Roosevelt’s presidency supported the arts - it’s time our leaders did the same

Liz Thomson says the arts improve health and wellbeing and need our support.

Liz Thomson says the arts improve health and wellbeing and need our support. - Credit: Archant

In late June, as the government eased restrictions on the first lockdown, Boris Johnson talked vaguely about “a new deal” in a speech that was spun as “Rooseveltian”.

Not content with comparing himself to Churchill, the man who would be “world king” attempted to don the mantle of America’s greatest president who, in his first 100 days, signed acts that brought hydro-electric power to the Tennessee Valley, regulated the banks, allowed workers to unionise, and facilitated home loans.

With unemployment as high as 90% in some states, FDR assured his fellow Americans in his 1933 inaugural that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. He would act quickly to deal with the “dark realities of the moment”.

FDR faced the Great Depression, not a new-fangled virus, and it was mobilisation for World War Two that eventually brought the global economic crisis to an end. Covid’s invisible contagion is more intractable. But if a president, working in the analogue age, could jump-start America surely it’s possible for a prime minister, with all the advantages of 21st century technology, to generate a few sparks? FDR – who triumphed over polio and then worked himself to death – quickly won the trust of the nation, not least with his so-called fireside chats in which he spoke reassuringly yet without mincing words about the challenges ahead.

Among FDR’s most celebrated programmes was the 1935 Works Progress Administration (WPA) which, over eight years created work for more than eight million mostly unskilled men and women. They built roads and bridges, airfields and sewers, schools and hospitals. The Civilian Conservation Corps expanded the National Parks, creating 13,000 miles of trails and planting two billion trees. Among the WPA’s most celebrated projects was Federal Project Number One, for which Eleanor Roosevelt – who created the role of First Lady – lobbied tirelessly.

Federal One – which led to the 1965 creation of the National Foundation of the Arts – supported painters, graphic designers and sculptors, all commissioned to create public works in schools, hospitals, prisons, post offices, railway stations, and much besides. Among the beneficiaries were Diego Rivera, Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning and Lee Krasner, all then largely unknown. Photographers were despatched to chronicle facets of American life – Arthur Rothstein the Dust Bowl, Dorothea Lang the migrants. And an itinerant singer-songwriter named Woody Guthrie, a Dust Bowl refugee, was sent to the Pacific North-West to write songs about the ambitious hydro-electric project to harness the power of the mighty Columbia River. Guthrie was paid $266 for a month’s work and he wrote 26 songs. The best-known is The Grand Coulee Dam, a hit for Lonnie Donegan.

The Severn Barrage will probably never be built but, if it were, would any minister have the vision to commission an artist, songwriter, or poet to chronicle its progress? The Columbia dams project was as unpopular in its day as Hinkley Point, the Guthrie songs a PR exercise – so there’s an idea! Or HS2? However grim, the Covid crisis needs chronicling for history.

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Artists, writers, musicians and actors could usefully be funded by the government to go into schools, hospitals, care homes and prisons, sharing their skills and bringing hope and solace while earning enough not merely to survive but to live decently and put back into the economy.

The arts – music and drama especially – are no longer available to all schoolchildren, the provision of peripatetic teaching and the loan of musical instruments now almost non-existent in state schools. Yet talent is everywhere and we know that valuable life lessons are to be learned from participation in the arts; that “difficult” or disabled youngsters can be reached through drama and music; horizons expanded We also know that music is hugely beneficial to those with anxiety, depression and dementia. Let’s start planning now to harness genuinely creative talent – not the TV talent-show variety – for the benefit of all.

As the Public Campaign for the Arts points out, the arts improve our health and wellbeing, help us make meaningful connections, and promote social cohesion. They also make an important contribution to Britain’s economy – £11bn annually. If we don’t support artists, especially at the early stages of their career, they cannot survive and Britain will be aesthetically and financially impoverished. The arts must be central to national life, not some fluffy optional add-on.

For too long, UKplc has been dependent on financial services, hospitality and retail; concerned only about “the markets”. Those who claim to govern us know the price of everything and the value of nothing – how else to explain the handing over of £12bn to outsourcing companies while diminishing public health provision? Their concern is personal enrichment, not the enrichment of society. Covid has taught us the value of community: as a community we must now demand change.

• Liz Thomson is a Muswell Hill-based journalist and author whose latest book is the biography Joan Baez: The Last Leaf.