skip to main content
caption: Posters used to promote arts and cultural events through the WPA. 
    Slideshow Icon 2 slides
Enlarge Icon
Posters used to promote arts and cultural events through the WPA.

Can a 21st century WPA rescue the struggling economy under the pandemic?

It was 85 years ago on May 6, 1935, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an order that created the Works Progress Administration. At the time, America was mired in the depths of the Great Depression.

The WPA was created to provide jobs for millions of laborers. They were put to work on giant infrastructure projects. But at the behest of Eleanor Roosevelt, the WPA targeted another sector that was experiencing bad times: the nation’s artists.

Federal Project Number One, as it was called, created a flotilla of arts programs that. In the first year alone, it hired more than 15,000 actors, writers, visual artists and musicians.

As the coronavirus pandemic pushes Washington state unemployment toward 25% -- Great Depression levels -- many arts and culture advocates say it’s time to reinvent the WPA for the 21st century.

Seattle’s hospitality, tourism and cultural sectors were among the first to experience the economic fallout when public gathering bans took effect.

A new survey of 90 regional culture nonprofits, conducted by the advocacy group Arts Fund, finds that virtually all the groups have cancelled programming and either furloughed or laid off their staff. As many as 5,000 people have lost culture-sector employment around Seattle since March; that number doesn’t include independent artists and club and cabaret performers.

Seattle’s ACT Theatre was poised to open its artistic season in mid-March when Governor Jay Inslee announced his restrictions.

“We had to stop rehearsals and postpone all performances,” said ACT Managing Director Becky Witmer. Ultimately, the theatre company cancelled the first three plays it had planned to present this spring and summer. Then, in what she calls a “horrible, horrible week,” Witmer laid off more than 50 employees, from actors and backstage crew members to box office staff.

Local and federal government along with private support has helped bridge the immediate impacts of the closures, but Witmer is one of many Seattle cultural leaders who say the once-vibrant local arts community will need more than emergency relief funds to survive this pandemic. Although Gov. Inslee has initiated the slow reopening of local businesses, performing arts venues will be among the last to welcome back audiences, and even after they reopen, they’ll most likely see social distancing restrictions that limit ticket revenues.

The pandemic has hit artists of color particularly hard, according to Tim Lennon, executive director of Langston, an organization focused on elevating African American arts and artists.

“The artists right now who are having the hardest time staying afloat -- staying alive honestly — are going to be making tough choices in the months ahead,” Lennon says.

Langston is administering one of several emergency relief funds created in March. So far they’ve awarded a total of $500,000 in small grants to hundreds of Seattle-area artists. Many more are waiting for the relief fund to be replenished. Given the state of the economy, they could be in for a long wait.

“There’s plenty of folks who are just going to give up and go work in an Amazon fulfillment center,” Lennon said.

Randy Engstrom, Director of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture, says given the dire situation, the old WPA has been top of his mind lately.

“The WPA gave people jobs, gave people benefits, and had them produce something of value for the community,” Engstrom said.

WPA artists made posters for the National Parks, set up 100 community arts centers, and toured everything from vaudeville revues to new plays by established writers.

Engstrom says a modern-era program could pay artists for the murals they’re already painting on boarded up storefronts, or hire them to create digital arts education programs for home learning. He also sees it as an opportunity to help correct some of Seattle's ongoing inequities in everything from housing to health care to digital access.

But University of Washington historian James Gregory says the situation 85 years ago was different from today.

"We're in a pandemic," he notes, and audiences can't attend the kinds of performances the WPA was famous for presenting. More than that Gregory says the current federal government would have to lead the way, and he's skeptical of their support for a 21st-century public works program like the WPA.

That doesn't deter local arts leaders like Randy Engstrom.

“Next year will be the 50th anniversary of our department,” he says. “Which was chartered by then-Mayor Wes Uhlman during the greatest depression in Seattle’s history, when Boeing laid off 65,000 people. It was created to give people hope.”

Engstrom says we need that kind of optimism right now.