Sunday, December 14, 2008

Obama's new "green" WPA: is there a role for artists and artisans?

I think Obama's plan to stimulate the economy by rebuilding and "greening" our infrastructure is a great idea. (Particularly since I checked the Bridge Tracker on and discovered how many bridges in our area are "structurally deficient".)

But I've been mulling over the arts and crafts side of the WPA -- the muralists, community theater organizers, weavers, rugmakers and seamstresses and wondering if there will be a place for them in Obama's economic plan? These programs were not without their critics -- the WPA sewing rooms did provide work for thousands of poor women, making clothing and other products for sale or distribution through relief agencies, but these jobs were at the lowest rung of the economic recovery ladder.  WPA programs reinfornced traditional gender roles by channeling women into domestic skills-based programs, even when they were willing to do heavier, higher-paying work. The arts projects were criticized as "make-work" projects -- after all, who needs a mural in every post office?

In retrospect, though, the idea still appeals to me. The WPA arts projects nurtured some major talents and kept them painting, writing and performing through very tough times. The crafts programs provided income and also helped people learn household skills which were being cast off and forgotten. If the economy is going to get worse, people will need many of those same skills: making, mending, repurposing, and altering clothing and other wearables.

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