions of unemployed Americans.  While the WPA famously created jobs in infrastructure, it also included a project known collectively as Federal Project Number One, which Eleanor Roosevelt lobbied for.  The Federal Project Number One employed artists, writers, musicians, and actors across America to create hopeful and inspiring art that reignited the vitality and determination of the hardened and exhausted American people.

Prior to the establishment of the WPA, the United States had a complicated and tumultuous relationship with public arts funding.  Previous administrations had attempted to establish government support for the arts, but hadn’t been successful until some of the FDR administration’s initiatives.  At its height, the Federal Arts Program employed thousands of artists which led to the creation of an enormous body of work.  But as weapon production for World War II ramped up and jobs became more readily available, the WPA shut down in 1943.  It wasn’t until the establishment of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) over 25 years after the end of the WPA that the US government began to provide government support for the arts again.  The NEA was created in the 1960s as a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society”, a series of policies, legislation, and programs that waged a war on poverty in the United States.  Like FDR’s New Deal, the “Great Society” strove to break cycles of poverty and improve social issues brought on by poverty through a number of federal initiatives.  The NEA spurred the development and vitality of the arts in the United States as a part of this “Great Society”  and the arts became a government priority.  But, keeping true to traditional sentiments ingrained within American society like a stubborn wisdom tooth, government support for the arts did not come without its fair share of controversy.  

Both the WPA and NEA originally received bipartisan support; and both engendered criticism from opponents about wasteful spending. One of the key differences between the critics of the WPA and the NEA: what constitutes art that deserves government support? The WPA employed artists across the country with the goal of creating art that could be used to inspire the country at one of its lowest moments.  The largest body of visual art came in the form of posters which could be easily mass-produced in a medium that was more affordable.  Unlike the WPA, the NEA does not follow a clear goal towards inspiring the masses through accessible art about the American dream.  Their mission is to support the arts in all forms since the development of the arts inherently supports the development of society.  That key difference between the NEA and WPA led to both criticism and controversy.  A key example in the history of the NEA that highlights this push between accessible vs. elite and general messaging vs. individual expression is the “decency standards” statute that was passed by Congress in 1990.  This statute was the first content restriction ever placed on the NEA by Congress and stated that by law, the NEA must consider “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” in their decisions about which artists and institutions to provide funds to.  This law was created as a response by Congress to the wave of criticism that the NEA faced for their support of the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and Karen Finley.  These three artists all created work that was considered controversial and even obscene, such as Mapplethorpe’s work documenting the gay male BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, and Masochism) culture of New York City.  During the 1980s and leading up to the content restriction passed by Congress, there was intense controversy surrounding the government support of the arts and individual artists, the flames of this controversy were fueled by art that pushed boundaries and challenged deep-seated prejudices that many in America still hold onto today.  


Karen Finley, Don’t Hang the Angels, 1985, Performance documentation, St Mark’s Church, New York, Photographed by Dona Ann McAdams, (https://www.sfai.edu/events-calendar/detail/karen-finley)

After this law was passed, the NEA declined the grant proposals of four artists, one of whom was Finley, in the name of these decency standards.  The four artists denied funding sued the NEA in the case Finley vs. NEA, claiming that the decency standards violated their first amendment rights.  In 1996, a federal judge ruled that the law was unconstitutional and the law was overturned.  But after another win in an appeals court, the case was taken to the Supreme Court in 1998 where Finley suffered a loss to the NEA and its decency standards. The Supreme Court reversed the previous ruling that overturned the decency law and stated that while the government does not have the right to limit these artists and their content, it does not have to fund them either.  The NEA considered the work created by Finley and her contemporaries as elite and pushing a radical agenda.  While critiques of elitism in the art world are valid, does that apply to marginalized and “radical” narratives?  Does art that speaks only to counter cultures or subcultures constitute elitism or is it merely a narrative that some people can’t relate to?  Weren’t classic pieces of art at one point considered radical?  Is the true elitism rooted in how this art is displayed instead of the content itself?  These questions and the case of Finley vs. NEA pushes forward the question surrounding what art deserves government support.  While the WPA had the intent of creating art that was for public consumption and supported mainstream political ideology, that intent limited the ability for art to be anything more than what the WPA defined it as.  The NEA might support a wider breadth of art and artists, but some of their support could be considered as enabling elitism in the arts.  

As the question of what art should or should not be supported by the government lives on, it’s important to recognize that the NEA still very much embodies the legacy of the WPA through their work.  The NEA helps fund many museums, theaters, symphonies, arts education programs, independent artists, and so much else all across the country.  While some opponents of the NEA claim that art that can’t survive without government support shouldn’t exist anyway, many of the institutions and people supported by the NEA come from communities that don’t always have the resources to fund the arts.  The NEA has been central in supporting the arts community where resources and funding are scarce.  The WPA helped employ artists during one of the lowest times in collective American history, and the NEA has continued this tradition by providing relief during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The pandemic has left the art world in the United States and globally in shambles, desperately trying to stay afloat while theaters and galleries across the country are shuttered.  With the help of Congress and the White House, the NEA has allocated millions of dollars in relief for the arts that has helped the community through grants and funding programs in need.  The arts are a cornerstone of American society that is left vulnerable to collapse without government support on both local and federal levels.  Government support for the arts, especially during times of crises, is essential in ensuring the survival of the arts throughout every community in the United States.  In the spirit of the WPA, the NEA upholds that legacy of supporting the arts when they need it most.  And we as a society are better for it. 

Works Cited         

  1. “BRIA 13 2 a The Battle Over the National Endowment for the Arts.” Constitutional Rights Foundation, www.crf-usa.org/bill-of-rights-in-action/bria-13-2-a-the-battle-over-the-national-endowment-for-the-arts.
  2. “Finley v. NEA.” Center for Constitutional Rights, ccrjustice.org/home/what-we-do/our-cases/finley-v-nea.  
  3. The American Rescue Plan, www.arts.gov/COVID-19/the-american-rescue-plan
  4. History.com Editors. “Works Progress Administration (WPA).” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 13 July 2017, www.history.com/topics/great-depression/works-progress-administration.
  5. History.com Editors. “Great Society.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 17 Nov. 2017, www.history.com/topics/1960s/great-society.