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Slayton: Art and the Economy

Recently I attended an event where I encountered a truly revolutionary idea for revitalizing a struggling economy. But it wasn’t at a political rally and the idea isn’t even new. It was tried about 80 years ago, and it worked — that is, it helped end the Great Depression by having the federal government pay artists to create art.

The program, created and administered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s WPA, was called the Federal Art Project, and between 1935 and 1943, it paid some 40,000 artists, architects, teachers and sculptors the princely sum of 23 dollars and 63 cents a week to create and teach about art. The program cost 1.3 million dollars per year.

The results were astounding. Not only did the project stimulate the moribund depression-era economy, it also sustained and encouraged many major artists who went on to do important work. And it created a genuine national treasure: the more than 200,000 works of art that now reside in museums and galleries across this country.

How good is that art? Phillip Robertson, curator of an exhibit of WPA art currently at the Wood Art Gallery in Montpelier said that the art produced under the WPA marks a critical moment in American art history, when realistic, figurative painting was just beginning to give way to abstraction.

An example is the Frank Stella painting entitled “Skyscraper,” a visual essay in rising lines and steely forms in which the forms of a skyscraper are still identifiable.

At the time, Robertson said “The artists were just beginning to let go of the bonds of realism. But they weren’t quite ready to let go completely.”

My father, the artist Ronald Slayton, painted for the WPA, and one of his best pieces, the oil entitled, “The Idea” is in this show, alongside many landscapes and numerous depictions of Depression-era Social Realism by important artists like Henry Schnakenberg and Reginald Marsh. Taken as a whole, the Wood Art Gallery’s exhibit presents a collective portrait of American art in the 1930s and 40s.

The full exhibit at the Wood Gallery ends this week. But several of the artworks will remain on permanent display. I’m delighted about that.

Especially given the current political climate, I find it encouraging to be reminded of what creative government programs actually can do to enrich all our lives.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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