Recognizing Artists as Workers

Eudora Welty

It is always exciting at this time of year to hear from people who are organizing SWAN Day events for next month. As the calls and emails come in, I am often struck by how hard most women artists work. We put in long hours for under-staffed non-profits or juggle several part-time jobs along with childcare duties. In spite of this, the general public seldom considers artists as “workers,” and we tend to be overlooked in conversations about the economy.

In his recent State of the Union speech, President Obama said that two million Americans had been hired as a result of his economic stimulus programs. He spoke proudly about hiring construction and clean energy workers, teachers, cops, firefighters, first responders, and correctional officers. He did not mention artists.

Thanks to Americans for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts did receive $50 million of stimulus funds last year for arts jobs in spite of strong Republican opposition – but that’s only enough for a maximum of 2,000 jobs at $25,000 each, and it is a miniscule percentage of the total Recovery Act package of $787 billion.

To put this in perspective – the California Department of Corrections received $1 billion in federal stimulus funds, i.e. Congress allocated 20 times as much money for prison officers in California as they did for all of the artists in the country. Do the guards really contribute that much more to our economic potential?

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s the U.S. government paid more attention to the needs of artists. In 1935 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched an economic stimulus program called the Works Progress Administration (WPA) with a goal of giving people “self-respect and self-reliance” by giving them meaningful jobs.

The WPA provided jobs to approximately 40,000 artists at its peak, including many of the best artists of the period, such as Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Louise Nevelson, Langston Hughes, Orson Welles, and Arthur Miller.

Zora Neale Hurston’s WPA Legacy

Zora Neale Hurston worked on the WPA Folklore project, recording folk songs and stories in the black communities of Florida and preserving oral traditions that might otherwise have been lost. The recordings are now available online in the Florida Memory State Library and Archives. (See

It is amazing to hear one of the finest writers of the Harlem Renaissance singing these songs as part of her government job during the depths of the Great Depression. Alice Walker once wrote that Hurston’s great gift was to show her people “relishing the pleasure of each other’s loquacious and bodacious company.”

In the link below, you can hear Hurston describe and sing the song Halimuhfack. Even though it is a scratchy 75-year-old recording, you can still hear that pleasure and her loving attention to the details of cultural expression in her community.

Organizing in Your Community

As President Obama calls for $30 billion more for jobs stimulus programs, what can we do to make sure that Congress puts artists to work again as part of our country’s recovery?

Many of you are already taking the first step by organizing SWAN Day events in your community that raise the visibility of women artists and stimulate discussion about the value of the arts.

If you would like to do more on this issue as part of your SWAN Day event or later in the year, WomenArts has compiled resource materials about the WPA and suggested activities. (See

The members of NewShoe, a group of playwrights and theatre directors in New York, have created a play about the women of the WPA for their SWAN Day event, and they have agreed to share it with others for free public readings. (See ) We encourage you to create and share works that express your views on the role of artists in the recovery.

Also, check out Art & the Public Purpose: A New Framework here. A group of 60 arts activists met with White House representatives in May 2009 and then developed this excellent five-point manifesto about ways that artists could participate in our country’s recovery.

Since many of you are in book groups, we wanted to recommend two books that really bring the WPA programs to life – Susan Quinn’s Furious Improvisation about the Federal Theatre Project, and David Taylor’s Soul of a People about the Federal Writers’ Project. For those of you in WITASWAN film-watching groups, there is a film version of Soul of a People, and another film about the period by Tim Robbins called The Cradle Will Rock.

Let’s hope that seventy-five years from now, our descendants will be able to see that even though times were hard in 2010, we still wrote plays, made films, sang, danced, painted, and most of all, we enjoyed each other’s “bodacious company.”

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Martha Richards, Executive Director

Eudora Welty Photo: Courtesy of Eudora Welty LLC & Mississippi Department of
Archives and History