Public funding for the arts should be cut during a recession, right?

Grant Wood - American Gothic - Google Art Project

Well, er, no. “America after the fall – Painting in the 1930s” is an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts which breathtakingly displays how public funding for the arts during a depression (let alone a recession) can work wonders. As part of President Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, the Federal Arts Project employed artists to create visual art works, which eventually included over a hundred thousand paintings as well as many sculptures and other works. Artists who benefited included Jackson Pollock. There were other New Deal art projects such as the Public Works of Art project, the Section of Painting and Sculpture and the Treasury Relief Art Project.

All these programmes helped to produce an extraordinary decade for American Art, which is reflected brilliantly in the Royal Academy exhibition, on until June 4th in Piccadilly, London.

What comes over is that the decade established a distinctive American Art world, which was finally free of reference to art elsewhere. There is an extraordinary variety of styles producing a most colourful and impactful exhibition, reflecting the profound changes going on in the USA at the time.

It is a very powerful testament to the power of arts spending in a recession.

The photo above is of “American Gothic” by Grant Wood, which heads up the display. Below is another painting from the Academy show, “Aspiration” by Aaron Douglas, which graphically portrays the escape of Black Americans from slavery and their aspiration to move to professional employment in the cities of America.

Aspiration, Aaron Douglas, 1936, DeYoung Museum of Fine Arts

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is currently taking a break from his role as one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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This entry was posted in The Arts.


  • paul barker 21st Apr '17 - 7:37pm

    Another effect of the various programs was to gift hundreds of small museums across the States with fabulous Art Collects which they could never have aquired for themselves as well as the siting of Murals & Sculptures in Public spaces.

  • Peter Martin 21st Apr '17 - 8:40pm

    @ Paul Walter,

    You’re absolutely right. Public funding for the Arts should be increased during a recession. Mind you, the Arts isn’t a special case. We could equally well argue that funding for Education or the NHS should be increased too.

    If funding for these things was increased during the boom times, without corresponding increases in taxation, then it is quite likely that the Govt would simply generate higher than desirable levels of inflation in the economy.

    But this wouldn’t happen in a recession. Then Govt is simply calling upon resources which would otherwise go to waste.

    Government should always act in a countercyclical way. This perhaps counter intuitive. But when taxation revenue is high it needs to spend less and vice versa.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st Apr '17 - 9:41pm

    Excellent piece from the American politics and arts loving Paul!

    As a professional in the arts over many years I have , as practitioner, or activist, tried to explain the difference between what schemes pass them selves off as the Roosevelt types, but are not, and the real thing .

    Now the norm is a feasibility study or business plan before you can even say FDR!

    In his New Deal, artists were funded to produce art, and did, and some !

    We need the approach to revive , recession or not.

  • While America, New Zealand, Sweden and to a lesser extent Canada implemented various forms of New Deal, Britain practiced Gladstonian policies during the Great Depression. Labour Chancellor Snowden, who opposed any kind of New Deal or Keynesian spending, was even compared to Gladstone due to his policies during 1929-1931. But, things were even worse when Tory National Government came to power.

  • richard underhill 22nd Apr '17 - 12:07pm

    No recession yet, the UK is still in the EU single market, although the £ sterling has fallen on the currency markets, which will increase inflation.

  • Jayne Mansfield 22nd Apr '17 - 12:28pm

    With some schools about to have their budgets savagely cut, teacher friends of mine are fearful that the teachers most vulnerable are those who teach subjects such as art and design.

    I hope that any attempt to save money does not lead to cuts in lessons that stimulate imagination and creativity, providing children with a channel through which they can escape what some are finding intolerable pressure.

    My own experience has led me to believe that artists and novelists have done more to create understanding and empathy for the human condition than any vocational course or textbook.

  • Sue Sutherland 22nd Apr '17 - 2:06pm

    Jayne I’m fearful of this too, that children are going to be denied their creativity. This government is cutting back budgets and defining the curriculum so narrowly that this is already happening. We need people to be creative in all walks of life because, otherwise we will never improve or learn more about our world. We have to challenge this government’s assumption that the arts are no use or inferior to other subjects.

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