Posted by: Kath Usitalo | February 3, 2010

Art Is Work, Too

"Copper Mining" mural in Calumet Post Office painted by WPA artist Joseph Lasker, 1941

Let me be clear: I’ve had my fill of politicians talking about jobs and job creation. Last week it was President Barack Obama, this week Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm—both delivering their “State of…” addresses, with the Gov echoing the Prez’s signature phrase,”Let me be clear.”

As in, “Let me be clear: Our world has changed, utterly,” uttered the Governor in her State of the State speech Wednesday evening in Lansing. (At least, that’s what the transcript said she said; I thought the speech started at 8 p.m. so I missed the broadcast.)

Michigan's world has changed, utterly, says the Gov

“The old Michigan economy is gone,” explained the Governor. “Where the old Michigan economy was all about autos and manufacturing…the new Michigan economy is much broader: clean energy, life sciences—like bio-economy and medical devices—homeland security and defense, advanced-manufacturing, film and tourism.”

What? No mention of agriculture in Michigan? Is that a part of the old economy?

I did like the Governor’s support of the tourism advertising campaign to the tune of $40 million this year. “Fund the Pure Michigan ads,” she utterly urged. “More people vacationing here means more jobs here.”

Tourism jobs are good. They offer hope for those of us who don’t know what bio-economy jobs are, don’t do roadwork or other types of “shovel ready” projects the President promised to fund, or are not the teachers, firefighters, police officers, or federal worker jobs he likes to stimulate.

Paul Bunyan greets visitors at the information center in Manistique

Let me be clear: I’m all for jobs. Some of my best friends need jobs.

Heck, as a freelance writer I could use more work. But in all the talk about jobs I never hear mention of the work that artists do, how the economy is affecting them, and what they’re to do to survive.

Should a musician play the numbers until the gigs start coming in again? Is a dancer supposed to learn to build windmills? Must the photographer trade his camera for a jackhammer?

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA), made room for creative types alongside the road-builders in the government-sponsored jobs program established in 1935.

The WPA was later renamed the Works Projects Administration (still known as WPA—no monogramming changes required!), and included the Federal Arts Project, Federal Theatre Project and Federal Writers Project.

A WPA art poster

These programs paid artists across the U.S. to do what they did best. In Michigan, painters painted murals in about 50 post offices (see the Calumet example, above. Also, Iris of the Adventures of an Innkeeper blog shared a photo of the mural in the Frankfort Post Office). A theatrical touring company based in Detroit took live performances to rural areas. Writers produced brochures and pamphlets and the 696-page “Michigan: A Guide to the Wolverine State.”

Let me be clear: I am not whining about the need for a program like the WPA; government-funded programs are unsustainable because there are only so many tax dollars to go around. In the long run the arts will only thrive with a strong economy to support them—when folks have the discretionary income to attend concerts and the theater, and to buy art.

I am whining about the job talk that doesn’t even acknowledge a place for the arts as a career or a profession. How, it seems, everyone needs to be retrained for alternative energy jobs or bridge repair jobs or homeland security work (?!?). That the arts are frivolous, not “real work.” Not worth mentioning.

Don’t even get me started on farming.

WPA Art Exhibit

See a sampling of the fruits of the Works Projects Administration’s Federal Arts Project at the Detroit Institute of Arts exhibit of 100 prints in Government Support for the Arts: WPA Prints from the 1930s (through March 21).

The DIA has partnered with the Let’s Save Michigan campaign in a contest that invites artists to create a poster “to inspire Michiganders to revive their state.” The poster should be in the style of the WPA art on exhibit at the DIA.

Check out the details at the Let’s Save Michigan site. Deadline for entries is February 15 and there are cash prizes. Kind of a mini-WPA.



  1. This explains the mural in the Frankfort Post Office
    I have a picture of it right here
    Very interesting for a foreigner like me. I had no idea…

    • That’s a gorgeous mural. I’ll have to be sure to stop in when I’m in Frankfort. Thanks for sharing.

  2. What a lovely website, with such superb photos and other visuals!

    I just discovered it; by doing a search for “great lakes” at Twitter. So howdy, nice to meet you.

    And just want to add that I was struck by your photo of the church in St. Augustine on 12/29. My parents were married (Feb. 19, 1941) in that church (well, that is they were, if it’s the cathedral…which I believe it to be). I’ve always wanted to visit St. Augustine and see the church; and now you’ve reminded me to move that up the list of “Let’s Go-to Soon” places! So thank you!

    • Thanks for exploring the blog.
      I’ll be writing about St. Augustine in the soon-to-hit-the-internet Webzine. (Even dedicated Great Lakers like to roam to other parts of the world on occasion!).

  3. Yeah…what you said, Kathy! I read a book a few years ago that was all stories from the west that had been collected and written by WPA folk….really interesting though I can’t remember the name of it!?!? Thanx for bringing our attention to workers from these areas of life.

    • Our library has the Michigan book, and some of the other states’ as well.

  4. Excellent blog, Kath! 🙂

    • Thanks.
      Nice story on about yours!

      • Thanks also to you, Ms. Kath!

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