The flagship artist program of the 70s that forever shaped American culture
Four Boys, Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, 1979. Larry Racioppo
Although American career politicians openly oppose socialist politics, the United States government has historically implemented it time and time again to undo the damage capitalism has done to the economy. During the Great Depression, the government created programs like the Work progress administration (WPA), putting more than 8.5 million people to work, including photographers such as Gordon Parks, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn.
Their work documenting the fate of the nation helped shape public opinion, reducing support for even greater reform through the New contract, which has provided housing, support and protections to millions of American homes and businesses. Socialist policy helped stabilize the economy, build infrastructure, and preserve the land, providing a solid foundation for post-war growth. But with the nation rising to become a global superpower, it was only a matter of time before corporate greed caused another Wall Street crash.
Demonstration by the CETA Artists Organization in New York in the spring of 1981, for the continuation of CETA funding for the employment of artists. Photo by Grover Amen for the CCF CETA Artists Project. © Estate of Grover Amen 2021
In the early 1970s, the United States was experiencing “stagflation,” a slowdown caused by soaring inflation and the longest economic stagnation since the Great Depression. As the OPEC oil embargo caused a 45% reduction in the Dow Jones, President Richard Nixon embraced socialism. In December 1973, he signed the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) into federal law, enacting a national service to train workers and provide them with public service jobs.
“As a Republican, Nixon was trying to decentralize the federal government and give more power to the states,” says Molly Garfinkel, co-director of City Lore and curator of the new exhibit. ART/WORK: How the government-funded CETA program puts artists to work. “He saw CETA as a way to get money out of Washington DC and into the hands of local administrators and politicians.”
Rehearsal for Ellsworth Ausby’s performance work “Innerpace/Outerspace” at Ausby’s studio in May 1978. All involved were artists from the AETE CCF Artists Project. Photo by Blaise Tobia for the CETA CCF Artists Project, 1978. © Blaise Tobia 2021
At the same time, Democrats were pushing for a public service component. They sought to continue the work of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, which included the creation of the National Foundation for the Arts in 1965. CETA, however, did not include a specific provision allowing artists to join the labor market. “It was the ingenuity of the artistic community that found the way,” says co-curator Jodi Waynberg. “The artist’s first project was conceived by John Miller, who joined the San Francisco Art Commission after working for the Department of Labor Office of Management and Budget in Washington DC”
Once the seed took root, other cities soon followed. Between 1974 and 1980, more than 20,000 artists and arts support personnel gained full-time employment through CETA, making it the largest federally funded arts project since the WPA. In New York, the Cultural Council Foundation (CCF) launched the CETA artists project in 1978, with a budget of $4.5 million a year to fund the work of 300 artists, paying them $10,000 a year plus benefits (nearly $46,000 today) to work directly with community organizations , project teams, show companies or a wide range of public works.
CETA CCF artist Nzinga Ashley in front of her Brooklyn studio/gallery, 1978. Photo by Blaise Tobia for the CETA CCF Artists Project, 1978. © Blaise Tobia 2021
Photographers, painters, poets, dancers and artists have worked in prisons, schools, museums, libraries and nursing homes; as well as on projects with leading organizations contracted by the CCF, including the Black Theater Alliance, the Association of Hispanic Arts, and the Association of American Dance Companies. Another 200 artists have found work through four other CETA-sponsored entrepreneurs, including Hospital Audiences, La Mama ETC, American Jewish Congress and Theater for the Forgotten.
“Even though New York was on the verge of bankruptcy and all kinds of services were being cut, participation in the arts was growing,” says Jodi. “It was the beginning of a reflection on the expansion of voices, representations, formats and traditions in the arts. It opened the field in many ways. It created an opportunity for artists who had not not necessarily the right connections in the art world to have a meaningful chance to elevate their careers.”
Graffiti near Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, 1979. © Larry Racioppo
The CETA Artists Project nurtured the early careers of photographers such as Dawoud Bey, Meryl Meisler, Larry Racioppo and Pearl of Leon. In an effort to integrate art and culture into the landscape of 1970s New York, CCF and other entrepreneurs used photography to preserve local enclaves like the Jewish community on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and communities black and Puerto Rican from the South Bronx. The work produced captured the do-it-yourself spirit of the era with other artist collectives like Colab, AIR Gallery and the 11th Street Photo Gallery, reimagining the ways art could be created and displayed.
“The CETA Artists Project took place in this context of the alternative arts movement in New York,” explains Jodi. “Artists empowered themselves to build infrastructure in a way that directly addressed their immediate needs, whether it was having a studio, health insurance or sick leave. It was a game changer. away from the rarefied space of the arts and seeing the artist as a citizen within our wider communities.”
Tap artist Jane Goldberg and Charles Cook performing in Union Square on 07-10-1978 ©George Malave 1978 CETA / CCF Artist Project
But with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, things took a drastic turn. “Unfortunately, the political landscape changed just as New York artist projects were stabilizing,” says Molly. After seven years and $51 billion invested in the American workforce, the Reagan administration began instituting massive cuts that resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs.
And with that, CETA has all but disappeared from the history books – its legacy waiting to be rediscovered through the work of organizations like CityLore and Artists Alliance Inc. “Rather than focusing on well-established artists and their work, the CCF cared about the artists as people and wanted to know their inspiration and motivations,” Molly says. “The CCF had its own documentation unit consisting of three photographers, three writers and an archivist. They felt compelled to preserve and document the projects due to their rarity and uniqueness.”
CCF CETA Artists Project community artist Selvin Goldbourne doing portraits as part of the Children’s Art Carnival Block Party on Hamilton Terrace in Harlem, June 1978. Photo by Blaise Tobia for the CCF CETA Artists Project. © Blaise Tobia 2021
40 years later, the principles of the CETA Artists Project remain at the heart of conversations about what it means to live and work as an artist. Art is not the exclusive provenance of the elite, but an integral part of our daily lives – by the people, for the people.
ART/WORK: How the government-funded CETA program puts artists to work is on view at Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space and City Lore Gallery by Artists Alliance Inc. in New York until February 19, 2022.