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Artists say a forgotten Nixon-era jobs program could radically alter federal arts funding

CETA employed up to 20,000 artists in the 1970s, and in Philadelphia it helped stabilize arts organizations by funding jobs for many artists in communities across the city.

Joan Myers Brown, founder of Philadanco, in a studio at the company's headquarters in West Philadelphia. CETA, the Nixon-era federal jobs program, allowed her dancers to be paid for the first time.
Joan Myers Brown, founder of Philadanco, in a studio at the company's headquarters in West Philadelphia. CETA, the Nixon-era federal jobs program, allowed her dancers to be paid for the first time.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Fifty years ago, Joan Myers Brown founded Philadanco, and embarked on an ongoing struggle to keep it going.

If it wasn’t for CETA, the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, she may not have made it out of the gate during the recession-wracked 1970s. The federal jobs program made it possible for Brown to pay Philadanco’s dancers for the first time — all of $150 a week, she recalled.

“I think it really put me on my feet,” Brown said. “The dancers got paid to be dancers for the first time — and I’ve been able to keep them on, even though salaries are low, throughout Philadanco’s history.”

CETA opened the door, she said.

At about the same time, Allan Edmunds, founder of the Brandywine Workshop and Archive, wanted to send artists out to teach in art-starved schools, rec centers, parks, and in senior centers all across the city.

In 1978, CETA funding made that possible.

“The impact on Brandywine was we were able to hire artists who got their first job, and it was a way to brand Brandywine as an organization that wanted to help artists but demanded that the artists give back to the community,” Edmunds said. “The community saw us out there interested and concerned about their well-being and helping them.”

CETA, created under President Richard Nixon in 1973, substantially enhanced by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, killed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, and largely forgotten ever since, is getting renewed attention these days as federal pandemic relief money is becoming available to the decimated cultural sector.

If cities and states were to distribute federal COVID-19 relief money CETA-style — as a jobs and training program, with employment benefits for artist-workers and a community-service component — it could become a game changer as the sector struggles to rebuild, according to local and national advocates who see promise in the approach.

A model that suits the moment

CETA suggests a completely different approach to arts support from what has become the norm in recent years, eschewing money and grants for projects and studio work, and instead employing artists in community-based efforts determined by local administrators and local arts organizations.

Rather than providing funding for projects, CETA provided wages for training and work outside the studio. Money came from the federal government in block grants and was administered and distributed by local groups who knew where the need was greatest.

It seems a model tailor-made for large amounts of COVID-19 relief money about to flow from Washington, artists say.

Clay Lord, vice president of strategic impact at Americans for the Arts, the big national advocacy organization, says the Biden COVID-relief plan makes a CETA-like program possible with current pandemic recovery money.

As cities and states determine what to do with their percentage of the more than $350 billion being distributed to them in block grants from the COVID-relief package, carving out job-recovery dollars “could provide significant opportunity to engage the nation’s 5.2 million creative workers in meaningful, community-supportive work,” Lord said.

But that will happen, Lord wrote in an email, only “if mayors and governors take the opportunity, and community arts partners step up” and meet the need. The Biden stimulus and job plan offers “significant opportunity for cities and states to use funding to support arts-based community development initiatives just as the CETA program did,” Lord wrote.

Philadelphia Councilmember Isaiah Thomas said his staff has picked up the talk about CETA and is exploring the idea.

“Programs like CETA, which see the arts as economic drivers and job creators, deserve our attention,” he said. “When we shift the conversation from saving the arts to illuminating the arts, we see the possibility of a renaissance of our city and neighborhoods.”

Focusing on the arts and culture, Thomas added, “will not only drive people to the city, but we will see the return on investment.”

Kevin Lessard, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, said “we’re open to the CETA/block-grant model.”

In an email, Lessard wrote that the city “would be open to engaging in conversations with a cross section of local cultural leaders to explore how any potential new funds could be used to effectively impact Philadelphia’s arts community.” He added that “while local governments have flexibility to administer federal relief funds, they must still be related to the responding to the pandemic.”

A radically new take emerges

Photographer Blaise Tobia and sculptor Virginia Maksymowicz, who are married and live in West Philadelphia, were employed in a big New York City CETA program in the late 1970s and are engaged now in documenting the legacy of the entire CETA program. President Joe Biden’s pandemic-relief package, they said, provides an opportunity to radically alter arts support.

COVID-19 stimulus funds contain specific dollars directed toward the cultural sector. The American Rescue Plan, for instance, calls for $470 million to be allocated to the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library services. Those agencies will then distribute the money.

But the plan and its predecessor, the CARES Act, also provide billions of block-grant dollars to states and localities. Much of this funding is for job creation, but how it should be used and distributed has not been determined.

Enter CETA.

“What was different about CETA was that it wasn’t an arts program. It was a jobs program,” said Maksymowicz. “Because it was a jobs program, it wasn’t giving grants to artists to go work in their own studios.

“I’m not against that. But Blaise and I had good-paying jobs for two years [under CETA] with Blue Cross health insurance and two weeks’ vacation each year,” she said. “We made connections, both with the other artists in the group and to community organizations, that continue to sustain us. The other thing is that there was a community component. So artists actually had to go work with community groups, nonprofits, schools, a whole variety of different types of groups.”

Over the life of CETA, about 20,000 artists and art workers across the country, from art handlers to museum security guards to curators, found employment under the act. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, which laid off 85 workers in September last year and has reduced its staff through buyouts and attrition as the pandemic has raged, was actually able to hire 40 CETA-funded workers in the 1970s, despite the recession, “stagflation,” and skyrocketing unemployment.

“That takes a lot of budget pressure off of the other lines and in the museum’s budget,” Tobia said of the federally funded CETA hires.

Organizations from the Painted Bride Art Center to People’s Light in Malvern achieved early financial stability thanks to CETA. Artists like playwright August Wilson, dancer and choreographer Joan Kerr, writer and actor Peter Coyote, and actor Bill Irwin were all sustained and shaped by CETA early in their careers. By 1978, as much as $200 million was annually flowing to artists and community centers through CETA.

“People are really gravitating to the idea of CETA now because it means a job,” said Colleen Hooper, a choreographer and dance scholar who teaches at Pittsburgh’s Point Park University. Her doctoral thesis explored the history of CETA. “I think that that’s a very different thing than a one-time stimulus check or an extension of unemployment benefits. The history of CETA is very appealing right now in that sense of stability and the concept of employment, and the benefits that that brings.”

Dancer and choreographer Terry Fox remembers working around 1977 in a CETA-funded job teaching dance to young Latino people at the Eakins house on Mount Vernon Street. At the beginning of her eight-week class, the mostly high school students didn’t even want to take their shoes off before class, the floor was rough and splintery, and in the summer it was sweltering.

Fox persevered. She got the floor sanded. She took the class out to different sites to see dancers and films of contemporary dance.

“By the end of, like, six weeks, they couldn’t get their shoes off fast enough, they were like, ‘I want to do this,’ ” said Fox, who now runs the Philadelphia Dance Projects, a mentoring and producing organization.

Fox thinks implementation of a CETA-like program would benefit both artists and communities. “I don’t think artists are any more special than any other kind of worker,” she said. “Everyone needs a livable wage.”