Free Money for Northwest Art?

Roosevelt bailed out artists during the Great Depression. Might Obama do the same?

Seattle WPA artists:
(From left, seated) Hans Bok, Irene McHugh, William O. Fletcher, Otho R. Barnes, unknown. (Second row) Julius Twohy, Clementine Fossek, Agatha Kirsch, Helen Hyng, Lubin Petric, Henry Bacon. (Top row) William Cumming, Richard Correll, Salvador Gonzalez, George R. Glenn, David Stapp, Paul Cunningham, Ransom Patrick, Bernie Sheridan, Fay Chong, Esther Olson, Bill Van Dyck, Miss St. Clair, Jacob Elshin, Leon Marsh, Alf Bruseth. Private collection, courtesy of Martin-Zambito Fine Art, Seattle.

In these hard times, says pundit P. J. O’Rourke, “the government is bailing out Wall Street for being evil and Detroit for being stupid.” So why not bail out artists for being creative? It happened from 1933 to about 1943, when thousands of visual and literary artists were paid federal salaries from programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA). “It reached into every crevice of society,” says Tacoma Art Museum curator Margaret Bullock. “It was incredible. You’re an artist? We’ll pay you for it, you can work nine to five.”

Obama’s plan for the biggest public-works program since the WPA makes some folks hope he’ll revive the artists’ part of the New Deal too. “History is repeating itself,” says David Hecker, a WPA historian. “On Bainbridge, we’re already seeing art galleries fold. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see the new administration revive some of these programs that keep artists alive.”

“Hoo boy, I’d love to see what a contemporary Northwest WPA realist style would be like,” says Bullock. “Instead of the lumbermen and fishermen, would it be the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Gregoire pointing dramatically as the new pillars rise, descend, or whatever they decide? The revitalization of downtown Tacoma, the rise of Microsoft? The light of progress beaming forth from a computer chip?”

Salvador Gonzalez, The Bridge, 1934, oil on board, 32 x 26 inches. Private collection, courtesy of Martin-Zambito Fine Art, Seattle. Photo by Peter Mumford.

“I can’t wait for the WPA to happen again,” says South Sound artist Nikki McClure (see profile, p. 17). “It wasn’t art in the museums, it was art in the schools, workplaces, art for people, art in people’s faces.” New Deal art was often good art, and some of it can be found in dozens of old post-office murals from Bremerton to Seattle, Kelso to Colville. “Vanessa Helder was the best WPA artist, similar to Charles Sheeler and the Precisionists,” says Seattle’s David Martin, who deals in the era’s art. “Several were shown at MOMA. Peter and Margaret Camfferman were way more interesting than Mark Tobey. Lance Hart did the Snohomish mural – he was Robert Motherwell’s mentor.” Non-needy artists patriotically pitched in, too. Tacoma’s top WPA-era artist was wealthy Peggy Strong. Talk about strong: paralyzed in a car wreck, she made murals on a heroic scale, using a Chuck Close-like gizmo designed by her engineer father to pulley herself up and down. Some WPA-era art proved a better investment than 2009 taxpayers are apt to get for their $700 billion. Gallery owner John Braseth says Carl Morris’s murals, worth $2,350 in 1942, would fetch $300,000 to $400,000 today, Ambrose Patterson’s Anacortes murals $200,000 and Clayton S. Price’s Timberline Lodge murals almost a million. Collector Arlene Schnitzer “would fight to the finish to add these to her private collection,” says Braseth.

As for Tacoma’s seventy-two-foot Julius Twohy mural in the U.S. Indian Hospital, “I know people would fight over it,” says Bullock. Alas, says Martin, “they tore the whole thing down.” WPA art fared badly nationwide, says Bullock: “They took warehouses of sculpture and tossed it into the East River.”

“‘Lost’ WPA art gets rescued all the time,” she continues. “One mural was recently rediscovered in a Portland school under four layers of paint.” Sometimes officials repent. “They may have thrown it in a dumpster, but if they see it up for sale, they’ll come and seize it. It’s very government. It cracks me up.” Some doubt the WPA can be reborn. “I can’t see how there’s even a remote possibility,” scoffs author Jonathan Raban. “FDR was working with an enormous congressional majority, and the national plight was inconceivably worse than it is now (at least so far). I’d love to see the rebirth of the state guidebooks scheme – Guterson on the Olympic Peninsula, Alexie on the reservations. But it sure as eggs won’t happen, for a trillion reasons.”

“Folks are conflicted about the arts,” says artist and Snohomish city councilwoman Karen Guzak. “They realize that murals and galleries and theatres contribute to the vital ambience of our cities . . . but they don’t want to pay for them.”

Vanessa Helder, Grand Coulee Dam Looking West, 1938-1940, watercolor, 18 x 21 7/8 inches. Courtesy of theNorthwest Museum of Arts & Culture.

Government and artists are more at odds than in the ’30s: Seattle’s Deborah Lawrence recently sent an ornament for the White House Christmas tree that read, “IMPEACH BUSH.” Bullock explains, “There’s still that government squeamishness about content, to keep from offending anyone.” Internet-era artists are more sensitive about copyrights and ownership. “Can you imagine artists today finding they’d thrown twenty of your works in the river?” asks Bullock. WPA artists were also subject to public censorship. “One New York artist doing a rural cattle-roundup scene was surrounded by people going, ‘Yew cain’t throw a rope that way!’ Can you imagine having these old cowboys critiquing your work?”

But not everyone has given up hope of a WPA revival. New Republic contributor Mark Pinsky advocates a new Federal Writers Project to employ the fifteen-thousand-plus journalists jettisoned last year, paying per project instead of salaries. “Artists could be paid through local arts councils to teach, talk about and/or demonstrate their art in schools or to community groups,” he says. Bullock concurs. “Could we put some government money behind bringing together artists in need and students who need art teachers?” In the ’30s, the Feds supported community art centers. “These were places that offered free art classes to children and adults and had small exhibition spaces and community meeting rooms, often a room with a stage. They were staffed by artists. A widespread program of these with secure funding – how great would that be?” •