New York City has announced a new (well, sort of) arts program. Hyperallergic reports:
The City of New York will put some artists to work this summer with a $25 million program inspired by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). Announced yesterday, May 6, the recovery program will pay hundreds of local artists to beautify and activate public spaces across the city with murals, public artworks, performances, and more.
The new program, called City Artist Corps, is expected to create jobs for more than 1,500 artists in NYC, a fraction of more than 56,000 artists living in the city (as of 2015). At a news conference yesterday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio named the depression-era WPA as a direct inspiration for the initiative.
“We’re going to take inspiration from that model and bring it to today,” de Blasio said. “The City Artist Corp is going to employ artists as part of the comeback of New York City.”
There are two major problems with launching a WPA-styled policy in 2021, one in terms of the choice of policy, and one in terms of the very conception of arts policy. We look at these in turn.
As a policy choice, let’s look to its inspiration. The WPA was instituted in the 1930s in the depths of the Great Depression, and it was in essence a make-work program. The unemployment rate was over 20%, arising from a collapse in aggregate demand. The solution proposed by John Maynard Keynes – and he was right – was for the state to use whatever powers it had to boost aggregate demand; i.e. spend money. It was a unique situation – yes we have since had recessions, but nothing to compare – demanding an active government response. The WPA was a part of that response: hire artists to just do something, anything, to help keep money and demand circulating in the economy.
As hard as the economic circumstances under the pandemic have been, it has been a different kind of hit. Employment and incomes crashed because public health required it – we had to shut things down. As the economy emerges from the shut downs, it does not require make-work programs to boost demand – people are very anxious to get out and start doing things again. The parallel to our current situation is not 1933, but 1920, following the devastating Spanish Flu pandemic. There was no WPA program then, but none was called for. New York City is going to have plenty of demand for arts experiences.
So our circumstances are different from the time of the WPA. But does that necessarily mean it is bad policy now?
And here we get to the conceptual problem with a WPA-style program. The purpose of arts policy is to find where a public program yields benefits in excess of costs, especially when the private sector (commercial and nonprofit) is unlikely to completely fill the gap. If your town is rather bereft of public art, then it could make good sense for the town to budget to commission some works. If a local festival is of great importance to the people in your town, but it has trouble making ends meet through ticket sales and sponsorships alone, a grant from the local arts council is well worth it. If there is a cultural centre that mainly serves people without a lot of disposable income, support from government could help them out with something that matters a lot to them.
But the purpose of arts policy is not to employ artists for the sake of employment, any more than it is the purpose of transportation policy to provide jobs to highway construction workers, or the purpose of defense policy to support defense contractors (yes, I know that this might in fact be exactly what’s happening, but that doesn’t make it justified). The New York City plan has it backwards: you want to think about what arts programming might be worth doing, and then you look for cost-effective ways of getting there. You don’t make a plan where the centerpiece is “we are going to hire artists” and then think of things for them to do. In any other sector we would easily recognize this.
So let’s give a little more thought to arts policy in the next year or two, about what sorts of programs would yield real public benefits. We don’t need an artists’ jobs program.