adorned big city train stations, small town post offices and neighborhood
schools. Some exist still, remnants of this countrys hardest
of hard times.
were commissioned to portray Americans at work and at play, anonymous
citizens shouldering long odds, building a nation, sometimes with
little more than muscle and will. They were created by American
artists, many of them anonymous, too, and staring down tough days
of their own.
these murals, many faded, most forgotten, were first and foremost
the expression of a singular public vision, a recognition by the
American government that art is capable of knitting together a
community and, by extension, a country. Art can generate jobs,
foster identity, nurture a sense of place. And government support,
as art historian William McDonald said, can promote a greater
awareness of art on the part of the American people, and a greater
awareness of America on the part of the American artist.
the 1930s, the federal government set about to test that very
idea. Through the years of the Great Depression, the Works Progress
Administration hired artists to produce hundreds of thousands
of paintings, lithographs and sculptures for display in public
Illinois alone, artists created more than 500 sculptures, more
than 200 murals and nearly 5,000 easel paintings.
a fraction of these national and state treasures survive.
fortunately, there is growing interest, here and elsewhere, in
finding, documenting and preserving this cultural heritage. Its
worth preserving. Illinois murals, Ryan Reeves writes, depict
such intimate scenes as a grandmother sharing a letter over a
picket fence or a group of hard-hatted miners walking under a
dark sky (see page 26). Other pieces show women ironing,
men working for the WPA, a game of cards.
Illinois State Museum, only one of the institutions to do so,
has been taking steps to preserve and promote its own collection
of this states WPA art, a portfolio that encompasses urban
skylines and rural landscapes, the comforts of homelife and the
realities of the workplace.
state museums collection, which was put on display through
last month, shows us who we were. And who we are.
important, individual pieces remind us of the enduring value in
public art, the enduring value in public support of the arts.
case for that support is pretty much what it was nearly seven
decades ago: to enhance individual and community identity; to
encourage diverse forms of creativity; to expand economic development.
that case has been made. Art can be a good investment. Even in
bad economic times. Maybe especially in bad economic times.
and local governments are discovering that. The Center for Arts
and Culture, an independent Washington, D.C.-based think tank,
points out that even as federal support for the arts has been
cut, overall, state and local support for the arts has increased.
to the centers National Investment in the Arts
report, National Endowment for the Arts funding dropped from $176
million in 1992 to $105 million in 2000. State spending on the
arts increased in that same period from $213 million to $447 million,
while local government spending jumped from $600 million to $800
its a risky, venture capital expense, admits Bruce Seaman,
who compiled that report for the center last spring. Artistic
creation, he wrote, like scientific research and development,
generates many failures for every high profile success. Yet, while
few would deny the critical role played by traditional R&D
in the future growth of any economy, the arts continue to struggle
to find the right formula to ensure a stable future for artistic
Joni Cherbo and Margaret Wyszomirski argue the search is well
under way, that a new arts and cultural policy is being born.
Theyve edited a collection of essays on that subject: The
Public Life of the Arts in America. We still grope,
they write, for ways to identify the public purposes of
public art programs. But this, they argue, is as it should
that sense, the states, Illinois included, may be ahead of the
game at finding creative ways to fund and to further the arts.
We highlight a few examples this month.
Andrew Carrier writes about an intriguing approach supporting
the transfer of artistic skills (see page 21). The Illinois Arts
Councils master/apprentice program was designed to perpetuate
the traditional crafts, including the old ways of making wooden
basket traps used in commercial fishing along the Illinois River.
strategy for increasing public support for the arts has been just
this, to redefine art, to make it more inclusive. We hint at the
outer borders of this debate with pieces on high art (see page
10) and outsider art (see page 13).
we return, as we often do, to the folk arts. Even in that, the
boundaries arent clear. Dan Guillory, who explores Illinois
folk art tradition (see page 14), notes that the term folk
art suggests such a diversity of forms, it defies easy definition.
suggest asking the carvers, potters and quilters. And that brings
us full circle to the original government arts program. The premise
of the WPAs Federal Art Project was that the artists and
the residents of the communities where those artists live and
work should decide what constitutes art and what merits public