The cancellation emails started arriving last Wednesday. Openings were called off and galleries announced they would operate on an appointment-only basis, if at all. By Thursday evening, many prominent museums had announced closures, with few offering even tentative reopening dates. Cinemas, theaters, and concert halls went dark. As governors and mayors around the country contemplate shelter-in-place orders for citizens, the cultural sector is already shut down.
Much of what has been lost can’t be quantified: poetry readings that will never happen, long-planned performances postponed indefinitely, solo exhibitions the public will never see. Some of this disappointment will be mitigated by the virtual presentations that curators are racing to prepare. The closures could be also short-lived; museums in China are already starting to operate again. The artists and performers affected by an immediate loss of income will benefit from some of the stimulus funds that Congress is likely to release, and some galleries could take advantage of measures designed to protect small businesses of all kinds, including bookstores, restaurants, and bars. Mutual aid funds, like the one set up for cinema workers in New York, have helped furloughed employees through the first week of this crisis.
But these measures are inadequate to address the longer-term economic impact of the pandemic. Things are going to get worse. The art world as it existed as of February 2020 won’t come back. It’s time to formulate a bailout that can sustain artists and culture workers in the short term while laying plans to rebuild cultural infrastructure for a sustainable future.
The pandemic has revealed weak points across society: in our patchwork healthcare system, in our social safety, and in our federal crisis management capacity. There’s no reason to believe that the system of private philanthropy on which the art world has come to rely will prove more resilient. Cultural funding is contingent on the wealthiest citizens, and we’re witnessing a potentially vast decimation of wealth.
Many of the institutions that support artistic production—both for-profit and nonprofit—are precarious in the best of times. Short-term closures combined with an extended demand shock could wipe out the small and midsize art galleries that have played a vital role in nurturing emerging artists and accelerate the consolidation of the commercial trade around a small number of large dealers.
Artists, and the institutions that provide them with platforms, are now facing the worst economic circumstances since the Great Depression. This comparison sounds bleak, but it should also offer hope. In the 1930s, artists pushed the government to create support structures robust enough to counter the economic crisis. Rather than aim to keep a collapsing system alive, they sought to create a new and more equitable one.
Perceiving that formerly wealthy people were no longer able or willing to support the arts, the writer and curator Holger Cahill came up with an effective alternative: bolster a government agency that would give cash directly to artists. Cahill led the Federal Art Project, a New Deal initiative that worked in tandem with the Works Progress Administration. Through the FAP, thousands of artists received weekly payments of about $24, equivalent to $460 in today’s dollars. In return, they created easel paintings, worked on mural teams, and documented folk art and craft traditions around the country. Related programs catalyzed the creation of new public museums, like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Cahill perceived the Depression as an opportunity to realign the role of culture within society. He bemoaned the pre-crash understanding of art: “We have helped to push art from its honorable place as a vital necessity of everyday life and have made of it a luxury product intended for the casual enjoyment of jaded wealth. And wealth has practically stopped demanding the product.” As private demand lagged, his solution was to reimagine art as a public good.
The immediate short-term effect was to keep artists working, but over time it led to a major cultural flourishing. The Whitney Museum’s exhibition “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945” shows how the FAP laid the foundation for the great postwar rise of art in the United States. The major artists of the New York School all received support from FAP as they took aesthetic influence from their Mexican counterparts.
There are of course plenty of reasons to be wary of broad public support for the arts. Creative efforts often mix poorly with bureaucratic processes. During the Depression, many artists complained about the burdens of meeting FAP requirements. During the culture wars of the 1980s, the National Endowment for the Arts became a political football. But these experiences offer lessons to build on, not templates to replicate exactly. What FAP shows is that robust social support for artists and art centers succeeded within living memory.
As industries across the board line up for bailouts, it is time to assert culture as an essential industry and map out a role for the arts that would have seemed unimaginable weeks ago. A new Federal Art Project probably wouldn’t be devoted to mural painting, but it could offer an alternative to a flailing market and channel artworks into public collections. Museums, now supported through tax-deductible donations, could receive more direct public funding in exchange for offering free admission. Private markets and philanthropy will be changed on the other side of this pandemic, so it is time once again to envision what art looks like as a public good.